OXNARD, Calif. – 8-8 … 8-8 … 8-8 …. Try counting those sheep as you lie in bed at the end of another disappointing, heartbreaking season.
“A lot of sleepless nights,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said about the Cowboys barely missing the playoffs the last three seasons. “A lot of frustrating moments. A lot of what-ifs. It’s the worst feeling in the world in football.”
The last three years ended the same way for the Cowboys. They had a chance to win the NFC East in the last game of the season, playing in the Sunday night contest to end Week 17 each time. They lost to the Giants, Redskins and Eagles for the East trifecta. Each time that dropped the Cowboys final record to 8-8.
“This training camp couldn’t get here fast enough for our football team,” Witten said.
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The annual heartbreaks wouldn’t be easy at any point, but when you’re 32 years old like Witten is, it’s even tougher.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo’s name is synonymous with his lack of playoff success, to the point that everyone can recite the storyline by heart.
“I hope people understand, he puts up 400 yards and they give him all the grief,” NBA great Earvin "Magic" Johnson, a Cowboys and Raiders fan who was here on Tuesday to watch his favorite teams practice, said about Romo. “He can’t also play defense. I’m always defending him and I’m upset when they criticize him.”
Romo’s reputation for coming up short is part of the everyday American lexicon by this point, but Witten is in the same boat. He has played in 175 games, has 879 catches, 9,799 yards and is probably going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday. And in his 11 seasons he has experienced one playoff win, the same amount as his oft-criticized teammate. Witten and Dallas haven’t even been to the playoffs since 2010.
It’s not Witten’s fault (it’s not Romo’s fault either, by the way), but that’s no consolation. Witten is a competitor. He’ll always be known for taking a huge hit against the Eagles and thenrunning about another 30 yards without his helmet in 2007. Or perhaps he’ll be remembered for playing in Dallas’ 2012 season opener just three weeks after suffering a lacerated spleen in a preseason game. And for everything he has put into the game, the payoff in team success has been very little.
“It’s tough. I can’t even put it into words,” Witten. “I love playing football, and the catches or any of that doesn’t really matter because you play to compete for championships. And we haven’t done that. You don’t get bitter over it, because it’s a show-me game and we have to go show it. So my focus is on learning from that.”
There’s not much optimism for the Cowboys in NFL circles this season. That doesn’t really mean anything, but since the Eagles beat Dallas to win the NFC East at the end of last season, there hasn’t been much good news. Romo had back surgery, although he practiced against the Raiders on Tuesday and moved around well. The team lost its three best players off a defense that was already bad, when DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher left via free agency and Sean Lee tore his ACL in a minicamp practice. Then its cornerback depth took a big hit when nickel corner Orlando Scandrick was suspended four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy.
They try to put a happy face on it because what else can they do?
“It’s part of your outlook on life as a person and certainly as a football coach, and it’s what you want to emphasize to your team,” coach Jason Garrett said. "You focus on each and every day and what we need to focus on to be the best. There are a lot of things in this world that can distract us if we take our eye off the ball.”
Witten said he thinks this team, which couldn’t add much in the offseason because of salary-cap issues, can improve. Because what else can he think?
“We still have a long way to go, and obviously it was a tough year across the board, and so much was made of the defense but it’s not just the defense, it’s everybody,” Witten said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’m confident our team can do it.”
The fact is, if the Cowboys do get into the playoffs and win there, they’ll be beating the odds. The Cowboys have become well known for their disappointments, and this season’s roster has real deficiencies. And if this isn’t the year it happens, it’s another year closer to Witten, one of the great tight ends of this era, running out of chances.
Witten is still productive and said he feels good. Tony Gonzalez just had a productive season for Atlanta at age 37 before retiring, so it’s not out of the question Witten could have a handful of good years left too.
“I haven’t really thought beyond this,” Witten said about how many years he thinks he has left. “I take it one year at a time, and I feel good. I think there’s a lot of good football in me, but I’m not looking past 2014.”
We’ll see what this season brings for the Cowboys. No matter the national expectations, the fan base always thinks big. Witten expects big things for the Cowboys too, even if they haven’t happened for him yet.
“Expectations are to compete for championships here, and it’s been that way for a long time,” Witten said. “We haven’t done a good enough job.”
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