Boxing and History

Mike McCarthy Gave Us Permission to Talk Playoffs, So Let’s Do It

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I had a stomach bug on Saturday. More than likely, I got it from my daughter, who got it from someone in her pre-K class since, on Thursday, three students—including her—went home early. I spent all day in bed, and I didn’t consume anything besides two pieces of toast and about a liter of ginger ale. Sunday morning, feeling a lot better but still scarred by what I experienced the day before, I had a plain bagel for breakfast and about a dozen saltine crackers for lunch.

It was probably the two most uneventful days of eating that I’ve ever had, especially for a weekend. And yet, rather than craving some chicken wings—which, only a few days ago, I had planned to eat during the Cowboys game—feeling and staying better was more important than anything else. Overall, it was a very uneventful weekend, which matched what the Cowboys delivered against the Giants.

I don’t want to say that I knew the Cowboys would win. The opponent was still an NFC East rival, who, judging by a few almost-fights, still dislike each other. But it was also a last-place team whose starting quarterback is Mike Glennon, and barring something catastrophic, the Cowboys were almost assured a playoff spot even if they lost. Besides, heading into Sunday, getting to the top spot in the conference felt like a small possibility. The Cowboys needed the top three teams to lose at least once—twice, in some cases. Sunday’s win felt more like a chance to try to fix whatever’s broken, maintain whatever’s working, and remain as healthy as possible.

All of that happened, some to a larger extent than others. And now that the Cowboys have won 10 games, Mike McCarthy has given us permission to finally talk about the playoffs—even though we were already talking about them. But now we can officially do it without McCarthy getting mad or whatever else would have happened. There’s still three games left in the season, but with the Cowboys getting close to winning their division (they’ll clinch the NFC East if Washington loses or ties Philadelphia on Tuesday) and this being the last time I write about the Cowboys until the new year, it feels like a good place to start the transition in the Dallas Cowboys fan experience.

Outside of just the entirely dreadful seasons—like last year, or, prior to that, the years when we hoped Matt Cassel, not Bill Belichick, was the reason the Tom Brady-less Patriots won 11 games—most Cowboy seasons follow a similar script. There’s the preseason cautious optimism of, “Well, if they don’t suffer any injuries and everyone plays as well as they can, then maybe they can win their division, and once in the playoffs, anything can happen.” After that—and the order of these is interchangeable—it’s, “Oh, wow, they’re actually better than I thought,” or, “Oh, wow, nothing has changed, I hope by some miracle Jerry Jones sells the team so it can all get rebuilt.”

As much as they’re talked about, the Cowboys don’t actually make the playoffs that often—or at least, not as often as we’d like. They’ve gone twice in the previous six seasons—half as many appearances as the Houston Texans, who are largely irrelevant in the best of times and downright dreadful in the worst (right now). Go back further, and the Cowboys have only reached the postseason three times in 11 years. This side of the 1990s Super Bowl teams, the Cowboys have been a perfectly mediocre franchise with great marketing. 

And yet, because this is football in Texas and they are the Dallas Cowboys, that still, for better or worse, means something. Those five Super Bowl trophies cast a long shadow, even if an entire generation of fans wasn’t alive the last time this team won a championship. And so, whenever the Cowboys do make the playoffs, we often struggle between the competing emotions that come from thinking “Yes! This is finally the year,” and/or “Oh, no, I’m too deep into this to avoid getting hurt.” 

As of today, I’m feeling more of the former. Maybe I’m just feeling a natural optimism that comes from recuperating after spending all Saturday in bed. Maybe the optimism comes from remembering where we were a year ago. Last year, after week 15, the Cowboys were 5–9, and now, at 10–4, it feels like everything about this team has changed even if little else in our world has. That’s not to say there aren’t areas that need cleaning up. But I’m feeling optimistic because there isn’t an NFC team that’s a clear favorite. Not Arizona, who just lost to the worst team in the league. Not Tampa Bay, who just got shut out at home by the same New Orleans team the Cowboys soundly beat three weeks ago. Not Green Bay who barely beat a Baltimore team without its starting quarterback. 

The Cowboys are in a good place simply by winning in what felt, to me, almost a given against the Giants. And for that, with a few games left in the season, and the Cowboys all but assured a playoff spot, I’m feeling optimistic. Maybe by the time I write another Cowboys column, that’ll change. Maybe I’ll see another missed extra point from Greg Zuerlein and revert to pessimism, remembering how horrible it feels to lose in the playoffs because of a missed kick. But right now, when we can finally start talking about playoffs, there isn’t a team the Cowboys can’t beat.