ARLINGTON — The problem with being your best regardless of circumstance, the danger of playing hard week in and week out with nothing at stake is that a team can stumble into an inopportune victory.
Don’t worry. The Cowboys weren’t impulsive, efficient or good enough to compromise their draft status with something as foolish as a win in the regular-season finale.
A miserable season ended on a fitting note Sunday afternoon as Washington beat Dallas 34-23. The latest loss at AT&T Stadium ensures the Cowboys own the No. 4 pick in the April draft. Tennessee and Cleveland are the only teams to finish with fewer victories than the Cowboys this season.
“I’m just really taken aback by the fact that we’re sitting here with four wins after this year,” owner Jerry Jones said of his team’s 4-12 record. “This was never anticipated.”
Only two Cowboys teams have finished with more losses than this star-crossed bunch. The eight-game drop from 2014 is easily the largest one-season decline in franchise history.
“I thought we did one of the best offseason jobs of addressing our needs and really acquiring some serious talent where we had the most need,” Jones said.
“Last year, you guys [media] made me the Executive of the Year. This year I think I’m on my way out. And I had it figured the other way. I thought last year was going to be the exit strategy.”
How bad did it get?
Let us count the ways.
The Cowboys haven’t won a game at AT&T Stadium since they beat the New York Giants in the season opener. The seven-game losing streak at home is the second longest in franchise history.
The defense forced a franchise-low 11 turnovers this season. That equals an NFL record of futility shared by the Baltimore Colts (’82) and Houston Texans (’13).
“The season sucked,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “You’ve got to win to be relevant, so we didn’t win enough.”
The Cowboys did end a five-game streak of being held to less than 20 points.
But the 275 points the offense scored is its lowest total in 13 years. Dallas finished with 26 touchdowns, tying for the third lowest total in franchise history.
“It’s probably as difficult of a season as we’ve been a part of,” tight end Jason Witten said.
Head coach Jason Garrett escaped the shackles of three consecutive 8-8 records last season by presiding over a 12-4 team. Following that up with 4-12 shows he’s inexorably drawn to .500.
“We all have to be accountable for it,” Garrett said. “We’re all a part of it. We all own it.
“No one owns it more than I do.”
It was clear from the start that the Cowboys weren’t about to reverse their fortunes against Washington.
Kellen Moore, who finished with 435 yards passing, threw an interception on the team’s second possession. He fumbled the snap from center the next time he took the field.
Dallas trailed 21-0 entering the second quarter and never drew closer than 10 points the rest of the afternoon.
Receiver Terrance Williams, who more than doubled his best output of the season with 173 receiving yards on eight receptions, stopped rookie Lucky Whitehead in the tunnel leading to the Cowboys locker room after the game.
“We’re going to be back next year,” Williams told Whitehead. “This is going to make us stronger.”
Garrett said afterward that a team must be built the right way to overcome the adversities that are thrown its way over the course of a season. These Cowboys weren’t built to succeed.
“We’re not that team,” defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford maintained. “We have too much talent on this team to only have four wins.
“It’s just unacceptable and we have to do a lot better.”
Injuries to receiver Dez Bryant and quarterback Tony Romo began this unexpected turn of events. But this season exposed a number of deficiencies.
“We all know that we’re short fundamentally,” Jones said. “We’re short on execution. We’re short in many ways of where we should be, not just at quarterback, but we’re short.
“Can we correct that and is it possible to do that within this offseason? It is possible to do.
“Yes. Yes. And we intend to go for it and try.”
The fans: Down
Yes, it’s been a miserable season for the Cowboys. Fans have been forced to generate their own entertainment and excitement in most games at AT&T Stadium. But starting the Wave while Washington’s Dashaun Phillips lies motionless on the field before he’s carted off the field on a stretcher is the epitome of poor taste.
Team first: Up
Sean Lee stood to earn a $2 million bonus if he took part in roughly half of the defensive snaps in Sunday’s game. But the linebacker told Jason Garrett before the game his hamstring didn’t feel right and he’d be unable to play. A lot of players talk about putting the team over themselves. Lee is one of the few who shows it in such dramatic fashion.
First impression: Down
The final margin wasn’t obscene. But when a team goes into a game with nothing at stake, what happens in the first quarter tells you if they’re ready to play. Dallas wasn’t. A team that allowed only 45 points combined in the first quarter of the first15 games found themselves down 21-0 entering the second quarter of this one.