Mac Engel

How Cowboys went from lovable losers to America’s Team for the right reasons

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) arrived in 2016 to lead the Cowboys out of the wilderness. In January 1996, the last time the Cowboys won a divisional round game, they were babes in the woods.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) arrived in 2016 to lead the Cowboys out of the wilderness. In January 1996, the last time the Cowboys won a divisional round game, they were babes in the woods. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

Unbeknownst to all of us, the Dallas Cowboys had become lovable losers.

Babies born on the day the last time the Dallas Cowboys won a divisional round game is now just old enough to legally drown their sorrows in a 12 oz. bottle of Shiner.

Dak Prescott was 2 and Ezekiel Elliott was a 6-month-old baby when the Cowboys defeated the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 7, 1996, and advanced to the NFC championship that January afternoon at Texas Stadium.

This was the same year Barack Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate for the first time, and had been the first season Los Angeles was without a pro football team since the end of WWII.

Accordingly, Orlando Scandrick, Jason Witten, Brandon Carr, Sean Lee and a handful of others are at that point in their lives and careers to know to appreciate the rarity of this next game.

“I know to cherish every game now,” said Scandrick, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL.

And we as Cowboys followers all know by now not to take Sunday for granted.

Sunday will mark the beginning of reclaiming what this team once both created and earned — the Cowboys will win and in the process make America’s Team Great Again.

America loves an underdog, but we like winners more. That’s why the Cowboys were popular. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is great, but the Dallas Cowboys team is better.

The Cowboys are winning and advancing to the NFC championship game.

(BTW: My record picking Cowboys games this season, not against the betting line, is an impressive but totally predictable 15-1; the only reason I lost that game was because I did not want to embarrass any of my colleagues.)

“It’s special; you have to appreciate everything. When I was young I didn’t know that,” said linebacker Justin Durant, who signed with the Cowboys in July 2016, just before he was going to retire. “When I came back here I expected something special.”

Uhhh ..... why?

The team may carry the brand-name power of the “Dallas Cowboys,” but fans of the Arizona Cardinals are more familiar with the Super Bowl than an entire generation of Cowboys fans.

The only teams not to appear in an NFC title game since January 1996 are the Detroit Lions, Washington Redskins and our Dallas Cowboys. Somewhere in the great beyond Tom Landry and Tex Schramm are ordering a double over this development.

The Cowboys can’t dethrone the New England Patriots just yet, but they are good enough to be consistently relevant for the right reasons.

For too long — think most of this century — the Cowboys remained relevant based on their previous success, and the willingness of Jerry Jones to say, and do, anything at any time. They were popular for being popular, for a new stadium, for selling women’s panties and expensive watches at that stadium; they were popular for every reason other than winning, which is how they became America’s Team.

Sunday’s game is a culmination of a plan, intentional or not, to restore the brand to its origins. It began when the Cowboys selected left tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

With that pick, the shape and identity of the Cowboys started to form, and a roster was built with a strict purpose of what it looks like to be a Cowboy.

There have been the occasional deviations from that plan —i.e., the desperate signings of linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Greg Hardy and the selection of the weed-hungry Randy Gregory — but for the most part the team has remained committed to their original intentions.

After three straight 8-8 seasons from ’11 to ’13 that all concluded with season-ending losses in games the Cowboys needed to win to make the playoffs, there has been a payoff.

The team has won the NFC East in two of the last three years; save for last season’s 4-12 disaster of injuries, the Cowboys are 25-7 in that span.

Punctuated with the divine arrival of quarterback Dak Prescott from Starkville, Miss, the Cowboys have built something that will last. It’s not going to be a Tom or a Jimmy dynasty, but at a minimum they are no longer reliant on Tony Romo to save their butts to ensure mediocrity. The Cowboys will be relevant because they are a winning team.

That is how we have arrived at Sunday’s game.

The Cowboys are again America’s Team for the right reasons, and no longer are lovable losers.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

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