It was December 20th, 2008. I was 20 years old. No amount of repression and willful amnesia will make me forget this day.
I walked into the Bonefish Grill in an AFC North city to have dinner with a young woman, who I will affectionately call for literary purposes “The Brunette,” who I thought loved me. In three weeks, she would deploy to the Middle East. For the past three months, she intimated strongly she wanted me there before she left. It gave me hope, much like the hope the Cowboys gave their fans with a 20-8 victory over the division-leading Giants six days earlier.
Yes, it was the last game in Texas Stadium, but I always believed in Tom Landry’s priorities: God, family, football. With this woman, I wanted to raise a family someday, so she qualified in the second category. I could give up football for one night, even if it were such a special night in Cowboys history.
As December 20th crept closer to being today, I sensed I wouldn’t get both victories that night. Either the Cowboys would close out Texas Stadium triumphantly and I would lose the Brunette, or the Cowboys would stumble like Dick Van Dyke over an ottoman and I would gain the Brunette. One or the other. There was no way both losses would occur.
Bonefish Grill’s ambience matched the Cowboys’ postseason prospects. It was dim, yet spatters of candlelight illuminated the way enough to thwart stumbling. A partition separated the bar from the dining hall. Behind the bar, I caught a glimpse of the score. 7-0 Cowboys. Concurrent with that, Halen88 from Youtube fame gave me a call. I explained to him my situation.
“Do you want to sit where you can see the game?” the Brunette offered. Her indifference towards football was evident, but she understood how momentous this night was for Cowboys fans.
“No,” I declined her overly accommodating offer. “I want to spend this night with you.”
How the Cowboys got those 7 points was from a 2-yard Tashard Choice touchdown run. How that scoring play was set up was typical of the ’08 Cowboys. On the opening possession, Romo threw a deep pass to Roy E. Williams that Ed Reed picked off at Baltimore’s 8 yard line. Two plays later, DeMarcus Ware earned his 20th and final sack of the season, stripping the rookie Joe Flacco. Greg Ellis recovered the fumble at the 4. Three plays later, the Cowboys were up 7-0.
On the Ravens’ next possession, their starting field position was their own 14. However, 41 yards worth of Dallas penalties helped the Ravens’ 43 yards of offense turn into 3 points. After one quarter, the Cowboys had every reason to be optimistic with a 7-3 score and a 29-yard burst by Tashard Choice. The running game was coming alive.
The Ravens offense began the quarter with a fumble out of bounds, a portent of missed opportunities to come. The Ravens managed to get to the Cowboys 11 and kick a successful field goal. Though 7-6 Cowboys, for all intents and purposes, the game was tied. In watching the replays of the encounter, you just get the feeling all the Cowboys offense needed was one big play to convert these yards into points. The defense was holding up its end of the bargain.
After the second Ravens field goal, the Cowboys and Ravens each had 3 possessions. The Ravens’ third possession was the final of the half, and they used it again to put three points on the board. With the Cowboys offense getting big plays but not getting consistent yards, it was evident the Ravens were playing a game of attenuation. As long as they could keep adding points while preventing the Cowboys from matching, as they had with Ed Reed’s second Romo interception to set up the Ravens’ third field goal of the night, the margin would increase and the panic button would be pressed.
That’s why the opening possession of the second half was critical. It was 9-7 Ravens. They had the ball. Maybe the Cowboys could afford another field goal. A touchdown would bring the Ravens up 9 points and might cause Garrett to abandon the run, a sin he had habitually committed in 2008. Thankfully, the Ravens got nothing out of their first possession but 5 Cowboys penalty yards. Sadly, the Cowboys only got 9 yards the next possession and were forced to punt.
Romo’s relationship with Jessica Simpson and his playoff bye week trip to Cabo the previous season cast him as a scapegoat for Dallas’ ills. His performance against the Ravens was average, but could be explained simply by his injured back. Giants defensive end Renaldo Wynn smashed Romo’s back the previous week, and it clearly was giving the quarterback problems.
Though the Ravens weren’t able to do much on their next possession, neither were the Cowboys. It was their second 3-and-out of the quarter.
What hurt more than the Ravens starting at the Dallas 37 and going up 16-7 the next possession was the fact it could have been aborted. On the Ravens’ second play, DeMarcus Ware forced a Le’Ron McClain fumble. Ken Hamlin dove on the ball. He had it! But when he rolled over onto his back, the momentum knocked the ball free. Derrick Mason recovered the fumble and then received the 13-yard touchdown five plays later.
To Garrett’s credit, he kept a balanced attack after the Ravens pulled ahead by 9 points. He called five runs and five passes. The eleventh play of the drive on 3rd and 1 at the Baltimore 16 was the most dubious. Romo lateralled the ball to Tashard Choice right out of bounds. It was a missed opportunity, and the Cowboys had to settle for a 35-yard field goal. The Cowboys now only needed a touchdown to regain the lead. The Ravens extended that margin back to 9 points with a field goal the very next drive.
With 6:30 left in the final contest at Texas Stadium, the Cowboys offense finally got its act together. They put together and 8-play, 70-yard drive that ended in a Terrell Owens touchdown. The score was 19-17 Ravens with only 3:50 left. All the Dallas defense needed to do was get the ball back, which nearly happened with a Yamon Figurs fumble on the return. In an interesting play with irony, Darren Stone, who was signed earlier in the season to replace injured safety Roy Williams, made a play in Texas Stadium at last — he was a Baltimore Raven. Still, the wheels were coming off.
We all had our eyes on the wrong vehicle.
On the very first play, Willis McGahee, the laughingstock runningback who thought he was too good for Buffalo, busted a 77-yard run straight up the middle and took it to the end zone to put the Ravens ahead by 9 again.
The good news, if there were any, was it only took 18 seconds and there was still 3:32 left in the match. The Cowboys had all three timeouts, and they didn’t use a one of them on their impending drive. Only the two-minute warning expired as the drive culminated in a 21-yard touchdown to Jason Witten, who took such a shot he rolled his ankle and could barely make it off the field under his own power.
With 1:33 left, the Cowboys had all three of their timeouts and the Ravens backed up at their own 18. A three-and-0ut would give the Cowboys the ball back with around a minute remaining. That’s all the time Romo and company would need. After all, they had scored 14 points against one of the toughest defenses in the NFL. In 2008, no one scored 14 points in 4:36 on the Ravens defense, and no one scored 14 points on them in the 4th quarter.
Such dreams of getting the ball back and Nick Folk kicking the game-winning field goal were just like my getting together with the Brunette that night: dreams. The nightmare became a reality when the Ravens handed the ball to Le’Ron McClain and sam linebacker Anthony Spencer broke contain and dipped inside, freeing McClain for a good burst off right tackle where he ran away with the night.
All of the air went straight through the roof of Texas Stadium and out into the cosmos.
In the aftermath was when I tuned in to the Week 16 Saturday contest. The Brunette had rejected me, and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life, even though I was only 20 years old. I loved her so much, and how she could reject such passionate devotion was beyond understanding. It’s probably the same disbelief the Cowboys legends standing in the tunnel waiting to begin the closing ceremonies were feeling watching the current Cowboys slouch their way through the final game, which unto itself held great significance to the season. A playoff berth was on the line!
There was no way I could lose in both departments this night. For my psyche and my heart, I needed a win somewhere. Much to my horror and sorrow, there were no wins for me to find on December 20th, 2008. I saw the 33-24 score with 1:18 remaining and knew it was all over. Romo couldn’t complete a pass, and he and Flozell Adams were causing pre-snap penalties.
Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, and other legends from the 1971 Cowboys, the first team to play in Texas Stadium, who routed the New England Patriots 44-21 in its inaugural game, couldn’t have foreseen their posterity choking away the last game in this most hesitant and unresolved of fashions. The loss to the Ravens ruined the postgame festivities. Though the rest of the Cowboys legends smiled, waved, and used as much visual pablum as possible, there was great disgust and disappointment in the current state of the franchise and the current team. They had lost their direction and purpose, and it all culminated the next week in a 44-6 brutalization to the Eagles the next week.
I never won the Brunette, just as the Cowboys have never won against the Ravens. I’ve moved on from her, met a marvelous, regal woman three and a half years later, effectively giving up ever winning the Brunette back. However, the Cowboys have to face the Ravens once every four years. They can’t keep giving up each time. Let’s hope our Cowboys finally get the job done this Sunday and don’t have to wait ’til after the Rio de Janeiro Olympics for another shot.