ARLINGTON, Texas — As the Sunday sun was setting on Cowboys Stadium, two old Dallas quarterbacks compared notes on the deeper meaning of the home team’s 16-10 win over Tampa Bay, a victory that moves Dallas to 2-1 but also keeps the club perilously close to being “just another .500 team.”
“Over the years, we’ve score a lot of points in games and done it with an offense that was aesthetically pleasing, but we ended up losing the game,” Jason Garrett told Troy Aikman.
“Wins are hard to come by, so you take ’em when you can,” Troy Aikman responded to Jason Garrett.
And it’s true. On a day when the Cowboys raised their five Super Bowl banners (enlarged versions of the old ones that once flew at Texas Stadium) and celebrated the 35th and 20th anniversary of the franchise’s championships, Sunday served as a reminder that these aren’t the ’78 Cowboys of Doomsday and Roger Staubach or the ’92 “How ‘Bout Them Cowboys” featuring a stifling defense and the Aikman-led offense. (Or even the ’93 team that won a title with a scrappy brainiac named “Jason Garrett” as Aikman’s caddie).
This is 2012 NFL Parity at its best/worst. Jason Witten’s spleen helped Dallas to a 24-17 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in Week 1, and the Cowboys were heralded as “tough.” A single cheap-shot Seahawks block in Week 2 was part of a 27-7 loss at Seattle, and the Cowboys were chided for being “soft.”
A win. A loss. So tough. Too soft.
Which is it? Which is the real Cowboys?
All of it.
That’s how Dallas is coming off an 8-8 record, how 20 NFL teams entered this weekend with 1-1 records, how the Cowboys since their last Super Bowl appearance entered the weekend with a notably balanced record of 121-121.
Why do the Cowboys look like a .500 team?
For the same reason pretty much everybody looks like a .500 team: Because they are.
It certainly wasn’t artistic,” Garrett said, and hey, if that’s what you’re searching for, you need to exit the stadium immediately and find yourself a museum.
Dallas linebacker and leader Sean Lee noted that every team is likely to have at least a handful of losses and that, “The best teams in the league learn from it and get better.”
For this week, anyway, the Cowboys do get credit for that. They are better in the standings, at least, despite missing three defensive starters to begin the game and then losing first-team safety Barry Church to a season-ending Achilles injury that could’ve left his defensive teammates wondering what else might crumble.
“It’s definitely a heart-breaker for me,” Church told me. “I was definitely looking forward to leading our defense, being a contributor. But you know, circumstances happen. You’ve just got to move forward from it.”
Dallas’ defense did just that. With cornerback Brandon Carr switching to safety (a position he hadn’t played since his junior year in high school) and with Mike Jenkins re-emerging as a force at corner, it allowed Tampa Bay just 91 net yards passing – the best effort by a Cowboys team since 2007, when the unfortunate Tavaris Jackson managed just 65 aerial yards for Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Dallas’ offense was a sputterfest. Quarterback Tony Romo is now 4-0 lifetime against the Bucs, but this one wasn’t secured with the usual ease. Romo went 25-of-39 for 283 yards with no touchdowns, an interception and two lost two fumbles, the result of absorbing a battering behind a flawed offensive line. Receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant were sound, but tight end Jason Witten again has the dropsies, calling into question his confidence level as he tries to put the lacerated spleen problem in his past.
“I don’t want this to go by without talking about how great it feels really to win this game, with the way that our defense played and our ability to grind it out on the offensive side when nothing was easy,” Romo said. “This is a very, very satisfying win, even though it’ll kind of get lost in the shuffle as you move through the season sometimes, because of the way it looked. But these are the kinds of wins that you have to have. We’ve played better on offense before and lost football games. We’ve played better as a team sometimes with the way that it looks and lost games. But to win the game with the way that we did today really excites me and gives us a chance going forward.”
That’s Romo talking like Aikman, the QB-turned-FOX voice.
That’s Romo talking like Garrett, the QB-turned-head coach.
That’s the NFL today: Any win merits excitement, anything over .500 gives you a chance.