The last two decades have largely been a disappointment for a Cowboys franchise that has five Super Bowl rings and two stints as the league's most dominant dynasty in the 1970s and 1990s.
Famously, America's Team hasn't won The Big Game since 1995. Here are eight moments that have shaped the history of the franchise since then:
Sept. 24, 2000: Defending the Star
After the dynastic run through most of the 1990s, the Cowboys were 24-24 over the three seasons from 1999-1999. They were off to a 1-2 start in the 2000 season.
But the iconic Cowboys Star still carried plenty of meaning.
After scoring a touchdown, San Francisco’s 49ers receiver Terrell Owens celebrated a touchdown by running to the star at midfield at Cowboys Stadium. Emmitt Smith did the same thing, emphatically spiking the ball and taking a knee in the middle of the logo.
T.O. scored a second touchdown, and took a second run toward the star. Cowboys safety George Teague wasn’t having any of it, decking Owens as he attempted to spike the ball.
Unfortunately, the 49ers had the last laugh, beating the Cowboys 41-24. Dallas would go on to finish the 2000 season 5-11, but the Teague hit would live on in Cowboys lore.
March 7, 2001: Cowboys waive Troy Aikman
This moment isn’t substantial because it was still Aikman’s time to be the Cowboys starting quarterback. It’s because it ushered in an era of mediocrity at the quarterback position the franchise hadn’t seen in a long time -- if not ever.
Aikman was 34, had had 10 concussions in 12 seasons and was coming off a seven-touchdown, 11-interception season in which he played in only 11 games. But take a look at this list of quarterbacks who played for Dallas in the five years between Aikman and Tony Romo.
• Randall Cunningham (the 37-year-old version, not the effective, late-1980s version)
• Anthony Wright
• Quincy Carter
• Ryan Leaf
• Clint Stoerner
• Chad Hutchinson
• Vinny Testaverde (at age 40)
• Drew Henson
• Drew Bledsoe (at age 33)
Feb. 27, 2003: Cowboys release Emmitt Smith
Four months after Smith broke the career rushing record, the 13-year veteran was released. Smith, then just a few months from turning 34, was owed $7 million in 2003 and the Cowboys parted ways with him.
What had been a position occupied by Hall-of-Famers for decades -- Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker and Smith -- became one of relative futility for Dallas.
Smith rushed for 1,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons, but Dallas had just one 1,000-yard rusher in the 11 years after his release (Julius Jones in 2006). DeMarco Murray, coupled with an influx of young offensive linemen, finally brought a consistent running game back to Dallas in 2013. Ezekiel Elliott’s rookie season resembles Smith in his younger years as a Cowboy.
Emmitt would retire as a Cowboy two years after his release.
Oct. 23, 2006: Tony Romo takes over
A struggling Drew Bledsoe was benched in favor of Romo at halftime of the team’s Week 6 game in 2006, and Bledsoe never threw another pass in the NFL. Romo would embark on a solid run of individual success, but has been criticized for recording just one playoff win.
One of the most talked-about players in the league, Romo has compiled over 34,000 passing yards and 250 total touchdowns as a Cowboy.
Jan. 13, 2008: Cowboys’ season ends on INT
A common criticism of Romo has always been his tendency to throw interceptions at crucial times -- one that is largely unfair, since he’s recorded 25 fourth-quarter comebacks and 30 game-winning drives, the fourth-highest career passer rating in NFL history and one of the best fourth-quarter passer ratings ever.
One crucial interception he won’t be able to escape, though, is the one that ended the Cowboys’ season in 2007-08. They were 13-3 in the regular season and earned a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs (sound familiar?)
But with 16 seconds to go the NFC Divisional round game against the New York Giants, Romo’s fourth-down pass intended for Terry Glenn was picked off by Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters in the end zone.
In the Cowboys’ most successful regular season ever, it was the Giants who would go on to win Super Bowl XLII.
Nov. 8, 2010: Jason Garrett takes over
The Cowboys’ current coach took over for Wade Phillips during a down year in 2010, after three seasons and two playoff appearances under The Son of Bum -- including the aforementioned 13-3 season.
Garrett, who was Troy Aikman’s backup in Dallas and had become an established offensive coordinator, was the Cowboys’ assistant head coach in 2010.
Dallas would be patient with Garrett -- a benefit Phillips didn’t get as he was the first Cowboys coach fired mid-season -- through three 8-8 seasons. That patience has paid off, with a 12-4 season in 2014 and this year’s run to the NFC’s No. 1 seed.
Jan. 11, 2015: The catch that never was
The infamous catch-that-never-was will go down in infamy in the minds of Cowboys fans. Like in the 2007 season, it was a painful ending, but this time it came at the hands of the referees and the NFL rule book.
Down by five points with less than five minutes to go, Romo threw a 31-yard strike to Dez Bryant, who made a leaping grab over Green Bay’s Sam Shields. Lunging toward the pylon while going to the ground, the ball popped loose from Bryant’s grasp.
It was first ruled a catch before being challenged and ultimately overturned.
The NFL rulebook spelled it out. Rule 8. Article 3. Item 1:
Player Going to the Ground: If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass (with or without contact by an opponent) he must maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground.
The no-catch has inspired debate over the league’s definition of a “catch,” but more importantly ended the Cowboys’ most promising run for a Super Bowl since 1995. The team had won a playoff game the week before, and would have likely gained the lead in the final minutes of the Packers game and been poised for an NFC Championship appearance.
April 28, 2016: 2016 NFL Draft
It’s the biggest acquisition of players since the Herschel Walker trade, in which the Cowboys picked up the draft picks that would bring Emmitt Smith and Hall-of-Fame hopeful Darren Woodson to the franchise.
The Cowboys picked Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft, and Dak Prescott with the 135th pick. Elliott led the league in rushing this season, and Dak Prescott’s poise and accuracy have been a revelation since he took over for Romo.
It would be considered a massive success if those were the only two players selected. But, defensive lineman Maliek Collins, who started 14 games this year and played in all 16, and cornerback Anthony Brown, who has made an impact in a banged-up secondary, were also part of the 2016 draft class.
Jaylon Smith, thought to be one of the most talented players in that draft before injury, was the Cowboys’ second-round pick. If he fully recovers and pans out like the team wants him to, we’re talking about one of the most epic drafts in history.
Regardless, the 2016 draft looks like it’ll shape the future for the Cowboys.
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