The Imaginary Empire

Dallas Cowboys fans can burn jerseys and curse their owner all they like. They have the team they asked for.
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You know about all this. About the deleterious General Managership of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones—often mistaken for maliciously mercantile ownership, although if Owner Jerry would just fire GM Jerry, we could all move along. About Jerry Jones himself, an operator and a leathery blowhard and not quite the "football man" he believes himself to be and something of a vicious satire on himself in a number of ways. There is not much to be written about this. Your correspondent's first memory of any kind is watching the Ice Bowl, aged four, and it changed and forged and ruined him in all the ways that a John Facenda-narrated icicle through a ventricle would. He, I, have been there. But if there is nothing new to say about the Cowboys, there is something new at work, here at the second most valuable sports enterprise on Earth.

Because, for all the old paleo-petro-ridiculousness of Jerry Jones himself, he has in fact brought something new to the sport. Jones built a new Cowboys Stadium that is a temple to himself in the guise of a temple to the fan and the game, and it stinks. Here is a stately pleasure dome so vast, labrythine, and rococo in the meaning of; something so replete of too-muchness that it has become more an emblem of the Last Sclerotic Days of Capital than a place to watch a sporting event. Even worse in practico-NFL terms, Cowboys Stadium is so devoid of NFL Buddha Nature that Jones has actually achieved something previously thought impossible—a home field that effectively gives away home field advantage to the visitors. As of the just-ended 2012 regular season, the Cowboys are 17-15 there, for a .531 home record.

Indeed, in a season with more downs than ups, it has seemed at times that a considerable number of tickets at Cowboys Stadium are sold to carpetbagging fans of the opponents. While Dallas has lead the league in average attendance, that number had been dropping every year in the new stadium. Opposing players have tweeted about a home-field feeling, and it’s shocking to hear a quite audible number of fans rooting for the visitor; for divisional rivals, for the love of Tom Landry. It is doubly so because, as recently as the post-Aikman era—there was a brief exception during the Quincy Carter Administration, maybe—geographically proximate away games routinely featured more Dallas fans (exiled telecom and tech employees, mostly) than fans pulling for the home team. Arizona comes to mind as a very palpable example, one so egregious that you could almost feel bad for the hapless Cardinals. They were still divisional rivals at that point. This was how it went for a long time, right up until it wasn’t.

***

There are economic mobility trends at play here. There are vast, if at least partially anecdotal, numbers of SoCalifornians who have moved to urban Texas for The Jobs. Rick Perry will be quite happy to tell you that there is an Economic Miracle in Texas, although by "miracle" he mostly means "a huge smoking red crater in the state budget that we can't even balance by removing middle schools from the already-suffering education of our children." Texas has problems, but they're not quite what you think.

What "you people" may fail to understand is that Texans don't feel that life is challenging enough without the presence of an Existential Threat. It's in our blood to require an enemy at all times; if we're not unique in this, it's worth noting that administrations led by Texans and Fake Texans have lately been keenest to pin the enemy tail on various axes of Evil. It is so in our blood that we will in a pinch actually elect that very existential threat himself, and then foist those threats on the rest of the nation and the world. We can't help it. This is us—if there’s no frontier to conquer we’ll erect one.

And while ownership of the Dallas Cowboys is not an elected office, self-elected Cowboys fans are on average probably more engaged and vocal about the policies of that ownership than on any given political issue after The Gun Thing or immigration. And we couldn't have done any better, in terms of an existential threat, than Jerry Jones. That he was imported from Arkansas is factually true but otherwise irrelevant. He is the destroyer we have been waiting for, and this is his team.

***

This team, that is. This since-eliminated, Tony Romo-led and Romo-doomed, prototypically Jerry-GM'd, "we have the talent to make a run" Cowboys team. This 2012 team, which was like so many others—Romo so like his pre-Jones counterpart Danny White (but lacking the three NFC Championship Game losses), this season so like the recent others in which the team lost to teams it should have beaten, gave up leads it shouldn't have given up. It was a season, in other words, a lot like any other disappointing NFL season. Except that because it is the Cowboys, it all scans larger: not just another fallen-short season from a frustrating team, but the dying twitches of a franchise—like Capitalism, because the Cowboys have always striven to be like that—that doesn't yet know it's dying.

There's nothing specifically Dallas The City about it except the "not really having much soul while going about the business of Daydream Nation" part. And then there was the Week 17 defeat at the hands of a Redskins team managed by the surpassingly fan-fucking syphilitic dauphin and sub-Jonesian nightmare Daniel Snyder, and a new bottom.

And yet—Romo played with receivers who sometimes ran such inept routes that as to leave the quarterback shouting impotently after every play, receivers with fragility-to-salary ratios that put into the question the evolution of the human ankle. Romo, too, was without starting running back DeMarco Murray for six games, and spent the entire season behind a questionable O-line that lost the starting center after one game. Never mind a defense so beaten-up that coordinator Rob Ryan was pulling players off the street, although there was that, too—Romo played the Cowboys into contention for the NFC East title, often brilliantly and often from behind, not to mention with a team prone to shooting off its own toes with drive-killing penalties. If Romo’s mistakes in that brutal Week 17 loss are the brightest reason the team fell short, his play in the preceding weeks had much to do with that Week 17 game even meaning anything.

But, yes: mistakes. Only two teams had a worse per-game penalty average than Dallas in 2012. Twenty-eight false starts. Seven delay of game penalties. Twenty-eight offensive holding calls. These were not, by and large, the fault of the subs and scrubs and randos forced into action by the the NFL’s usual merciless injury-churn. These were mistakes made by marquee players—Doug Free, Dez Bryant. Never mind offensive holding, which can be a matter of degree, ref angle, and mood—Jason Witten, who became the franchise’s leading receiver this season, had five false starts all by himself. This long, slow capitulation was a team effort, and everyone did their part.

***

And so, Week 17. Redskins. Fourth quarter. Win or go home. Sure, Romo had gotten off to a very shaky start with two picks, whatever the reasons, but settled down, fought through the usual team mistakes and his own earlier fumble near the Washington goal line—and he was right there with about three minutes left, and all three timeouts. A career-changing football eternity stretched before him, a scenario that almost certainly first made its appearance in Romo’s mind on some day-dreamy elementary school afternoon in the front yard. The game on the line.

It didn’t go well, as it often doesn’t for Romo in situations like this. For all his obvious skill at the position, Tony Romo melts down. He does this with such horrifying consistency that he’s not just the butt of the other team’s fans, or the focus of Cowboys fans’ furious fading-testosterone hatred. It’s even worse: he’s gotten the rep of a “choke artist,” and no amount of rationally explained bad luck or futzing-around supporting cast, no invocation of the yips or quantum physics or anything—nothing will shake it now, short of him taking the Cowboys all the way.

Romo is now 1–6 in NFL elimination games, and was 0–3 in college. When it’s time to close for the Cadillac, he goes home with the set of steak knives. He is, to be fair, not a close game choke artist; his play in close games is statistically in line with several high-quality quarterbacks and well above some others. None of those other quarterbacks play in Dallas, though. They don’t have to deal with the grandiosity and the inchoate doom-pursuit and the rising thwarted Cowboys thing. That’s Romo’s burden, and if he’s too gracious to groan under the weight, he is bowing and bent all the same.

To watch a quarterback struggle to balance “I” and “we” in the post-game presser—a tough place to be—asked for immediate, real-time introspection, blaming, and shaming—is the Big Sports equivalent of waterboarding. In this NFL Films edit, we can also see Romo take responsibility, sandwiched glumly between his head coach who does everything but, and the owner/GM who is the ne plus ultra of rich-guy perp spin.

There are Cowboys fans with some football awareness and there are Cowboys fans prone to quasi-nationalistic jersey-burning fevers. All must endure Emperor Jones, and both, however secretly, sense that if Romo had the equivalent of Troy Aikman’s teams, he could Take Us There. Some just preferred to burn their Romo jerseys after the Redskins loss and put the show on YouTube. Some will start following the Houston Texans. The ones who remain, though, will remain in this loud, blind pursuit. More jerseys will be burned.

There was last year’s mildly viral video of a father having a teaching moment with his young son, for instance. The boy was probably six or seven years old, and so clearly old enough to share the same understanding of the NFL and the QB position as his father and millions of adult fans who tweet, blog, and post videos of their post-game screeds. These are pre-verbal cries, in plain English. They conflate various horrible things about the reality of agency and hope and pursuits with football disappointment. They sum it all up : WE DON’T UNDERSTAND, WE HAD FAITH, YOU LET US DOWN, IT IS SCARY, UNAMERICAN AND POSSIBLY EVIL. Anyway, in that video from last year, the father teaches his kid how to burn a Tony Romo jersey.

It’s worth wondering what these fans want, although it seems clear what they can expect to get in years to come. Hope is a lot to ask of a team whose fans must now celebrate any drive that doesn't have a crucial play called back by a holding penalty. Happiness doesn’t seem a likely outcome for fans who align themselves with a team so multiply and manifestly futile in so many ways, despite all its brassy largeness. There is a certain guilty hope left for Cowboys fans, even if it’s mostly that of someone so in debt as to secretly hope for the Mayan Apocalypse. But mostly it’s this and more of this. These are the Cowboys. They will remain the Cowboys. It's hard to know what that means, but it seems true enough.


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