FRISCO, Texas -- A little more than 10 hours after the Dallas Cowboys' plane landed at DFW International Airport on Saturday night, the locker room opened to the media for the final time in the 2018-19 season.
A handful of players trickled in, shoveling cleats, T-shirts, shorts and sneakers into gray trash bags. Some others stood by the equipment room, watching the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Chargers. Others prepped for meetings with Jason Garrett, their position coaches and the medical and equipment staffs.
The disappointment of the 30-22 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round felt as fresh as it did after the game Saturday.
“We had no plan for any meeting [Sunday],” coach Jason Garrett said after the game. “We had a plan to get ready to go play in the NFC Championship game.”
But the Cowboys’ run defense wilted against the Rams, giving up a franchise-playoff-record 273 yards, with C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley each going for more than 100 yards. The Dallas offense could not keep pace, converting just one of 10 third-down opportunities and failing to stay on the field on back-to-back drives in the second quarter after which the Rams answered with touchdowns to take a 20-7 lead.
Sure, the Cowboys fought and made it a one-score game (23-15). They had a chance to convert a fourth-and-1 on the first play of the fourth quarter, and they had a chance to come up with a stop on third-and-7 in the final minutes, but they failed both times.
“I was telling the guys, it’s a scar. It’s a scar that you’re going to wear for the rest of your life,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said. “You can either look at your scar and run from it, or you can look at your scar and remember it and punch somebody in the face because of it.”
Some of these Cowboys also carry the scars from the divisional-round losses to the Green Bay Packers in 2014 and 2016.
The Cowboys have lost six straight games in the divisional round of the playoffs (1996, 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016, 2018). The Patriots, meanwhile, will be playing in the AFC Championship for the eighth straight season.
“I think everyone in that locker room believes we have a team that can win a championship,” said All-Pro right guard Zack Martin, one of eight players who experienced the past three divisional-round losses. “It’s about getting back into it this offseason, working and continuing to grow on this season and hopefully go further next year. I don’t know what else to say.”
The Cowboys are a young team. They did not have a starter older than 30 years old on Saturday. The 2009 Cowboys were also viewed as a young team ready to make a jump after losing in the divisional round of the postseason to the Minnesota Vikings.
That loss was viewed similarly to the loss the 1991 Cowboys suffered to the Detroit Lions, and the Cowboys used that to forge three Super Bowl wins in the next four years.
After eight games of the 2010 season, the Cowboys were 1-7, and Wade Phillips was fired and replaced by Garrett. The Cowboys missed the playoffs in four straight seasons. By the time they returned to the postseason in 2014, Tony Romo was playing after two back surgeries, and Jason Witten was 32.
“We have a lot of guys that have the right makeup to make sure that we get back here and to hopefully get past this round,” Dak Prescott said. “But what sucks is you’ve just been in that locker room. Just in my short three years in the league, understanding that the team’s not always going to be the same. You’re going to lose guys, and guys are going to be gone, sometimes coaches. And that’s the unfortunate part about it.”
The Cowboys have 14 players set to become unrestricted free agents, including starters DeMarcus Lawrence, a Pro Bowler the past two seasons, Cole Beasley, Geoff Swaim and Damien Wilson. The Cowboys can use the franchise tag on Lawrence again, but that might not sit well with him. They have Amari Cooper and Byron Jones set to play in 2019 on the fifth-year options of their rookie deals. For the first time, the team can look to extend the contracts of Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cowboys could have more than $43 million in cap room, and they can gain more by reworking contracts such as Martin’s, releasing players or not picking up options.
There could be staff changes, too. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been under fire for most of the season.
Those questions will be answered as the offseason unfolds. Ultimately, the Cowboys have to figure out a way to break through the divisional round.
“We just have to grow as a team in all areas. We have to get better on offense, better on defense, better in the kicking game,” Garrett said. “We have to continue to create competitive situations with our personnel on our roster so we can grow, and we have to learn from our experiences. A lot of different experiences this year that we’ll grow from, we’ll develop from. The early-season inconsistency that we had that we grew out of and played significantly better over the last half of the season. Having the playoff win [against Seattle] is something that we’ll benefit from, and having the disappointment [against the Rams] is something that we’re going to benefit from. You have to remember these feelings when you stand in these locker rooms.
“When you have disappointment, it has to continue to drive you, and we have the kind of guys who that will. It’ll be fuel for us going forward.”