Cowboys look primed for long-term success, but no guarantees they'll get this close again

1:18 | NFL
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Tuesday January 17th, 2017

FRISCO, Texas—The Dallas Cowboys’ five Lombardi Trophies don’t collect dust because team owner Jerry Jones—if he has someone clean his glasses—probably has an employee dedicated to dusting them at the top of the hour every hour. So that metaphor won’t work here.

Thirty other NFL franchises would love to have that quintet of Tiffany silver, but it’s been 21 years since Jones has added to his collection. Aaron Rodgers stymied his most recent attempt in a 34–31 Packers’ win Sunday in AT&T Stadium.

These Cowboys seem primed for sustained success. They’ve built the offensive line through the draft, struck gold with their quarterback in the fourth round and nailed the No. 4 overall pick at running back last year. A play here or there and Jerryworld would be hosting the Falcons on Sunday afternoon, even after falling behind 21–3 in the first half.

“…To see those guys come back and compete like that, then I know we were very capable if we could have won this game,” Jones said after the loss. “We were capable of doing a job against, in this case, Atlanta, and probably a good job in the Super Bowl. In other words, I don’t want to say in any way it’s any consolation, but I know this: they are capable of playing at this level.”

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Jones’s words ring optimistic for 2017 and beyond, but he’s smart enough to know that 13–3 and the NFC’s No. 1 seed are never guaranteed. The Cowboys will be near the top of everyone’s power rankings in mid-February and could end up 7–9 in 11 months.

It just happened with the reigning NFC champions. The Carolina Panthers went 15–1 in 2015, lost Josh Norman but added Kelvin Benjamin and went 6–10 this past season. Two teams from the AFC West made the playoffs and neither one was the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos. The NFC East should only get better next year.

In the time since the Cowboys’ last NFC title game appearance, 13 other NFC teams have gone to the conference championship at least twice. Only Dallas, Washington and Detroit haven’t played in the conference title game since 1996.

Why is it that the Cowboys’ dynasty doesn’t feel that old? A child born after Dallas’s last Super Bowl can legally drink now, but 21 years can’t go by that quickly. Perhaps it’s omnipresent Jerry Jones and his slick talking that not only make us remember those days but yearn for them again. Or maybe it’s the triplets being everywhere: Along with being a successful public speaker, Emmitt Smith is easy to find. Michael Irvin is one of the most important talking heads at NFL Network. Troy Aikman speaks to us every Sunday afternoon when he calls the most meaningful NFC game for FOX. Whatever it is, Our ’90s nostalgia—the snapbacks and Starter jackets—is especially strong right now.

To his credit, Prescott seemed aware of the reality that his team can’t just pick up in the fall where it left off this winter.

“Just knowing it’s your last time playing with some of these guys, and the uncertainty of some of that,” he said at his locker Monday. “Which guys are going to be here and which guys aren’t. Which guys (where) it’s probably the last time dappin them up as a teammate. That’s the toughest part for me.”

It’s inevitable that one of those final teammate handshakes will be with Tony Romo. The former four-time Pro Bowl quarterback didn’t make an appearance in the locker room when media was allowed in Monday. By that time, the upper compartment of his locker had been cleared out and left open for all to see.

Retirement could be on the table. He’s under contract through the 2019 season, and Jones probably doesn’t want to spend upwards of $20 million in cap space on a backup for a second straight season. If Romo is willing to play ball, perhaps a restructured deal-and-trade to Denver or Houston or elsewhere is in the future.

“We don’t need to get into that tonight,” Jones said after the game.

“We’ll obviously look at what we’re doing. We won’t do it tomorrow. We won’t do it the next day. We’ll be looking at where we are relative to Tony and relative to other players, but not tonight.”

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There was no end-of-game controversy in this heartbreaker like the games that ended the 2007 and 2014 seasons. Maybe the penalties could have been more even, or Ezekiel Elliott could have gotten more touches earlier, or Prescott could have run a play rather than spike it with 49 seconds left, a move that ultimately gave Rodgers enough time to get the Packers into field-goal range.

The Cowboys will have six months to think on it until training camp starts. Prescott got started on it right after the game. Trapped at the stadium due to severe weather , Prescott went back onto the field with family and friends nearly two hours after Mason Crosby’s game-winning 51-yard field goal and stood near the 40-yard line.

“I got to hang out with my family there and soak everything in,” Prescott said. “I got to go out on the field again and, I guess, reminisce the season over again in my head, reminisce that game. It was a helluva fight. We just came up short.”

And as close as the Cowboys were, there’s no guarantee it happens again any time soon.

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