Ghosts of Dallas Cowboys past: What’s it like to endure a miserable season? – NFL Nation
FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys‘ season has been miserable.
At 2-7 and losers of four in a row, the Cowboys look headed for a top-five pick in the 2021 NFL draft rather than a playoff spot.
The good news is the Cowboys are on their bye in Week 10, but when they come back to work, they could be in last place in the NFC East should the New York Giants beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
As much as coach Mike McCarthy, players, owner and general manager Jerry Jones and executive Stephen Jones say the Cowboys are in the playoff chase, that’s only because no other teams in the division are any good. The division is 9-24-1 entering Week 10 games.
While the Cowboys play only one team the rest of this season that currently has a winning record, they are on pace to finish 4-12. It would match the second-worst mark of the Jones era. In 2015, the Cowboys went 4-12. In 1989, Jones’ first year owning the team, Dallas went 1-15. From 2000 to 2002, they went 5-11 three times.
Seven games remain. It might feel like seven months.
“How you handle that is simple,” six-time Pro Bowl guard Nate Newton said. “You know the offense. You know the defense. You learn the ins and outs, and then you go play for yourself. I don’t give a s— what nobody tries to tell you about ‘team this,’ and ‘team that.’ No, no, no. Everybody that’s not under contract has to know that their ass is on the line. For the guys who haven’t been in a playoff game, act like you’re in a playoff game. For guys that have played in the playoffs, continue like it’s the playoffs. You can’t afford to show those coaches or the other 31 teams that you’re unworthy because right now ‘loser,’ is stamped on your head.”
Newton was on the 1-15 Cowboys team in ’89. They lost their first eight games and their last seven. He learned this lesson, though, during the 3-13 finish in 1988, coach Tom Landry’s last season, thanks to former Cowboys teammate and wide receiver Kelvin Martin.
“I said, ‘Homey, we’re getting our ass kicked,’ and he said, ‘But you know what? Out of all these ass-kickings, Nate, I’m going to make sure I’m playing as hard as I can within this scheme to make sure I have a job when this is over, either here or somewhere else,'” Newton said. “He opened my eyes.”
It’s hard to know whether those realizations are being felt inside McCarthy’s locker room here in 2020. The defense has put up solid efforts in back-to-back weeks. The offense, with its fourth different starting quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, showed fight in the 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If progress can be measured in effort, then maybe McCarthy’s message is getting through even if the wins are not happening, yet.
Former safety Darren Woodson was Newton’s teammate for the Cowboys’ Super Bowl teams in the 1990s, but he also withstood the three straight 5-11 finishes with coach Dave Campo as the team’s star faded. In 2000, the Cowboys lost five of their last six games. In 2001, they had two different four-game losing streaks. In 2002, Dallas won two of its last 10 games.
During one season, Woodson remembers hearing a defensive player murmur in the back of the meeting room as then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was ripping the player’s effort and technique.
“I stopped the meeting and stood up and just said, ‘This is why we can’t f—ing win a game because you don’t want to be coached,'” Woodson said. “Zim was like, ‘Darren, chill out.’ No, we’re 5-11. We are who we are. Just a bull—- ass team.”
Woodson had the cache of Super Bowl rings, Pro Bowl honors and was on his way to becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in tackles.
“As the season goes on, it’s brutal, man,” Woodson said. “Think about it. It just becomes those dog days where there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You’re not in the playoffs and you’re just playing games. It’s basically just games. And then it becomes the selfish side because the one thing you can’t do is put bad tape out there. … You have to put your best product out there because you never know if it will be a new coach coming in or they’re letting you go. Other people are watching the tape. It becomes, I’m sorry to say, more of a save-yourself moment.”
If the team doesn’t win, then success is measured in different ways. In 1989, the Cowboys had to fight internal and external pressures from the firing of Landry to the inexperience of coach Jimmy Johnson and his mostly college-based staff.
Washington Football Team defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was a starting linebacker on that Cowboys team with one win that season. After giving up at least 27 points in each of the first seven games, the Dallas defense allowed more than 20 points in a game three times in the final nine contests.
“It was tough to hear the banter, but really we had a run defensively in the second half of that season, I think we were at or near the top with what we did the last half of the year,” Del Rio said. “We were building something with an eye toward the future.
“The core of that team won three of four Super Bowls a couple years later. … To me, even when it’s a bad record, it’s professional football; people prepare hard, they play hard; there is talent. The one victory we had that year was against the Redskins. The bottom line is we beat a good team, and we built a good team while there. Sometimes there are slow years, but the professionalism and work ethic and toughness and grit and willingness to go, none of that was missing. We weren’t very good yet, but we became good.”
Ryan Clark does not believe Jerry Jones when he says it’s ridiculous for the Cowboys to consider drafting a QB like Trevor Lawrence when they have Dak Prescott.
Barry Church has a different perspective as a former Cowboys player, but he was like a lot of fans when the Cowboys’ 2020 season started. He thought Dallas would be contenders in the division and beyond. As a starting safety, he thought the same thing in 2015 when the Cowboys were coming off a controversial divisional-round loss in 2014 to the Green Bay Packers.
Then, quarterback Tony Romo went down with a broken collarbone and the Cowboys lost seven straight games. After a 2-0 start, Dallas started four quarterbacks that season, just like this year and just like 2001, and finished 4-12.
“It’s almost the exact same thing as 2015,” Church said. “They had all these expectations coming into the year. It’s, ‘We’re so hyped. We brought in this talent from the draft. Got some good free agents. This is the year.’ Then they lost their main guy and even before that they weren’t playing as well, but they still had hope because Dak Prescott was out there. They still had confidence they could turn this thing around. But then he’s gone and that had to be [deflating].”
In Greg Ellis’ first two seasons as a defensive end with the Cowboys, they made the playoffs. The 1998 and ’99 teams weren’t great, but they were competitive as quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin, running back Emmitt Smith and others, like Woodson, fought for one more run at glory.
But then came a stretch when only 15 wins happened in a 45-game span, which brought on the arrival of coach Bill Parcells in 2003.
“Oh, man, it just felt like the days were 30-hour days,” Ellis said. “You have to be careful to not fall into the sky-is-falling trap and the illusion that everything is bad. There has to be some bright spots. They’re hard to find, but there has to be some.”
Ellis remembers full-padded practices and walk-throughs with inside run drills. The coaches were mad, which he understood, but he wasn’t sure that helped the team get any better.
“One thing Campo said was, ‘You can’t negate leaving a steak in the oven too long,” Ellis said. “You got a good steak, you follow all of the instructions on how to cook it, but if you overcook it, that steak’s now not that good.
“My heart goes out to the guys because I know it. You just feel it, like, ‘Wow, can we push the rewind button and start over, or can we just hit the fast-forward button and get it over with.'”
NFL Nation reporter John Keim contributed to this story.