It was the best of times (for some). It was the worst of times (for them).
And so it ends. In a few days hence, just like that, the clock strikes midnight, Dec. 31, 2009, and the first decade of the 21st Century draws to an end.
It came in like a lion, with the threat of worldwide computer failure—the presumed result of the Y2K bug that so many experts feared would cripple the computers of the world, impacting everything from drinking water to banking systems. (Of course, the whole thing was much ado about nothing.)
It came in like a lion, as just one year into the decade, on the 11th day of the ninth month, terror struck at the heart of America. No one would ever utter the phrase 9/11 the same way again.
And now, with Congress locked in what seems an interminable debate over health care reform, with the economy stuck in the deep freeze of recession, with the election of the first black president and the declaration of Camelot II already losing its luster...this decade goes out like a lamb, slipping into the vault of human history, waiting its turn to be prodded, analyzed, labeled, and forever put on the shelf—another volume in the ever-expanding library of Father Time.
But what, you ask, of the NFL?
For the National Football League, the 2000s (old timers would call this decade The Aughts) will be remembered as the decade of dominance. The league took center stage on the American sports scene, easily outdistancing Major League Baseball to become America’s new pastime.
Glorious new stadiums rose like mighty Sphinxes from the earth to be filled to the brim and boiling over with fans eager to spend their disposable income—and their children’s inheritance, if need be—to be entertained by the American Gladiators, otherwise known as NFL players.
The team of the decade? The New England Patriots, of course.
For the Patriots, it was the best of times. They became the second team to win three Super Bowls in four years. They became the first NFL team to finish the regular season 16–0. They came within a miraculous Eli Manning-led drive of becoming only the second team in history to log an undefeated season, capped with the Super Bowl championship. Under the guidance of the derelict-looking genius head coach—and known cheater—Bill Belichick, the Patriots put together as good a decade as any team ever did.
But what, you wonder, of the Dallas Cowboys?
Ah, now we get to the meat of this New Year’s Eve dinner. You waded through this lengthy introduction to get down to the nitty gritty: How about them Cowboys?
Unfortunately, my anxious friend with the quiver in your voice and the gleam of hope in your eye, for your Cowboys, the Aughts (OK, the 2000s) were the worst of times.
Any way you slice it, the fifth decade of the NFL’s flagship franchise was as forgettable as a Friday night at home. It was far and away the worst decade in team history. Not a single Lombardi Trophy was added to the collection at Valley Ranch. In fact, there was not so much as a playoff victory to add to team lore.
The decade began with a volatile little madman named Dave Campo ranting and raving on the sideline and will conclude with the docile, doughy, take-it-all-in-stride Wade Phillips wandering aimlessly through another so-so season, all while relishing moral victories and congratulating his team on "fighting hard."
Sandwiched between them was the football genius—if you don’t believe me on the "genius" part, ask him or anyone from New Jersey—Bill Parcells, doing his dead-level best to maneuver around the interferences of Jerry Jones to return the franchise to its rightful place of football glory.
Parcells failed to manage glory, but he did at least restore a level of respectability and left in his wake a roster many describe as being “as talented as any team in football.” (Maybe they are. If so, what a sad indictment on the whole team, from management to coaching to the players on the field. Such underachievement.)
I see the doubt on your face. You just cannot believe that, as bad as it was, this was the worst decade in team history. Fine. I will break it down, decade by decade.
Are your sitting down? Here goes…
Coach: Tom Landry
Record: 67 – 65 – 6
Winning Percentage: 50.7%
Playoffs: Four times
Remember now, this decade includes the birth of the franchise—and that first 0-11-1 season of theirs. The Cowboys did not even have the benefit of a draft their first year but were forced to pick up the castoffs and leftovers from the established franchises in order to field a team.
Still, with the steady hand of the fedora-topped Tom Landry at the helm, the Cowboys would play in their first Conference championship game in 1966. They would make the Conference championship again in 1967 and would make the divisional round in ’68 and ’69.
Coach: Tom Landry
Record: 105 – 39 – 0
Winning Percentage: 75.9%
Playoffs: NINE times!
The 1970s Dallas Cowboys were as much the team of the decade as the Steelers. Their ridiculous winning percentage, their nine trips to the playoffs in those 10 years, their five Super Bowl appearances and two championships all put them in the rarefied air of a true dynasty. The '70s Cowboys were 13-7 in playoff games.
Coaches: Tom Landry, Jimmy Johnson
Record: 79 – 73 – 0
Winning Percentage: 51.9%
Playoffs: Five times
The 1980s saw the ascendancy of Danny White to starting quarterback, due to Roger Staubach’s retirement after the ’79 season. The decade also saw the greatest run of winning football in league history finally come to an end, as Landry’s team aged and poor drafts led to the dilution of talent near the end of the decade.
The decade ended with the brash Arkansas wildcatter named Jerry Jones storming into Dallas, buying the team, and summarily firing the greatest—and most revered—legend in the city’s history, Tom Landry. The decade that began with three trips to the NFC championship game would end with Jimmy Johnson cleaning house and going 1-15 in his initial season, featuring, essentially, a bunch of rag-tag vagabonds and a rookie quarterback named Troy Aikman.
Coaches: Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey
Record: 101 – 59 – 0
Winning Percentage: 63.1%
Playoffs: Eight times
The '70s Cowboys can be argued to be one of the teams of that decade, but you might not win the argument if it is conducted against a Steelers fan flashing four Super Bowl rings in your face.
The '90s Cowboys, however, were without question the team of their decade. To that point, no team in modern NFL history had been so dominant. No team had ever won three Super Bowls in four years.
Led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin—the Triplets—that team left an indelible mark on NFL history. They were so good that even a coaching change from Jimmy Johnson to Barry Switzer could not deter them from winning it all.
Coaches: Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips
*Record: 79 – 74 – 0
*Winning Percentage: 51.6%
*Playoffs: Three times
*These figures are through Week 13 of the 2009 season. The Cowboys’ final record and playoff fate is yet to be decided.
In every decade before the 2000s, the Dallas Cowboys contended for multiple championships. In two of those four decades, they won multiple championships. But from the years 2000 to 2009, unless the football gods are crazy or go on extended holiday at this, the end of the ’09 season, the Cowboys will finish having never contended for a single championship. In fact, they have not so much as posted a playoff victory in 13 years.
Before this decade began, Cowboys fans considered the 1980s to be the Dark Ages of team history, with the ultimate demise of the Schramm/Landry regime, and that dreadful 1–15 season at the end of that decade. Compared to the so-so product Jerry Jones and Company have put on the field over the past 10 years, however, the 1980s look like the halcyon days of team history.
Soon it will be New Year’s Eve, and around the world people will raise a glass of Champagne to toast the New Year. Some will drink to remember; others to forget. And then they will sing together that old Scottish refrain…
Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne?
And, if you are a Cowboys fan...and if the “old acquaintance” is The Aughts...the answer will be a resounding “Yes! Let’s forget all about it, the whole thing. Just...forget it.”
And then raise your glass and toast a new year, a new decade, a new head coach, a new direction...and new hope.
Maybe, just maybe, the best of times are yet to come.