by Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com contributor
There's no way to sugar coat this, no way to rationalize it, no way to put a positive spin on it. It is one of the most astonishing and colossal collapses we have ever seen in the National Football League.
The Dallas Cowboys, the popular preseason pick to go to the Super Bowl, the most talented team in football, did not make the playoffs. They came to Philadelphia needing just one big game, one total effort from everybody.
They couldn't do it. They couldn't run, couldn't pass, couldn't tackle, couldn't hang onto the football, couldn't keep from making stupid mistakes. For the third time in four December games, the Cowboys lost a game they had to win.
Tony Romo will get a lot of the blame, and with reason. His record in December and January is now 5-10. This is not the stuff of which legends are made. But don't lay it all on No. 9's shoulders. This latest Dallas collapse is the work of the entire organization. Pick out any aspect of the operation - team chemistry, individual effort, coaching, personnel decisions of the front office - and you'll find failure.
When everyone - including your own owner - is saying you have the most talent in the league, you've got to prove it. You've got to go to Philadelphia or anywhere else and at least play a hard, clean game. Maybe you play your heart out and lose on a last-second field goal or a bad break. But you don't go into that situation and get blown out. You don't play so small that the fans need a microscope to find you on the field.
The final score was 44-6. Romo threw one interception, lost the ball twice on fumbles and was sacked four times. There were two more lost fumbles by his teammates. Two of the fumbles were returned a total of 169 yards for touchdowns.
On the plus side, Terrell Owens had six catches for 103 yards.
That's how it is with this dysfunctional bunch of players - you can't call them a team because they don't meet the definition of one - put together by Jerry Jones, the NFL's answer to the George Steinbrenner of 20 years ago. You remember that Steinbrenner. He was the one who thought that the more stars he had on his team, the more championships he'd win. And if he failed one season, he'd make even more stupid personnel decisions in the offseason to set up an even grander failure.
Other teams have had disappointing seasons. Other teams have collapsed. The New Orleans Saints were supposed to be a playoff-caliber team, but they never had a credible defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers totally collapsed in December, but few people thought they were going to play in January anyway. The Chicago Bears fell apart, but they played their hearts out and just didn't have enough on offense to win. The San Diego Chargers, too, were a major disappointment, but even they didn't approach the level of the Cowboys.
The Chargers at least got better as the year went on. The Cowboys got worse. And they saved their worst for last.
Dallas started December by taking a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against the Pittsburgh Steelers and losing by seven. They followed that with a big win against the New York Giants, a win that made people believe the Cowboys could make it all better. But the following week, they gave up two 70-plus-yard touchdown runs to the Baltimore Ravens in the fourth quarter and lost the game. And then they went to Philadelphia and just flat messed the bed.
The official story line on the season is that the Detroit Lions, by going 0-16, established themselves as the worst team in the history of the league. But compared to the Cowboys, the Lions are heroes. They at least played their hearts out every week. Through week after week after depressing week of losing, the Lions players rarely complained, didn't cry to reporters, didn't ask for pity or sympathy or quarter.
Detroit's record of perfect imperfection can't be laid to the players, who did their jobs as well as they could. To them should be nothing but respect. They didn't lose because of lack of effort but because of lack of talent, and that's the front office's fault, not theirs.
But Dallas had it all going for them - great running back, great receivers, great defense, almost-great quarterback. They have the name and the tradition and the national fan base and the national media attention. All they had to do was perform up to their abilities.
When the season began, the Cowboys were the favorites to go to the Super Bowl. That wasn't wishful thinking on the part of the fans. It was the sober judgment of professionals who spend their lives analyzing the game.
Sure, they had some adversity. Romo went down mid-season with a broken finger and they lost some games. But the playoffs were there for the taking once December began. They didn't have to run the table. Two wins in four games would have done it for them.
Instead, they lost three of four, and the final ignominy of the season was the humiliating exercise in self-destruction the Cowboys indulged in on Sunday in Philadelphia.
There were no excuses. Romo was healthy. The weather was balmy. They knew what they had to do.
They put in the effort early on, then imploded in a cascade of mistakes that became an avalanche of Philadelphia points.
And so the Eagles, who always seem to get dumped on by the media, are in the playoffs yet again and the Cowboys are still looking for their first postseason win in more than a decade. It was all there for them and they couldn't grab it.
They didn't just lose, they collapsed like few teams have ever collapsed before. Jerry Jones said last week that he's happy with his coach and his players. After Sunday, even he has to know he's either fooling himself or he's lying.
© 2008 NBC Sports.com
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