Seventeen years ago, the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots finished the 2000 NFL season in the same spot, 5-11, well out of the playoff hunt. Both teams featured first-year coaches — Dave Campo for the Cowboys and Bill Belichick for the Patriots. Both teams, although they didn't know it at the time, would lose their longtime starting quarterbacks before the end of the 2001 season, with the Cowboys cutting Troy Aikman in the spring and Drew Bledsoe going down to injury in week two against the Jets.
They were, however, headed in opposite directions. For the Cowboys, 2000 marked the final nail in the triplets-era coffin, with the team losing Aikman and missing the playoffs for just the second time in a decade. For the Patriots, the 2000 season was the last before the team embarked on the best two-decade run in NFL history. Tom Brady, the quarterback who stepped in for Bledsoe, would lead the Patriots to 12 AFC Championship games and eight Super Bowl appearances. A week from Sunday, Brady, the most decorated quarterback of all time, has a chance to win his sixth Super Bowl ring, this time against the Eagles.
During the same period, everything went wrong for the Cowboys. They haven't played in a single NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, and they made it to the divisional round of the playoffs just four times. Led by owner and general manager Jerry Jones, the front office made dozens of laughable transactions, leading to dread and despair among Cowboys fans that would've been unthinkable during the early '90s, when the team racked up three Super Bowl championships in four years with a roster constructed by Jimmy Johnson.
Rather than celebrating the Patriots as the countdown to Super Bowl LII begins, let's steer into the Cowboys ongoing skid and look at some of what's gone wrong for the Cowboys since everything went right for the Patriots.
The Cowboys cut Aikman and wander off into the quarterback wilderness.
In March 2001, Jones and the rest of the Cowboys management decided to dump Aikman. The future of Hall of Famer was coming off the worst season of his career; he threw just seven touchdowns against 14 interceptions in 11 starts and suffered from back issues and concussions that made it tough for him to play week in and week out.
While it was probably the right football decision to move on from Aikman, the Cowboys had no backup plan for the next five seasons. They started a motley crew of quarterbacks including Quincy Carter, 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde, former baseball players Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson, Bledsoe and, perhaps the biggest draft bust in NFL history, Ryan Leaf. It says a lot that Carter, who did not have the requisite skills to be an NFL quarterback, performed the best of the bunch during his time under center.
In 2006, coach Bill Parcells dumped Bledsoe for Tony Romo, giving stability of a kind to the Cowboys' quarterback situation.
Bill Parcells flames out in the 2003 playoffs.
Jones' decision to bring in Parcells, letting him coach the Cowboys and take charge of the team's personnel decisions, was supposed to be a turning point for the franchise. Jones the owner was finally forcing Jones the general manager to the sidelines, and there was hope that Parcells, winner of two Super Bowls with the Giants, could construct a roster with enough depth to make the Cowboys contenders again.
Initially, Jones' decision appeared to work; Parcells led the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and their first playoff berth in four years in his first season at the helm in 2003. Playing in prime-time on Saturday night against the Panthers, however, the Cowboys spit the bit in their only playoff game, trailing by as much 26-3 in the fourth quarter before eventually losing 29-10. In 2004 and 2005, Parcells' Cowboys went 15-17, missing the playoffs both years.
Romo drops the ball.
Energized by Romo's play at quarterback after being named the team's starter in October, the 2006 Cowboys were probably Parcells' best team in Dallas. After fighting back from a 4-4 start to make the playoffs, the Cowboys appeared poised to beat the Seahawks in Seattle during the wild-card round. With the Cowboys trailing 21-20, Romo, still the team's holder for place-kicks, dropped the snap on a chip shot field goal, leading to a heartbreaking Cowboys loss. The game proved to be the first of many failures on the big stage for Romo and was Parcells' last game as an NFL head coach.
Everything goes right in 2007, until it doesn't.
In 2007, Wade Phillips was the Cowboys head coach, and Romo and the Cowboys bounced back from their rough night in Seattle, riding their high-powered offense and stellar play from defensive end DeMarcus Ware to a 13-3 record and the top playoff seed in the NFC. In the divisional round against the Giants, a team the Cowboys beat twice in the regular season, the Cowboys lost 21-17 at home, with Romo throwing an interception in the end zone to seal the deal.
The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.
Jerry sells the farm for Roy Williams.
Looking to inject a little life into the Cowboys offense in 2008, Jones traded three draft picks, including a first-rounder, to the Lions for former University of Texas star Roy Williams. Williams, a wide receiver, was nothing short of awful during his 2.5 seasons in Dallas, failing to top 600 receiving yards in 2008, 2009 or 2010. The trade for Williams is one of the worst transactions in Cowboys history, even if you disregard the $20 million in guaranteed money Jones added to the receiver's contract just after the trade.
Romo melts down in Minnesota.
In 2009, the Cowboys won the NFC East. For the first team since 1996, they won a playoff game, too, taking out the Eagles in the wild-card round, sparking hope of at least an NFC Championship appearance. Those hopes were dashed quickly in Minnesota, where the Vikings forced three Tony Romo turnovers and romped to 34-3 victory.
Garrett takes over, and the 8-8s begin.
After Phillips and Cowboys started the 2010 season 1-7, Jones promoted offense coordinator Jason Garrett, the Cowboys head-coach-in-waiting, to the top job. Garrett, a perfectly mediocre head coach for a perfectly mediocre franchise, went 8-8 in each of his first three seasons as head coach. Each year, the Cowboys would've made the playoffs had they won their last regular-season game. Each year, they lost — to the Giants in 2011, the Redskins in 2012 and the Eagles in 2013.
The pass that Dez caught but didn't.
With Romo playing the best football of his life, the 2014 Cowboys broke out to a 12-4, division-winning season. After knocking off the Lions in a nail-biting wild-card contest, the Cowboys headed to Lambeau Field to take on the Packers in the divisional round. Down five and faced with a fourth-and-one in Green Bay territory late in the fourth quarter, Romo lofted a deep pass down the left sideline to Dez Bryant, who appeared to catch the ball before reaching for the goal line, going out of bounds at the one. Green Bay challenged the catch, and the game's officials ruled that because the ball moved in Bryant's arms as he hit the ground during his stretch, his catch was not a catch.
Romo breaks his clavicle.
Buoyed by hope after the 2014 season, the Cowboys started 2015 2-0, with victories over the Giants and the Eagles. Late in the game in Philadelphia, however, Romo broke his left collarbone after being sacked by Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks. Romo missed the next seven weeks. His replacements, Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassell, went a combined 0-7, torpedoing the Cowboys' season.
When Cassell replaced Brady for 15 games in 2008 after Brady tore his ACL, he went 10-5 as a starter.
Aaron Rodgers and the Half Mary.
After Romo stepped aside because of yet another injury, Cowboys fourth-round draft pick Dak Prescott took over the team in 2016, turning in one of the best seasons by a rookie quarterback in NFL history. Combined with a league-leading rushing performance by fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott, Prescott's play led the Cowboys to a 13-3 finish and the NFC's top seed. After falling behind 21-3 to the Packers in the first half of the teams' divisional game, Prescott led the Cowboys all the way back to a 31-31 tie with less than two minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Faced with third-and-20 from the Green Bay 32 with 12 seconds left in the game, Green Bay quarterback Rodgers completed a 34-yard pass along the sidelines to tight end Jared Cook, setting up Mason Crosby's 51-yard game-winning field goal.
Zeke Elliott and a lost 2017.
Blessed with Prescott's and Elliott's youth, Cowboys fans dared to dream again before the 2017 season, only to see Elliott suspended for six games in August for domestic violence allegations made by his ex-girlfriend in 2016. Elliott fought the suspension in court, managing to play in the season's first eight games, but eventually had to serve the ban, derailing the Cowboys after a 5-3 start. Garrett and the Cowboys avoided another 8-8 finish by beating the Eagles, who had zero to play for after clinching the NFC's top seed, in week 17.