FRISCO, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys wind down their preparation for Saturday’s wild-card matchup against the Seattle Seahawks, it is appropriate to remember the only other time these franchises met in the playoffs and how a matter of seconds can change everything.
Maybe it is not funny ha-ha, but funny in that so many things could be remembered so differently.
Jan. 6, 2007, was a pivotal day in the history of the Cowboys. It has not necessarily scarred the franchise, but it led to so many what-ifs.
On that night in Seattle, everything was ahead of the Cowboys. They had a future Hall of Fame coach. They found their franchise quarterback seven games into the season. They had a future Hall of Fame wide receiver. They had a future Hall of Fame tight end. They had a young defense with a future Hall of Fame pass-rusher.
With 1 minute, 19 seconds to play, Martin Gramatica came on for a 19-yard field-goal attempt that would have given the Cowboys a 23-21 lead against the Seahawks.
Everybody knows what happened: Tony Romo dropped the snap, scrambled toward the end zone and was stopped for no gain. The Cowboys lost 21-20. Devastation was felt in every corner of the locker room.
But what if Romo doesn’t bobble the hold, Gramatica makes the kick and the Cowboys win?
Romo’s legacy would be so much different. He would have had a playoff victory in his first try against the defending NFC champion.
Every year since the snap, the play is shown over and over. It's the agony-of-defeat memory of the Jerry Jones era, the way Jackie Smith’s drop in Super Bowl XIII is the agony-of-defeat memory of the Tom Landry era.
It doesn't matter that Romo went on to become the franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns. It doesn’t matter that he won more than he lost, that he played hurt more than he should have, that he carried teams to wins.
The snap is remembered most.
“That offseason, Tony called me like three, four times about it and we ended being at the Pro Bowl and one night for about 20 minutes, we sat down, and he apologized,” said L.P. Ladouceur, the Cowboys' long-snapper then and the only player remaining from that game on the Dallas roster today. “You could tell he cared so much about it. ... He’s so much more than that. He played for another 10 years after that and he played at a really high level. Sometimes little snags, little bumps in the road can create a lot more, right?”
The Seattle loss was the final game Bill Parcells coached. As he sat on the flight home from that game, he knew he was done, unable to summon the strength to go through the process of getting a team ready for a season even though the Cowboys had all of the pieces to be a contender.
Parcells has long thought if the Cowboys had beaten Seattle, they would have gone on to beat the Chicago Bears, quarterbacked by Rex Grossman, in the divisional round. An NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints would have been difficult, especially after Sean Payton’s team whipped the Cowboys 42-17 in the regular season, but this was Parcells and a staff filled with future head coaches, so anything was possible.
Even if the Cowboys had not reached the Super Bowl, would a playoff run have convinced Parcells to come back for another season?
The 2007 Cowboys finished 13-3 under Parcells’ replacement, Wade Phillips. They had the best record in the NFC but lost in the divisional round to the New York Giants. Perhaps the Cowboys would not have been as successful in the regular season under the grind of Parcells, but they surely would not have treated the bye week of the playoffs as vacation time. And we’re talking more than Romo, Jason Witten and Bobby Carpenter going to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
In the years Romo was the starter, the collection of talent in 2007 was the Cowboys' best. They had 13 Pro Bowlers: Flozell Adams, Marion Barber, Leonard Davis, Greg Ellis, Nick Folk, Andre Gurode, Ken Hamlin, Terence Newman, Terrell Owens, Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Roy Williams and Witten.
Parcells made the Hall of Fame without a third Super Bowl and his legacy is firmly cemented as one of the game’s greatest coaches, but another championship with a different franchise would have separated him from other greats.
And how would a third Super Bowl reflect on Jones? He has been starving for a Super Bowl since 1995. To many, the Super Bowls of the 1990s were a reflection on Jimmy Johnson. Jones took a gamble when he hired Parcells in 2003, in part to get a new stadium built in Arlington, Texas, and in part to restore a franchise that had fallen on hard times with three consecutive 5-11 finishes.
Jones was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2017 without a fourth Super Bowl, but certainly another championship would have taken away the criticisms of the post-Johnson seasons.
This is what the 2018 Cowboys are about to walk into Saturday night.
A lot of them have a taste of the frustration from the 2016 divisional-round loss to the Green Bay Packers. Some of them figured that 13-3 season was undoubtedly the beginning of an eventual run to a Super Bowl, but they missed the playoffs in 2017 and were 3-5 at the midway point of this season.
“It’s hard to make the playoffs in the NFL, so I mean, that’s what makes the moment that much more important,” Ezekiel Elliott said.
It’s even harder to win in the playoffs.
The 2006 Cowboys found that out in the cruelest of ways.