The Cowboys did not do what they needed to do after Tony Romo went down with a collarbone injury during the team's week two win against the Eagles. They needed to win at least two of the seven games Romo would end up missing. Even one would have been nice. Nope, didn't happen. They needed to re-establish last year's dominant running game and fashion an explosive pass rush after acquiring three dynamic edge rushers in the last two seasons. Nope and nope. The on-field performance during the seven game losing streak was pathetic and filled with injury — an unmitigated disaster. The team's off-the-field performance was even worse.
Greg Hardy, one of those three edge rushers we mentioned earlier, has been OK on the field — not an All-Pro, but not a chump. Off the field? Chump. The Cowboys signed him knowing Hardy been convicted of battering his ex-girlfriend before seeing the case dropped on appeal after he reached a settlement with the woman. Owner Jerry Jones promised that the team had done its due diligence though, and was sure Hardy would be on his best behavior. On November 6, less than two weeks after Hardy shoved a special teams coach and screamed at Dez Bryant on the Cowboys sideline, Deadspin released police photos of Nicole Holder, Hardy's ex-girlfriend, from the night of the alleged attack. Holder had deep bruises over much of her body, and told police that she'd believed Hardy would kill her. Hardy, who missed the first four games of the season serving an NFL suspension, was not punished by the Cowboys for the shoving on the sideline, and Jones indicated he was interested in signing the defensive end to a long-term contract.
It's essentially impossible to watch the Cowboys without feeling conflicted, but the games are going to go on, and a great number of us are going to be irrationally invested in their outcomes until the final stake gets driven through the heart of a season that started with the promise of a potential Super Bowl. It isn't totally dead yet. If, and this is a big if, Romo immediately starts distributing the ball like he did in 2014, it might stay around for awhile (at least another week).
The Cowboys have the advantage of having picked the right year to go to sleep for almost half a season, if there is such a thing as "the right year" to take seven weeks off. The NFC is terrible. The division isn't as bad as the 2014 NFC South that was won by a 7-8-1 Panthers team, but it is plenty bad enough to be won by a 9-7 or 8-8 Cowboys squad. Each team in the East has at least five losses so far in 2015 and only the Giants have five wins. It will be a shock if the Giants, Eagles or Redskins get to 10 wins. That means the Cowboys, and Romo, still have some control over their destinies.
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The road back starts Sunday, with a winnable road game in Miami. The Dolphins are 4-5. They have been outscored by almost as much as the Cowboys despite having a healthy starting quarterback and have lost two of their three home games this season. If the Cowboys get a good performance from Romo and the emotional boost one would expect from having their best player back on the field, it's a game the team should win. Doing so gets the Cowboys all the way back to 3-7 headed into Thanksgiving.
Turkey Day could be the season's inflection point. The Cowboys, presumably rejuvenated by Romo, will be playing their traditional mid-afternoon tilt against the Panthers. The Panthers are 9-0. Their quarterback, Cam Newton, is having his best season as a pro. They also have a hammerlock on the South, one that could grow tighter this weekend. If any team but the Cowboys were involved, and if it wasn't a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving, one would be tempted to call a match-up between a potentially 10-0 team and an immensely talented, underachieving home underdog a trap game. It is the Cowboys, though, so one would expect the Panthers to be prepared. Still, it's not an unwinnable game for the Cowboys.
So there's a chance, an admittedly small one, that the Cowboys will head into December at 4-7 and very much alive in the NFC East race. Even if they're 3-8, they still won't be dead. Romo has always had the talent to be one of the guys, like Staubach, Smith and Aikman, Cowboys fans remember with a wistful grin. Dragging this sorry mess to the playoffs might be his best chance to make it happen.