Looking back, the Miami game showed us what this 2015 Dallas Cowboys team was supposed to look like. The offense compliments the defense and the defense fits perfectly with its offense. The blue print is clear - ball control which leads to game control. Both sides of the ball get in their right spots to play downhill. It all made sense for about 3 hours in 2015.
Unfortunately, 3 hours is going to be it.
Four days later, the Cowboys had to play an opponent that would not be quite so accommodating with the hopeful narratives. This was a legitimate heavyweight through the first 3 months of the campaign, and therefore Carolina was going to be prepared and ready to force the Cowboys into deeper waters to see if this team can swim.
The results were ugly and on display for the football world to see.
The conclusion was another Thanksgiving rout by the road team - now 3 of the last 4 years where the holiday showcase was a laugher before the halftime show could play to a lifeless Death Star. In 2012, Washington held a 28-3 lead at the half. In 2014, the Eagles had the Cowboys down 23-7. And this year, the Cowboys might have been fortunate that it wasn't worse than 23-3 at the half. When you add up those 6 quarters of football and see a score-line of 74-13, you don't even know where to begin and how to analyze it. This goes for writers and broadcasters, but I imagine the same is true for players and coaches even more. There is just something about this holiday that is causing the Cowboys to look horrendous in the big NFC showdowns.
One theory, of course, is the health of Tony Romo - as if the guy didn't already have enough arrows being shot at him. In 2014, in the debacle against the Eagles that ended up being just a mere speedbump on the way to a great season, he looked out of sorts all day and much of it was explained by the fact he did not take a pain-killing shot to deal with his back injury and also with the short week just couldn't get his body into form for the quick turnaround that a 4-day break allows.
That theory might hold water when you group it with 2015. In this game, before it seemed evident that Tony Romo tried to return too quickly and now is lost for the entirety of the season as he looks like the clavicle/collarbone injury of September has happened again (like Sam Bradford in 2009 at Oklahoma), Romo looked again like just a poor replica of what he normally offers.
This time, though, it appeared to be his mental sharpness, which he would admit to at the podium in one of the more difficult-to-view press briefings of the season as Romo made himself available to publicly admit to being the target of blame for the mess. He talked about his mental acuity and the difficulty of just getting his mind to fire off the right conclusions in that moment that a QB must to see coverages and openings in the proper amount of time and then to take action as someone is trying to bear down on you. To make matters more difficult, he is trying to solve those mental problems that NFL defenses create in a moment, while trying to trust his protection, all the while knowing in the back of his head that if he takes one hit in just the right way, he will re-break what took months to mend.
What the Cowboys QB did was an admirable attempt to save a season that was already a disaster in so many ways. He tried to hurry back and then put the weight of the world on his hopeful shoulders (and collarbone) and attempt to carry this wounded animal of a franchise to the promised land of training camp.
If anyone needed to know how that would work, they only needed to view the first 60 seconds of Thursday's game. With the kickoff around 3:30pm local time, the Panthers were on the board by 3:34pm without ever taking an offensive snap. On a 3rd and 6, Romo looked for Witten over the middle and missed the safety coming from the opposite direction and the more appealing option out on the right side with Terrance Williams and hit Kurt Coleman who then returned the takeaway all the way to the end zone.
It required less than a minute of the sixty to put the Panthers ahead - which has been the story of their season and the opposite being the story of the Cowboys' year. Playing from behind constantly, turning the ball over too much, and of course, allowing another defensive touchdown for the opponent to make matters worse.
From there, the Cowboys would spend the next 59 minutes doing exactly the opposite of what they could afford to do by playing uphill, not being able to run the ball (on four of the next six drives, the Cowboys would start each drive with a negative run or, even worse, yet another interception), and committing turnovers.
Then, on only their 2nd chance of the 2nd half, Romo's 2015 would end. He would get hit by linebacker Thomas Davis on a sack that did not appear overly severe. But, severe wasn't required, as Romo's mended injury had not mended enough and he lay on the field at Cowboys Stadium looking at the roof yet again, clutching his shoulder. He was wincing in pain, angry at the depressing idea of going back to the start of another recovery period, and knowing the season was down the drain for good.
He wasn't himself on this day. His mind nor his body. And, because the injury gods are neither fair nor just, Romo has been lost again for an extended period of time. This, of course, is not only a depressing personal event, but it sinks the entire franchise into a phase that can only be described as an extended 2016 preseason.
This proud Dallas Cowboys organization is left playing out the string in a year where they seemed to believe they would return to the Super Bowl. This will not be that magical year.
Which leads to an even more depressing possibility, where we wonder whether we have witnessed the end of an era. And that doesn't mean that Tony Romo will not return, but it will close the door on the "Tony Romo is the only option" era, and honestly, it is difficult to argue with that conclusion.
In the last 24 months, Romo has missed an enormous amount of action - the 2013 season finale with the division title on the line against the Eagles, a couple back procedures, a start in 2014, and now 12 starts in 2015 with 2 issues with his collarbone. This, of course, is just the last 24 months, and not the many other injuries in his decade of service that has clearly taken a toll. You can actually see him trying to mentally adjust to his fall to insure he doesn't fall on a bad part of his body. The trouble is, with each passing season, there are fewer places to land on his body that are still healthy.
He is a fabulous QB who has played some of the best football in his career in the last few years, but the timing of figuring out the game mentally while having much left of your body physically is an intersection that so many Quarterbacks reach at the latest stage of their run. It is safe to assume the end of his best is near, regardless of the brave face and optimism of training camps past or future.
It is also safe to assume that the Cowboys make a move in the offseason to begin to prepare for this transition to the next guy. It doesn't have to be 2016, but it might be. And they cannot come into another year as ill prepared to not have #9 as they have been this year. Nor can they ask him to come in on a horse and save a smoldering mess with seven weeks to play. Some of us didn't want to bet against him pulling off a fantastic conclusion to the year, but the odds were stacked against the Cowboys when they lost seven straight without him.
And there is so much more than him to the curtains falling on any remaining hope.
Dez Bryant hasn't looked the same since his injury. Yes, there have been flashes of hope, but for the most part, he has not been capable of taking over games like the familiar #88 has been so often. That broken foot certainly played its part.
The defense, despite all of its apparent roster improvements, has now secured the dubious record of the worst year in franchise history for "games with zero takeaways" as they completed their seventh yesterday. The previous high, in 55 years of football was six, but with a month to play, they have blown that number out of the water. You combine that number with the fact that the offense has been overly generous and you have this crazy stat: the Cowboys have 7 takeaways this season, while generating five giveaways that were returned for touchdowns.
The offensive line with the labeling that comes with greatness was being discussed as the best line in football and hopeful of being one of the best of all time. So much of their season was predicated on a fit QB1 to help them replicate their 2014, but the running game has been wildly inconsistent, the pass protection below standard, and the number of penalties over the course of the season has sabotaged many a drive.
The front office bet heavily on not needing a better backup-QB. I wonder what the record might be if they had Matt Cassel all spring and summer as his play has been an improvement over Brandon Weeden. I believe they know they messed up, given how quickly they made a trade to try to upgrade from Weeden the moment Romo was hurt in Philadelphia back in September. If you first instinct is to upgrade from Weeden when you realize he has to play, then you should have done it in May.
They also bet heavily on Joseph Randle and I don't believe elaboration is required on that front. They knew he was daft and irresponsible, but they gave him even a bigger role.
Then, they bet heavily on Greg Hardy. The quality is there, but the consistency has waned since the photographs of his incident were released. Either way, it is hard to say that they won that hand, either. In fact, it is also hard to say they want to sign up for a further relationship with the man moving forward. My current guess is that they will not.
And, then we move to the coaching staff and Jason Garrett. Risk averse and stubborn to a fault, they were asked to create something out of very difficult circumstances. Even yesterday, they were going to need to roll the dice a bit to try to create an advantage in a game where they may have been talent deficient. Instead, they kick a Field Goal on 4th and Goal from the 3 yard line in the 1st Quarter, and an inexplicable field goal in the 3rd Quarter to cut the score only slightly to 23-6. In both cases, you need to go for those if you plan on winning a "must-win" game. Instead, they play it safe and see hopes go down the drain.
The targets are many. The wins are few. Such is the reality of a lost season and an injured star QB. The mourning period is underway and the funeral will be five rather meaningless games - unless draft position is considered.
Thanksgiving is dropping in the holiday rankings in Dallas, Texas.