For four magical months, there had been so many cheers and shouts of joy, the sudden silence of the Dallas Cowboys season was deafening Sunday night.
By the time the doors of the locker room were opened to the media, some players had already made their escape. Those who remained mostly sat with heads bowed, waving away the cameras and notepads.
A cowboy of a different sort, country singer Moe Bandy, once sang, “Cowboys ain’t supposed to cry.”
The lyric held true again Sunday, though it couldn’t have been easy.
After coming from 18 points down to tie the Green Bay Packers 31-31 with 35 seconds to play, the Cowboys saw their season snuffed on Mason Crosby’s 51-yard field goal as time expired.
In the silence that followed, veteran tight end Jason Witten tried to describe the locker room scene.
“It was raw,” he said. “It was sudden – just raw emotion.
“A grown man, playing a kid’s game, and when you lose and your season comes to an end ...”
The game appeared to be headed to overtime. But on a day when the Cowboys seemed to pay for every mistake, one final textbook escape and throw by Aaron Rodgers and one spectacular, knee-dragging 36-yard catch by Jared Cook opened a window for Crosby’s winning kick.
Blame will be distributed extensively, no doubt, because that’s what fans and the media do.
The Cowboys had two weeks to prepare for Sunday, yet they were guilty of two substitution penalties in the first quarter. One came on third down, extending Green Bay’s drive to its first touchdown. The other wiped out a 22-yard pass to Terrance Williams at the Packers’ 15-yard line.
The Cowboys’ offense started slowly as well, until quarterback Dak Prescott hit Dez Bryant for a 40-yard touchdown with just 6 minutes left in the first half.
“There were a couple of self-inflicted wounds,” coach Jason Garrett said.
“And all the while, they were up and down the field.”
The “they” was mostly Rodgers, who dissected the defense with a surgeon’s touch.
But once Prescott, Bryant and running back Ezekiel Elliott got untracked, the game evolved into a clash of offensive heavyweights. There were only five punts in the game, two by the Cowboys.
Rodgers finished with 356 yards passing, and it would be easy to blame the home team’s defense for that. Green Bay seldom paused on third down, converting six of 11.
But as Garrett said, “I thought our defense did an amazing job, scratching and clawing all day long, doing a great job after the rough start, when the Packers were in rhythm going up and down the field.
“Our guys just kind of buckled down and started making stops.”
Every mistake on this day, however, seemed magnified. At the fourth quarter’s 2-minute warning, an apparent interception by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath at his own 15-yard line was wiped out by a pass interference penalty on teammate Anthony Brown.
Four plays later Crosby kicked a 56-yard field goal to give Green Bay a 31-28 lead.
Prescott and the Cowboys answered, driving 42 yards to set up Dan Bailey’s game-tying field goal.
But the Cowboys’ mistake was giving Rodgers 35 more seconds to do his thing.
Most of the 93,396 at AT&T Stadium were struck silent when Crosby’s last kick squeezed through the uprights.
The Cowboys’ magical season, from the depth of last season to an NFC-best 13-3 record, discovering a rookie quarterback and running back in the process, was over in a blink.
In the silent locker room, Witten grabbed his clothes and looked for a quiet place to dress. Tony Romo, already dressed in a suit, walked through, shaking the hands of a few locker room attendants.
There was a finality to it, like being awakened rudely from a dream.
Cowboys don’t cry. But from the silence of things, it wasn’t easy.