At 4-4, Cowboys continuing reign of mediocrity never before seen

Tuesday October 29th, 2013

A loss at Detroit dropped Dallas to 4-4 in 2013 and an incredible 132-132 in the regular season since 1997.
Ray Carlin/Icon SMI

Of course they did. Of course the Dallas Cowboys blew a pair of 10-point fourth-quarter leads in excruciating fashion at Detroit on Sunday, losing 31-30 to the Lions to fall back to .500, reaching midseason at 4-4.

Back to .500 is the Cowboys' default setting. How can we even be surprised at this point? It's just the natural order of things in Dallas. Seasons come and seasons go, but the only given in the NFL is that the Cowboys will find their way back to average. It has gone virtually unrecognized, and perhaps under-appreciated, but Dallas is in the midst of a reign of mediocrity the football world has never before seen.

Consider the following:

• The Cowboys this season have earned their 4-4 record, having spent four of the season's first eight weeks at the break-even mark. They were 1-1, 2-2, 3-3 and now are 4-4. Three times they've had the opportunity to climb two games over .500, and three times they've reverted to form, losing 17-16 at Kansas City in Week 2, by 11 at San Diego in Week 4 and by a point to the Lions, on the strength of that remarkable Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson-led comeback.

• Dallas in 2012 finished 8-8, and in third place in the NFC East, six times sporting a .500 record: At 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 5-5, 6-6, and finally 8-8, thanks to a two-game season-ending losing streak that cost it a playoff berth.

• The Cowboys in 2011 finished 8-8 and in third place in the NFC East, five times reaching the break-even mark: At 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4 and 8-8. Stop us if you've heard this one before, but a season-ending two-game losing streak cost Dallas a playoff berth.

• And most remarkable of all? Behold their historic balance: With Sunday's loss, the Cowboys from the start of the 1997 on -- a span of 16 1/2 seasons since the franchise's latest Super Bowl glory era closed -- are a too-beautiful-for-words 132-132 in the regular season, with every win matched perfectly with a loss. It's like being sentenced to life in the middle of the pack, with no chance of parole.

MURPHY: Inside Detroit's game-winning drive against Dallas

After six consecutive playoff trips, five straight NFC East titles and three Super Bowl rings earned from 1991-96, Dallas has been the epitome of average. The Cowboys since 1997 have changed head coaches, coordinators, quarterbacks, running backs, even stadiums, but they remain the same. They are who they are, a team that can't stand prosperity for long, and will eventually find its level, right around the state of so-so. In the past 16 full seasons, the Cowboys have had a winning record seven times, a losing record six times and a .500 finish three times.

In the eyes of Vegas, the Cowboys might be the biggest locks in football. They're going to win half their games, lose the other half, and the only trick is knowing when they will make their move back to break even. Like they've already done three times this season.

Sunday's late-game meltdown in Motown drops Jason Garrett's record to a clean 20-20 since him being named the Cowboys' full-time head coach in January 2011, and he's 25-23 overall, including his eight-game interim stint in relief of the fired Wade Phillips in '10. That roughly fits the pattern in Dallas, where Chan Gailey went 18-16, including a pair of playoff losses in his two seasons on the job in 1998-99, and Bill Parcells managed just a 34-32 mark, including two postseason losses in leading Jerry Jones' team from 2003-06.

3:19 | NFL
Same old Cowboys?

With Detroit out of timeouts, the Cowboys watched the Lions motor 80 yards in six plays over 50 seconds for the game-winning touchdown, with Stafford lulling them to sleep at the line of scrimmage before leaping over from 1 yard out with just 12 ticks remaining. The heartbreaking defeat had such familiar twists for Dallas that Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, who had two brilliant interceptions of Stafford, lamented that he has seen this movie and knows how it ends.

"We're not going to be in the playoffs until we win these games and don't make these mistakes,'' Lee told in the postgame. "We're going to be 8-8 and we're not going to be where we want to be. We've got to make a decision; are we going to execute at the most critical times and win these games? I don't know, but we need to put in the work and we have to do it if we're going to be the team we want to be.''

Lee has it right, and so far these Cowboys are the .500 team they again appear to be. They're a maddening team that can play heroically but lose 51-48 to visiting Denver in Week 5, thanks to a late Tony Romo interception that undoes the stellar five-touchdown, 500-yard-plus passing game he posted. And the one-point losses at both Kansas City and Detroit are again indicative of a team that will always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, never quite finishing the job when going head-to-head with a quality opponent.

But there is a silver lining in this year's march to mediocrity in Dallas, and it's the only thing that's different about 2013 compared to recent vintage 8-8 seasons. The Cowboys at 4-4 are still somehow in first place in the anemic NFC East, a game ahead of the 3-5 Eagles, 1½ games better than the 2-5 Redskins, and two whole games in front of those surging last-place Giants (2-6).

Dallas also already owns wins over each of its division foes, giving it a leg up in the tiebreaker scenarios so far. The NFC East is the NFL's only division without a winning team, and the Cowboys are the only first-place club in the league with more than two losses.

Shoot, 8-8 could comfortably win the division this season, and 7-9 might even get the job done with the right tiebreaker advantage. In the first 43 seasons of the division's history, no one has ever won the NFC East with less than a 9-7 mark, and only the 2011 eventual Super Bowl champion Giants failed to record at least 10 victories as the East winner.

But it won't be easy for Dallas to even get to the familiar break-even mark this season. The Cowboys face a string of tough road games in the season's second half, with challenges at New Orleans on a Monday night in Week 10, at the back-from-the-dead Giants in Week 12, at Chicago on Monday night in Week 14 with quarterback Jay Cutler likely returned to the lineup, and at Washington in that always bitter rivalry in Week 16.

Dallas had better pick off at least one of those games, because the Cowboys are by no means certain to run the table in their four remaining home games. Dallas should win this week against visiting Minnesota (1-6) to get to 5-4, and I like the Cowboys chances to take care of business at home against Oakland on Thanksgiving Day. But Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay come to Jerry World in Week 15, and then it's division rival Philadelphia in Week 17 at AT&T Stadium.

And we know how the Cowboys have routinely fared in regular-season finales against division opponents of late, when a playoff berth was on the line. They lost by 10 points at Washington in Week 17 last season. They lost by 17 at the Giants in Week 17 of 2011. And they lost by 38 at the Eagles in Week 17 of 2008. Only in 2009, its most recent playoff season, did Dallas finish a winning season strong, blowing out Philadelphia at home in Week 17, and repeating the beating of the visiting Eagles the next week in the first round of the playoffs.

That win, of course, stands as the only Dallas postseason win in the past 16 seasons, with the Cowboys going 1-6 in the playoffs from 1997 on. Little wonder a .500 record sounds so good in Dallas. By that modest standard, average isn't half bad.

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