Sunday night's 28-18 loss to the Redskins is going to be spun a lot of different ways in the coming days and weeks.
There will be those that point out the pile of injuries on defense that sapped the team of much strength on that side of the ball being exacerbated by the loss of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant during the game. There will be those that say the Cowboys just don't know how to win close games, even though they pulled out plenty of them to put themselves into position to play for the division. There will be those that say the defense did all it could and that Tony Romo let the team down by playing his worst at the biggest possible moment.
All of those points are valid, but they all miss the bigger point. The Cowboys didn't miss the playoffs because of what happened on Sunday night. They missed the playoffs because of what went on over the previous 15 weeks.
For the second straight year, the Cowboys spent the regular season proving that they were an average team. They were good enough to stick their noses in the playoff race, but they weren't good enough to ever move into a secure playoff position. They were good enough to win games with furious comebacks, but not good enough to avoid big deficits in the first place. They were good enough to make you dream, but not good enough to avoid crushing disappointment.
That adds up to another 8-8 record, a mark that fits a team as average as the Cowboys have been in each of the last two seasons. It's better than being a bad team, certainly, but it's almost more frustrating because figuring out which tweak to make isn't as easy as just saying that the whole thing needs to be trashed so you can start over from scratch.
Do you fire Rob Ryan or do you hope a healthier 2013 brings better results? Do you shoot for the moon and replace Romo? Can Jason Garrett get a team to show up each and every week so that it doesn't all ride on Week 17?
Tough questions with only one answer. Maintaining the status quo isn't an option when status quo is mediocrity.
It's a bad spot to be in come the end of the season, even if you're already familiar with being there. Here's the rest of the good, bad and ugly from Week 17.
BAD: Romo already said he feels like he let the team down and it's pretty obvious that he's correct in the assessment so we won't spend too much time piling on. Arguments that Romo doesn't do well when asked to rise to the occasion won't get hurt too much by the way he played against the Redskins, though.
UGLY: Romo was bad, but he didn't get any help from an offensive line that played like they had never seen a blitz before stepping on the field in D.C. Romo had to face up to rusher after rusher without much chance of surviving long enough to make an accurate strike, which keeps offensive line on the priority improvement list for what feels like the 10th straight year.
GOOD: Of all the injuries this season, we're most curious about what a healthy DeMarco Murray would have meant to the team. The defense wasn't all that great before players started going down, but the Cowboys offense never looked better than it did in the last few weeks when Murray was giving them quality balance.
UGLY: We know DeMarcus Ware was hurting and probably should have been in street clothes. He was in uniform, though, and that made it painful to watch him get flummoxed over and over again by Redskins runs that went right past him.
GOOD: Anthony Spencer turned in one last good game, assuring himself of a lucrative payday somewhere this offseason.
UGLY: Just before the half, the Cowboys were in position to try a long Dan Bailey field goal but opted to punt. It was a defensible, if not exactly exciting, football decision. The Redskins were thinking the Cowboys were going to do something else and ran players on and off the field at the last second. It was a moment to snap the ball quick to draw a 12 men on the field penalty, which would have allowed the Cowboys to try an easier field goal, or, if you want to be real bold, run a fake against a discombobulated opponent. The Cowboys tried neither and Brian Moorman booted it into the end zone for a touchback to boot.
That's an opportunity a good team seizes. It is one that an average team ignores just long enough to assure they remain average.