ARLINGTON, TEXAS — NFL wins are not Maxim girls, meaning appearances do not matter quite as much when judging them. The virtues of the ugly ones are praised sometimes more so than the pretty ones, given attributes like determination and pluck when, in actuality, luck may be more apropos.
So it was Sunday at JerryWorld. The aftermath of the Dallas Cowboys’ 16-10 victory against Tampa Bay was filled with effusive talk about the ugly win.
“I think (Cowboys QB Tony) Romo told me ‘That’s a Pittsburgh game right there,'” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “When you are not looking pretty, we figure out a way to get a win.”
What nobody wants to admit (not simply in Dallas or football but everywhere) is there is a danger of winning ugly, of just getting by, of settling for just OK for long stretches. The danger lies in lulling a team into thinking it is close and ignoring the truths a scoreboard is incapable of revealing.
This lulling is how the Cowboys have become the worst kind of NFL team—consistently OK, hovering around 8-8 or 9-7 and almost always in zero danger of winning a Super Bowl.
So go ahead and celebrate a six-point victory against a Tampa team whose quarterback had 39 yards passing before the final drive. The reality is this game is a microcosm of what has held back America’s Team for going on decades—yes, with an ‘s’—namely, this false belief of being close.
The Cowboys do not seem much better or much worse than they were a year ago, or a couple of years ago, or 10. This is not awful until you realize there is no award for consistency, especially when it is consistently not quite good enough.
The NFL is a league of movement. The Saints were awful then champs now possibly awful again. Indy won with Peyton Manning, now rebuilds with Andrew Luck.
So what does it say that the big names—Romo, Witten, Ware—remain in Dallas with a single playoff victory to show for all of this time together. Jerry Jones talked before this season about how the window is closing, but the real danger is they have wasted so much time with it just barely propped open.
Who would you rather be this morning: Redskins or Cowboys?
I ask because I do not know. Dallas coming off an ugly victory against a Tampa Bay team seemingly incapable of moving the ball? Or Washington coming off a loss where a phenomenal young quarterback almost led the team all the way back against a very good Cincinnati team?
The answer, I guess, will come when they play one another.
What I know for sure is if you can barely beat a team with Josh Freeman as quarterback, your chances of beating RG3 are considerably less.
Do the Cowboys really think they can win with 13 penalties for 105 yards? With right tackle Doug Free false starting on seemingly every other play? With Witten dropping balls and Romo fumbling and Dez Bryant running routes that only tangentially look like what was drawn up? With the offensive line practically ole-ing defenders back for free shots on Romo?
The answer is assuredly no, except they did.
This is the danger of the ugly win. It leads guys like Dez Bryant to say things like, “We played good” when this has zero basis in reality. The Cowboys are not the only team under this delusion, just the most prominent.
Even NFL public enemy No. 1, Bucs coach Greg Schiano, seemed to have his fire dampened by the ugliness of Sunday’s game. A week after he and Giants coach Tom Coughlin threw down postgame — somewhat inexplicably at least to me — about Schiano playing to win, we had a rather tame end to this game.
And Schiano actually had plenty to be fiery about afterward.
In a season so far dominated by the ineptitude of replacement officials, the Cowboys benefitted from the fake officials more than anybody so far in this young NFL season. Late in the third quarter, trailing by only a field goal, Romo fumbled–one of his two fumbles after being crushed by sacks on this day—and Bucs cornerback Eric Wright grabbed the loose ball for what looked to be an easy scoop and score.
Instead refs blew it dead, calling it an incomplete pass.
It was overturned easily. The tape showing indisputable evidence of fumble but it was too late by then, and Tampa Bay got the ball on the 31, which was about 20 yards too many for Freeman to be able to overcome. The Cowboys defense, a bright spot on this rather ugly football day, quickly forced a punt.
“I don’t think nothing is ugly when you get a ‘W,'” Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware said.
I had heard this about 100 times Sunday, and every time I wanted to say ‘Y’all know this is not going to be good enough, right?” I finally did when talking to Ware, mostly because he has been around and he has to understand this.
“It’s not, if we play like we played,” he said. “We can’t have a lot of penalties. We can’t false start, especially me being one of those guys. We can’t do that. It tastes a little better when you get a win but … you know where you messed up.”
Because while we love to praise the virtues of the ugly win, the truth is it is a lie, a lie we tell ourselves to feel better about not getting the Maxim one.