Jerry Jones has had better teams. But not many better moments.
Minutes after his team's 34-14 shellacking of the Philadelphia Eagles last Saturday night in an NFC Wild Card Playoff Game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, the Dallas Cowboys owner triumphantly marched toward the victorious locker room. On one arm, veteran cornerback Terence Newman. On the other, rookie kicker David Buehler. In his pants pocket, his father's lucky French cuff links that had somehow failed him since 1996.
And across his face, the cathartic smile of a man who had just exorcized 13 years without a playoff victory.
"All right, can we say it together now?" Jones bellowed later in the locker room. "The demons are what? Gone!"
The baker's dozen of playoff pratfalls meekly melted as quarterback Tony Romo was efficient, running back Felix Jones electric and Wade Phillips' defense exceptional. With a four-game winning streak, a hot quarterback and a stingy defense that has allowed only 14 points in its last 12 quarters, the Cowboys enter Sunday's NFC Divisional Round Playoff Game against the Minnesota Vikings as one of those moonshine-in-your-flask kind of teams that lurch from an innocent patch of mediocrity and vault into the Super Bowl.
"We're still taking it one game at a time," said tight end Jason Witten, who won a post-season game for the first time in four tries. "But it's hard not to think down the road. We should. We're playing as well as anyone in football right now."
With the Vikings, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers or Indianapolis Colts all possible, viable road blocks, Dallas shouldn't yet start buying confetti for a parade. (Speaking of, the parade wouldn't be in Arlington, would it?) But thanks to another dominating performance against the same Eagles team that dismissed them from last season 44-6, the Cowboys can officially bury the longest drought in franchise history.
"It's surreal that it's really been this long," said Jones, whose team avoided becoming the first team in NFL history to lose seven consecutive post-season games. "I've had teams during this stretch that should've won playoff games, should've gone to Super Bowls. But if you don't do it you look up one day and you haven't done it. Now we've done it. It's very rewarding."
Bash Jones the general manager all you want, but Jones the owner deserved this success.
No owner in professional sports invests more in his team financially or emotionally. And although first-round wins are serviceable slump-busters, this franchise still measures success in Super Bowl trophies. Temporary euphoria be damned, Jones did not spend almost $900,000,000 of his own money on Cowboys Stadium so he'd have a spacious closet in which to hang Wild Card banners.
Like he said before this season—and basically before every season—it's Super Bowl or bust.
"I really like our chances moving forward with this thing," Jones crowed. "We've got a chance to be a really special team."
Some will argue that a loss to the Vikings would retard any significant progress this season. But no one will debate that thanks to Jones it's already a more successful season than when 2008 ended with the resounding thud in Philadelphia.
After that game the owner promised changes. He vowed that "everyone goes to the woodshed." Admit it, you—like me—rolled your eyes.
Jones committed to bring Phillips back for another season, then gagged him from speaking to the media for a month. Then the Cowboys severed ties with Pacman Jones. With Tank Johnson. With defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and special teams coach Bruce Read and underwhelming defensive players such as Zach Thomas and Roy Williams and Anthony Henry.
This is where Jones gets credit. For believing in Phillips when a lot of us were labeling him "Dead Man Coaching." For having the stones to cut Terrell Owens, partially because of a confidence in Miles Austin. Pacman Jones leaves and cornerback Mike Jenkins has a Pro Bowl-worthy season. In Williams' place, the Cowboys sign safety Gerald Sensabaugh, having a stellar season. After a slow start, linebacker Anthony Spencer has more than made up for the departure of Greg Ellis; and Keith Brooking, filling Thomas' void, has become Dallas' emotional leader. Even Romo-friendly doesn't sound like such a lame concept now, does it?
For a guy who couldn't get out of his own way for so long, Jones has made transactions this year that have all resulted in upgrades. Better people. Better locker-room chemistry. Better players.
"The important element was not the people that left, it was the people that stayed," Jones said.
The sun rose in the east this week in Dallas, but the Cowboys awoke to an altered universe, one in which Phillips was no longer a stumbledoofus but rather a winning coach, Romo was a quarterback who could indeed win a big game, and Jones was no longer a bumbling, domineering fool who should relinquish the decision-making reins to a real football mind.
"With what we've done here and Wade has done here, we've influenced perception long-term in a positive way," Jones said. "Things have changed on Wade's résumé and in his world. It's a different picture for him now."
Asked if he was ready to sign Phillips to a contract extension ensuring his return as head coach next season and beyond, Jones replied, "I'm superstitious, and I'm not going to talk about it other than to say on that front it's all systems go."
If you're honest, you didn't see this coming. On December 13, the Cowboys lost to the Chargers at home. Couldn't punch it in from the one on offense and their best defensive player—DeMarcus Ware—was taken from the field on a stretcher and to a hospital. Jones admits his confidence was shaken. "I was taken aback," he said.
But instead of another December downturn, the Cowboys haven't trailed in a game since. It's a sudden, brilliant burst of excellence that—just like that—eradicated 12 seasons of shit.
Regardless of what happens Sunday at the Metrodome, the Cowboys have achieved this season, if not overachieved. Or, in this year of breaking down barriers, have they merely escalated the flirting into foreplay in advance of an unlikely climax?
"I know it's been a long time around here," Brooking said. "But our goals are much bigger than winning just one playoff game."
While Jones blazed a giddy trail to last Saturday's locker room with congratulations from former President George W. Bush, NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol and long-time friend and former scouting director Larry Lacewell, a line of players gleefully followed. Some, like second-year running back Felix Jones, shrugged at the landmark win. Some, like Witten, were almost moved to tears by the gravity of it all.
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And others—those that have been with Jones for most or all of his franchise-record drought—channeled the emotion of the victory into defiant exuberance.
Linebackers coach Reggie Herring howled to anyone that cared to listen, "Can't say we haven't won a playoff game now!"
"Any more jinxes left?" asked secondary coach Dave Campo, Dallas' head coach from 2000-02. "We're ready. Just let us know!"
Well, since you asked, Sunday will mark exactly 17 years since the Cowboys won a road playoff game.