During a Zoom press conference with reporters on Oct. 27, Dallas Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan attempted to explain the inexplicable.
Instead, he confirmed 2020.
His team of tacklers, rich with high draft picks and big contracts, had two days earlier been repeatedly burned in a 22-point loss to the rival Washington Football Team. Picked as the pre-season favorite to win the NFC East division and ultimately sniff a Super Bowl, the Cowboys were 2-5 and Nolan’s run defense was embarrassingly ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams.
“Whoops, excuse me,” Nolan said suddenly on the video call, dabbing his left eye with his COVID-19 mask. “Um, I had some Tabasco on my finger and it just went in my eye. … It’s terrible! … Geez … Give me one second.”
Nolan disappeared for a couple of minutes, then resumed the call.
“Sorry,” he said. “Now where were we?”
Twenty Twenty. We were/are all stuck in the nightmare that is 2020.
How else could a virus pandemic kill more than 300,000 Americans, pause sports for three months and then transform the Cowboys’ self-proclaimed “Hot Boyz” into the “Tabasco Fiasco”?
Upon hearing about Nolan’s incident, star running back Ezekiel Elliott added his dash of perspective.
“Just how shitty this year has been,” he said. “It’s just been a bad year. No way around it.”
Miraculously, the Cowboys won three consecutive games down the stretch and play for an improbable playoff spot on the season’s final Sunday. Still, their season is unlikely to extend far into 2021.
Some cities — Los Angeles, our envious eyes turn to you — will wiggle out of 2020 with new championship hardware. But DFW, which saw its four major professional sports teams lose more than 100 games and approximately three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars in revenue because of the pandemic, remains in a title-less drought that is rounding the turn toward 10 years.
It’s not just the madness. It’s the methods.
Sure we enjoyed a Post-it note of local sports highlights, led by Luka Doncic’s 35-foot game-winning rainbow 3-pointer that won a playoff game for the Dallas Mavericks on Aug. 23, Denis Gurianov’s one-timer goal that propelled the Dallas Stars into the Stanley Cup Finals on Sept. 14 and SMU alum Bryson DeChambeau winning golf’s U.S. Open on Sept. 20.
Mostly, however, Murphy’s Law pitched a tent over DFW and orchestrated an onslaught of oops.
Because of the novel coronavirus, a timeout was called on America’s sports during the fourth quarter of a Mavs game at American Airlines Center at around 9 p.m. on March 11. For the next 93 days, every day felt like March 12.
From Mavs’ guard Delon Wright’s free throw in the waning seconds of the win over the Denver Nuggets in the spring to golfer Ryan Palmer striking the first tee shot in The Colonial tournament in Fort Worth at 7 a.m. near the start of summer on June 11, DFW was a Groundhog Day sapped of options and live sports.
Without one of our go-to diversions from reality, for a quarter of 2020 we …
Remembered what it was like to be grounded by our parents.
Binged Tiger King and Last Dance.
Hoarded hand sanitizer, toilet paper and beef.
Experienced our hair growing longer and our patience growing shorter.
Learned that, sadly, most of us aren’t deemed “essential.”
Winced at Katy Trail closing, rims removed from park backboards, locks put on tennis courts and gyms shuttering.
Pretended to love virtual learning and hate not going into the office.
Determined the exact time it was appropriate to change out of our morning pajamas and into our nighttime pajamas.
Tried — united by separation — to flatten the curve via socially distancing, quarantining and sheltering in place.
Experienced the virus pandemic of 1918, economic crash of 1929 and civil rights riots of 1968, all in the span of 90 days.
Coped with the retirement of KTCK sports talker Mike Rhyner, the departure of Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, the closings of Lizard Lounge and Highland Park Cafeteria and the deaths of Dak Prescott’s brother and Cowboys’ assistant coach Markus Paul.
Genuinely missed handshakes.
Cringed at casinos and churches responding exactly the same.
Lamented $1.31 gas with nowhere to drive.
Pondered why it is supposedly dangerous to attend a baseball game in an open-air stadium, but OK to sit 6 inches apart for hours in a cramped airplane.
Watched two birds fight over a worm, pretended the Cardinals were beating the Blue Jays and called it quarantainment.
Finally stopped asking “What’s the score?” and replaced it with “What day is it?”
Wished, in retrospect, we would’ve instead chosen Morpheus’ blue pill.
“It’s just like we’re in Las Vegas,” iconic Channel 8 sports anchor Dale Hansen said of the quarantine vibe. “We’re losing lots of money. Cocktails are acceptable at any hour. Nobody has any idea what time it is.”
When the games resumed in early summer, they looked fittingly unfamiliar. Cardboard cutouts and digitized images instead of human faces. Socially distanced benches. Face masks not just for football players, but everyone. Cancellations of March Madness and the Olympics led to sports fans’ starvation. Then condensed schedules, such as baseball’s opening day moved to July and basketball’s NBA Finals extended into October, prompted instantaneous overkill.
The result of combining too many events with not enough atmosphere? COVID crippled not just sports, but TV sports viewership. Marquee events such as the World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, Kentucky Derby, tennis’ U.S. Open, golf’s The Masters and the NBA’s championship series all suffered record-low ratings.
Not surprisingly, the pandemics’ negative effect also blunted local team’s finances. Some games (Cowboys and Rangers) were canceled. Others (Stars and Mavs) were moved to a safer “hub” in Edmonton, Canada, or a more manageable “bubble” in Orlando. For 2020’s final 8 ½ months, no DFW team hosted a single game to full fan capacity.
The Cowboys lost two preseason home games altogether and 75 percent of their fans at eight regular season games. The Rangers lost 51 home dates at their new Globe Life Field, but even the 30 games played had a grand attendance total of zero. And at American Airlines Center, the Stars lost 20 games including the playoffs; the Mavericks lost 10.
According to Forbes’ estimates of average attendance, average ticket price and average food/merchandise revenue per game, COVID cost the Mavericks $24 million. That figure increased for the Stars, who played more games because of their deeper playoff run. The magazine says the Cowboys generate $621 million in stadium revenue per season, a number greatly reduced with fan capacity limited to mostly 25 percent. With their new ballpark holding 40,000 fans, with an average ticket price of $30 and including concessions and parking, the Rangers likely lost around $200 million.
All told in 2020, DFW teams were unable to play 113 home games worth an estimated revenue hit of $750 million.
It was surreal. Except, that is, for DFW teams’ results.
Besieged by injuries and plagued by historically inept defenses, DFW’s teams unintentionally brought order to a chaotic year by again not winning championships.
Two days after almost losing Doncic with a sprained ankle, before Game 4 of their playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Mavericks announced that second-best player Kristaps Porzingis was done for the season with a knee injury that required surgery. Also because of a knee, the Stars played their final 13 playoff games without No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop. The Texas Rangers’ free-agent gem, pitcher Corey Kluber, threw exactly one inning (18 pitches) on July 26 before leaving with a season-ending shoulder injury. The Cowboys were ravaged all over the field, losing run-stuffing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to a season-ending thigh injury during the first padded practice at training camp, punter Chris Jones to a “core muscle” injury and quarterback Dak Prescott to a gruesome broken leg in the season’s fifth game. Even FC Dallas was sidelined, prevented from playing in Major League Soccer’s re-start tournament in July after a COVID outbreak affected 10 players and one coach.
“We’ve had our share of challenges,” said FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez. “But look around, in 2020 we’re all in this together.”
If there was one DFW team that kinda sorta benefitted from COVID, it’s the Stars.
They were meandering through an underachieving season when head coach Jim Montgomery was fired Dec. 10, 2019, for “unprofessional conduct” stemming from alcohol addiction. With Rick Bownes as interim coach, they had lost six consecutive games when the NHL pulled the plug March 10.
“For the break, I think it couldn’t have come at a better time for us,” star forward Jamie Benn admitted. “We were slipping a bit.”
Safely housed in Canada, the Stars went 1-2 in their restart games in July and then promptly fell behind Calgary two games to one in their first playoff series. But with Bishop ailing and struggling in net, Bownes turned to backup goalie Anton Khudobin and almost energized the team’s first championship since 1999.
They won three straight series and took a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals before eventually losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 on Sept. 28. Typically 2020, they teased before finally breaking hearts.
“We’ll be back,” said Bowness, awarded the permanent gig after the season. “We have some unfinished business in 2021.”
Despite the prodigious, promising combination of Porzingis and Doncic, the Mavs’ porous defense proved as useless as bleach against COVID.
Behind MVP candidate Doncic’s triple-doubles and nightly highlight passes and points, the Mavs were the most efficient offense in the NBA. But in Orlando, they surrendered a gaudy 49 points to the Houston Rockets’ James Harden and another 61 to Portland Trailblazers’ guard Damian Lillard. In one game, they allowed 153 points to the Rockets. Then 154 to the Clippers in Game 5 of their playoff series loss.
Despite all their offensive style, the Mavs were lacking defensive substance. It was addressed in November’s NBA draft, when they traded away the NBA’s second-best all-time 3-point shooter in Seth Curry and acquired defensive-minded rookies Josh Green and Tyler Bey and veterans Josh Richardson and James Johnson.
“It’s no secret,” head coach Rick Carlisle said. “We needed to get better defensively if we’re going to take that next step.”
No doubt the Rangers took the hardest hit from COVID.
Poised to open their $1.2 billion Globe Life Field within three weeks of the country’s closure, they instead played a reduced schedule to empty seats and ultimately hostws a World Series before ushering in any of their own fans.
Globe Life Field was the Christmas gift DFW never got to open.
There was a virus outbreak in the organization and even throughout the team’s broadcast booth, forcing radio voice Matt Hicks and TV analyst C.J. Nitkowski to miss games after testing positive. There were 20-percent pay cuts throughout the franchise. On the field, there was historical failure.
At only 60 games, it was their shortest season. With a record of 22-38 (including a baseball-worst 6-24 on the road), it was also one of their worst seasons. Only by winning their last three, otherwise meaningless games did the Rangers push their winning percentage to .367 and slightly ahead of their two original seasons in Arlington in 1972-73.
More than any other DFW team, the Rangers are deleting 2020 in hopes of a better 2021. Foundational pieces Joey Gallo and Isiah Kiner-Falefa won Gold Glove Awards for their defense and, of course, to local fans Globe Life Field will feel brand new for the April 5 opener.
“For our fans,” said Executive Vice President Chuck Morgan, “we’ll treat the 2021 home opener like the first game ever played at Globe Life Field. It’ll be opening day of our home season and our new ballpark.”
The Cowboys’ season was derailed with the Oct. 11 injury to Prescott, who at the time was leading the NFL in passing and was an MVP frontrunner. In the wake of Prescott’s departure and a concussion/COVID timeout for backup Andy Dalton, head coach Mike McCarthy was forced to use four different starting quarterbacks.
Adding to the trying season, the team had a Thursday night game moved to a Monday afternoon because of multiple COVID-19 cases among their opponents, the Baltimore Ravens. On Nov. 24 the team canceled practice after Paul, its 54-year-old strength-and-conditioning assistant coach, suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. He passed away a day later.
Wearing “MP” tribute decals on their helmets, the Cowboys were blown out on Thanksgiving by rival Washington, 41-16. In that game, McCarthy called – and failed on – two risk-high gambles that backfired and cost his team 14 crucial points. One of the plays was a preposterous reverse fake punt from his team’s own 24-yard line.
“It was a solid play call. It’s a good play design,” McCarthy maintained in the face of national ridicule. “You won’t get anywhere if you’re thinking about negatives all the time.”
FC Dallas won one playoff game. SMU’s football team, which saw its entire student section ejected from its Oct. 3 home game for not adhering to social distancing guidelines, was ranked in the Top 20 before losing 21-0 at Tulsa on Nov. 14. Texas Motor Speedway ran a NASCAR race on July 19, but with only 25,000 fans at its mammoth 100,000-seat track. The much-hyped DeChambeau, now the face of Dallas golf with Jordan Spieth cratering to 80th in the world, disappointed with a tie for 34th at The Masters.
The whole year deserves an eternal asterisk. It turned golf into a sport without bunker rakes, saddened happy hours and simultaneously ruined the lives of bookies and lip readers.
How perverted was 2020?
The World Series was played in Arlington without the Rangers. The Stars almost won the Stanley Cup without winning a game in Dallas after Feb. 23. The Cowboys held training camp in Frisco. The Lakers won the NBA title without leaving Orlando. Some baseball games were seven innings. Football teams in the Pac 12 Conference played their first games in November, after others had played nine games and accepted bowl bids. The Byron Nelson was canceled. The YMCA Turkey Trot went virtual.
The times were so tricky we were forced to call audibles. Resort to Plan Q. Fake it. And, in the end, DFW would like to deem 2020’s Year in Sports as flatly inauthentic. It’s a knock-off, no more legit than those “Oaxley” sunglasses hawed in Times Square.
Locally, 2020 is a year we’ll never forget, wrapped around only a few moments worth remembering.
Barring an improbable run to the Super Bowl by the Cowboys, DFW’s stretch of not enjoying a championship will last a full decade. Sliding well into 2021, the next chance for a trophy will be in late summer with the Stars and Mavs.
With the area’s last title coming in the summer of 2011, by then the chasm will have reached approximately 3,700 days.
By contrast, the city of Los Angeles, with the Lakers winning the NBA Finals Oct. 11 and the Dodgers the World Series Oct. 27, celebrated two in the span of 16 days.
As close as Dallas got to a trophy in 2020? Mavericks owner Mark Cuban owns the trademark to “City of Champions.”
“It’s true, I own the trademark for clothing and apparel,” he tweeted after the Dodgers’ championship. “So anyone in L.A. got any ideas?”
The Cowboys won their last ring 25 years ago. The Stars lost both of their trips to the finals this millennium. The Rangers were within one strike — twice — before losing their only World Series appearance in 2011. Since winning their title in 2011, the Mavericks haven’t won a single playoff series.
Alas, the unprecedented sports year of 2020 in DFW wasn’t the illness, but more so an incessant, torturous, Tabasco-saturated side effect.
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