IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys, both old and new, said their goodbyes to Texas Stadium.
And likely most, if not all, of the coaching staff did also as the Dallas season took an abrupt and ugly turn Saturday night in the form of a 33-24 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
Dallas was inept on offense for the better part of four quarters. When its offense finally did wake up, the defense turned horrid, giving up touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards in the final four minutes. In short, this game was an implosion on a night when it was supposed to be part of a celebration.
Baltimore (10-5) turned Dallas owner Jerry Jones' hope for a homecoming event into a wake. It was Jones who, according to stories going around the NFL, requested of the league that Baltimore be the visiting team in this game rather than one of the "tougher" teams such as the New York Giants, Philadelphia or Washington.
But by the end, Jones was gripped with quiet anger as he watched the final two minutes tick away. So much so that when a friend tried to console him, Jones walked away, preferring to find any spot of solitude in the cavernous home of some of the NFL's greatest moments and teams.
Jones now has some big issues to deal with as he prepares to move the Cowboys into their new palace of a stadium in Arlington. Try opening up a new stadium with the likes of Wade Phillips as head coach after what has happened this season. The speculation is also rampant that Jones will pay good friend and Seattle coach Mike Holmgren plenty of money to take over after Holmgren finishes his contract at the end of the season.
All of that was set into serious motion Saturday night when the Ravens tossed a stinkbomb into the homecoming dance.
"I guess it wasn't a homecoming," said running back Willis McGahee, who broke the 77-yard touchdown run with 3:32 remaining to keep the Ravens up by two scores and keep the Cowboys at bay. "It was a mock funeral. We spoiled their day."
Or as Baltimore wide receiver Mark Clayton said, "Happy homecoming to them."
The Cowboys (9-6) are now at the mercy of other teams losing in addition to Dallas having to win at Philadelphia to close the season. That game should be a brutal affair mentally.
Even assuming the best, it will take a miracle for the Cowboys and Jones to bring back a coaching staff that has been unable to guide a star-studded roster. The most telling moment of the night may have been watching Phillips hurry out of the stadium as the rest of the organization's management was on the field celebrating the final game at the stadium where the likes of Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin won titles.
Phillips looked like the guy who'd just said something really inappropriate at the party and was looking for a quick way to get out.
What was really inappropriate is that a team that had spent so much to keep players such as quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Terrell Owens, tight end Jason Witten and even keep offensive coordinator Jason Garrett from taking a job elsewhere scored 10 points over the first 56 minutes of the game.
While the Cowboys were playing one of the NFL's top defenses, Dallas has what's supposed to be one of the league's great offenses. Yet that group has played inconsistently at best over the past three games, losing at Pittsburgh, squeaking by against the Giants and then making only a late showing against Baltimore.
"I just think that we have played some great defenses," Romo said, coming up with a pretty lame excuse right from the start.
This is the same Romo who missed one long throw after another in the first half and who couldn't find a way to get the ball to Witten in the middle, Dallas' bread-and-butter play.
While Owens gets some of the blame for the problems with the failure of the deep game, Romo often looked like he was throwing to no one in particular or simply was missing.
By comparison, Baltimore was hitting on one big moment after another. Aside from the two big runs at the end by McGahee and Le'Ron McClain, the Ravens got four field goals from Matt Stover and set up their first touchdown with a well-executed fake field goal as they caught Dallas in a bad alignment.
Flacco, who joined Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger as the only rookie starting quarterbacks to beat the Cowboys in Texas Stadium, didn't just hit Mason. He hit the hurting Mason in about the only spot Mason could catch the ball. As Mason ran patterns throughout the game, it was obvious he couldn't pump his left arm, which he dislocated earlier in the season and reinjured early in the game.
"You don't realize how much you need your arms for running until you can't use them," Mason said.
Mason also can't raise his left arm, meaning that when Flacco throws to him, the ball had better be below Mason's shoulder. Flacco did just that on the touchdown play, finding Mason in the left corner of the end zone.
All of that left first-year Baltimore coach John Harbaugh overwhelmed after the game.
"What'd you think of that?" Harbaugh said, rhetorically, after his team came within a victory over Jacksonville in the season finale of getting into the playoffs.
Again, that's a matter of perspective.
And the perspective from Dallas' side couldn't be much worse.
- the Cowboys