The voice on the other end of the phone was probably kidding, but who the hell could tell? Not me. The holidays are generally brutal on my end--far from anything remotely resembling vacation. I'm not a big drinker, but there's something about Christmas and New Year's parties that turns me into a ranting boozer--much like most of my journalist friends in these parts and back East. (Be sure to read next week's column, when I channel Senator McCarthy and name media names.)
But back to the voice. It was pretty early in the morning when the phone rang, and I had a serious hangover, which is why I couldn't decide if the guy on the other end was a joker or just a swollen asshole. The caller, who also happens to be one of my editors, had phoned to discuss my travel plans for the Cowboys-Carolina game. The trip unraveled, I told him, when U.S. Air and nearly every other major airline turned into extortionists and demanded thousands of dollars for a plane ride from Philly (where I was vacationing) to Charlotte (for the game) and then on to Dallas (where, as you know, I currently live, happily, among y'all). The Dallas Observer didn't want to foot the outrageous bill; instead, the brass at our shop asked: Why not drive there? I declined--a 10-plus-hour car ride to watch the Pokes, during my "vacation," didn't sound too fun.
"Well, you're just not a team player," my editor said to me before hanging up.
That's how it came to pass that I was mercifully spared from having to watch, in person, the worst slaughter since Ivan Drago pummeled one of the greatest Americans of our time, Apollo Creed. But I don't need to tell you that. No doubt you watched Saturday's game as I did, watched it in its entirety, watched it mouth agape, horrified by the carnage. When it was over, Dallas had suffered the fifth-worst defeat in its long and otherwise distinguished playoff history. The players shuffled from the field slowly and sullenly. Head coach Bill Parcells, who had been cast for many months as a savior, looked defeated, even ordinary. His head hung low.
"We had the opportunity to advance in the postseason this year, and we didn't do it," Parcells said in the televised postgame news conference. In the background, you could hear Carolina revelers whooping loudly. The juxtaposition was jarring. "I'm here to try to win every game--preseason, regular season, postseason. I'm disappointed because we didn't advance."
You should expect nothing else from the man, especially after a year of unforeseen achievement sputtered to a dull thud. It's a wonder that his head didn't pop clean off his shoulders during the game. Almost nothing went right Saturday on either side of the ball. The running game, not surprisingly, was flat, and Quincy Carter struggled to make up the difference. Give him a lead and some open passing lanes and Carter is OK. But put him in a deep hole and ask him to carry an entire team into the light of victory and, well, he's less than capable.
But the Cowboys never were going to ride to victory on the shoulders of their offense. Not this year, not even when, early in the season, they were the league's No. 1 unit. No, even when that glaring anomaly emboldened Dallas, Parcells and the rest always knew that success would hinge on the defense, a true No. 1-ranked crew that was substance instead of smoke. So when the Panthers ran all over them, and passed, too, you knew, just as the Pokes did, that the end was at hand. (Incidentally, if I were Parcells, I would have made rookie cornerback turned big-play enabler Terence Newman walk home from Charlotte.)
Yes, the whole deal was ugly--like one of those shimmery pimp suits Michael Irvin shamelessly wears on national television. There's just no getting around that, no way to dress it up and make it pretty--the game, not Michael Irvin.
You've heard or read most of this crap already. The Sunday-morning papers were full of disgust and anger, and the radio pundits wasted no time excoriating the effort or lack of same. That's fine. That's what you do after you watch your team whimper and get its ass beaten in front of a national audience--you kick it while it's down just so everyone fully appreciates your frustration.
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But there should also be some pause here, or at the least some honesty. The game was dreadful, no doubt, but it was also a playoff game, and there's something to be said for that. The past few years of Cowboys football were painful and unsightly and offered nothing so wonderful as a 17th game. (Dallas made the postseason in 1999, but that was little more than a burp.) There's really been no hope since the mid-'90s, remember. And there definitely wasn't any hope a few months ago when these same Cowboys were in training camp and the lot of us were forecasting that they'd finish last in the division. The locals in San Antonio wouldn't even come out to watch them at practice because they figured what we all did--that the 'Boys would be losers. Have you ever been to San Antonio? It's not as if those people have anything better to do than watch football; most of them are just waiting to die.
No, I'm here to tell you that the only people who expected the Cowboys to be playing in January are the same people who subscribe to Baconian Theory and the Area 51 myth. Even if Dallas had beaten the Panthers, it wasn't going to win the conference or the Super Bowl. It just wasn't. The 'Boys have to walk, or in this case trip face first, before they can run full out.
"I'm disappointed," Parcells said again after the loss. "But we're gonna do our best to do better next year. I just told the players that I'm not gonna rest. We're gonna improve this somehow."
Put it all in context. This season can be seen as nothing but a pleasant surprise, not to mention a good start. There are many things that need to be fixed or added--Dallas is sorely in need of a running back, some pass-rushing defensive linemen, a punter and perhaps a quarterback and another cover corner--but Jerry Jones and Co. have the cap space (approximately $16 million) and money to make those adjustments. Given where the Cowboys were in previous seasons and where they were this year, thanks in no small part to Parcells, you have to figure that this playoff loss was only the beginning of something grand, not the end of something disappointing. Trust in Big Bill, enjoy the memory of the first winning season in years and relax.