For Cowboys, lessons can be learned from recent past

FRISCO, Texas -- It doesn’t seem so long ago, does it?

On Jan. 11, 2015, at Lambeau Field, it finally looked as if the Dallas Cowboys were going to do something the franchise had not accomplished since Jan. 14, 1996, by reaching the NFC Championship Game.

Tony Romo’s daring fourth-down pass to Dez Bryant to the Green Bay Packers' 1-yard line would set up the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Yes, the Dallas defense would have had to stop Aaron Rodgers’ comeback chance, but the unit had made plays all season in the Cowboys' 12-4 finish.

Jason Witten caught six passes for 71 yards that day. DeMarco Murray ran for 123 yards and a touchdown.

Instead, as everybody knows, Bryant’s catch was overturned by replay, and the Cowboys left with a 26-21 loss.

And what of those players now?

At the moment, none is active in the NFL.

On Sunday, Romo won the American Century Championship golf tournament at Lake Tahoe, and he is getting ready for his second season as CBS’ lead football analyst. On Friday, Murray retired from the NFL while on ESPN’s NFL Live set. Witten retired in May, and he is prepping for his first season as an analyst on ESPN’s Monday Night Football. Bryant was released by the Cowboys in April and has yet to find a new home in the league as training camp fast approaches.

Romo started and finished just two more games in his career after that gut-busting loss to the Packers. Murray did not play another game for the Cowboys, with the team electing not to keep him despite his leading the NFL in rushing in 2014 with 1,845 yards. He signed a megadeal with the Philadelphia Eagles, then joined the Tennessee Titans for his final two seasons.

Witten became the Cowboys’ leader in games played and games started, as well as the franchise leader in receiving yards, after the loss to the Packers. He was named to his 11th Pro Bowl this year, tying Bob Lilly for the most in team history. Witten could have returned for a team-record 16th season, but he opted to walk away with good health and a better off-field opportunity in the television booth.

Bryant led the Cowboys with 69 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns in 2017, but his $12.5 million base salary and $16.5 million cap figure were too much for the team. Dallas did not even offer him a pay cut.

And the 29-year-old is still looking for a job.

“I’m shocked that he hasn’t got picked up yet,” said Denver Broncos guard Ronald Leary, who was the Cowboys’ starting left guard against Green Bay, over the weekend at the National Fantasy Football Convention in Fort Worth, Texas. “I know he has whatever that comes with him, but I think Dez has a lot of ball left in him and can play, so hopefully he sticks to a roster coming up in the next couple of weeks with camp.”

Back injuries led to Romo’s retirement. A compression fracture suffered in the 2016 preseason forced the Cowboys to go with Dak Prescott, and coach Jason Garrett opted to stick with the rookie quarterback when Romo was healthy in the second half of that season.

The Cowboys released Romo, and he flirted with the idea of playing in 2017, until he joined CBS. But he told Peter King in NBC’s Football Morning in America that he never regretted the decision to walk away.

“I think you feel like you can still play. I think everybody when they’re done feels that way. But my time has passed,” Romo said. “I’m comfortable.”

If the retirements of Romo, Witten and Murray and the release of Bryant mean anything to the current Cowboys, it’s that the NFL doesn’t wait for anybody.

Witten made reference to it in his retirement speech:

“There’s an old saying in pro football: The circus doesn't stay in town forever,” Witten said. “And when you're young, I think it takes on a meaning that when your opportunity comes, grab it. And as you get older, I think you realize there’s a deeper meaning.”

The Cowboys are a young team. They have only three players over 30 years old, and just one is an every-down player (Sean Lee). Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are entering their third seasons. The offensive line, led by Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, should be in its prime. Aside from Lee and DeMarcus Lawrence, the defense lacks Pro Bowl credentials, but there is a belief internally that the talent is there.

Next week, the Cowboys will fly to Oxnard, California, for the start of training camp, with all their hopes and dreams for success serving as carry-on baggage.

It is time for them to grab their chance, because before they know it, it will be gone, just like it was for Romo, Witten, Murray and Bryant that day at Lambeau Field.