DALLAS - The great antagonist from the 1984 fantasy film The Neverending Story wasn't the ferocious canine-ursine beast Gmork or even one of the sundry bullies that picked on Bastian. The enemy was The Nothing, a seemingly invincible, merciless force that consumed Fantasia. Not even the law of the conservation of mass could save particles from the dwindling realm; Fantasia was vanishing.
The Dallas Cowboys find themselves in a very similar circumstance after championship Sunday in the NFL. During the 22 seasons of playoff frustration featuring five divisional round appearances but not a conference championship game berth, the Cowboys had been able to rely upon their impressive postseason laurels. But they have done nothing since 1996, and now those recognitions are fading away.
At the dawn of the 2008 season, the Cowboys were tied with the San Francisco 49ers and Pittsburgh Steelers for the most Super Bowl wins with five. Pittsburgh surpassed Dallas that season with a victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
Speaking of Super Bowls, while the Cowboys still lead the NFC in Super Bowl appearances with eight, the New England Patriots have eclipsed them now with 10 Big Game appearances.
Back in 2011, for a franchise that had not been to a conference title game in 16 years at that point, the Cowboys managed to have the NFC's most appearances with 14. Three straight conference title game appearances by the 49ers from 2011-13, and now San Francisco owns the top spot with 15.
Dallas also used to outright own the league record for postseason appearances with 27 in 2003. The New York Giants tied the Cowboys two seasons later. Then, in 2011, the Giants wrested away that distinction with their 31st postseason berth ironically in Week 17 with a 31-14 win over Dallas to win the NFC East and keep the Cowboys out of the playoffs. Since then, Dallas has tied the Giants with 32 appearances apiece, but the Steelers are nigh with 31.
The good news is Dallas leads the league in postseason games played with 58. That total may never be in danger because it can actually be sustained by the Cowboys' one-and-done pattern every couple of seasons.
A bulk of the franchise's prestigious accomplishments were built by the triumvirate of president and general manager Tex Schramm, director of player personnel Gil Brandt, and head coach Tom Landry, chiefly the postseason berths, games played, conference title berths and wins.
Jerry Jones and his family, thanks in large part to head coach Jimmy Johnson, renovated and upgraded the Cowboys' pedestal in postseason stature with three Super Bowl wins in four years. Since then, there has been nothing.
What the Patriots with head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have accomplished is not so disheartening to Cowboys fans because they have been so consistently dominant since 2001; almost like the Sith versions of Landry and Roger Staubach during the 1970s.
The most agonizing part for Cowboys fans about their franchise's postseason coma is there have been other franchises that have fallen and risen in the 22 years Dallas has been in stasis. And, yes, the team's arch rivals in our nation's capital haven't been since the last time the Super Bowl was in Minneapolis, and same goes for the Detroit Lions, but this is a Cowboys problem. So, no red herrings.
Take the Minnesota Vikings from championship Sunday. They were on the rise as the Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith glory years in Dallas were about to end. Minnesota made two NFC Championship game appearances in 1998 and 2000. Then, they made won a wildcard playoff game in '04 before that era of Dante Culpepper and Randy Moss came to an end.
Then, Brett Favre comes out of his second retirement to lead them within an overtime away from Super Bowl XLIV in 2009. Adrian Peterson shoulders the burden of carrying a quarterback-less franchise and they see one wildcard berth in 2012.
Former Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer takes over in 2014, leads the Vikings to a division title in 2015, and then has Minnesota within a game away from hosting the Super Bowl at home in 2017.
Dallas can't even make it to one NFC Championship game in 22 years, but the Vikings have managed to appear four different times in three different eras.
It's one thing if a team doesn't miss a beat at the game's most important position (i.e. the Packers with Favre and Aaron Rodgers). It's quite another when a team has more losing seasons than you since your last conference title game berth but manages to make multiple bids to be the conference champion. Since 1996, everyone else gets to experience parity and compete in a conference championship game except Dallas and eight other teams.
The most dramatic display of a team rising and falling since the Triplets can be found no further than the NFC East. The Philadelphia Eagles filled the vacuum left by Dallas with head coach Andy Reid lead the Eagles to five playoff berths, four division titles, four NFC Championship game appearances, and a Super Bowl berth from 1999-2004.
When Dallas rebuilt, coupled with the Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin pair surging for the Giants, the Reid-led Eagles mustered four more playoff appearances, two more division titles, a conference title game berth, and left the franchise with a playoff win drought.
Enter Chip Kelly, who won a solitary division title his first year and left them for dead in 2015. The Eagles finally appeared to be vanquished. Two seasons later, they are representing the NFC in the Super Bowl and led by Reid understudy in second-year head coach Doug Pederson.
Philadelphia has jumped back to the Reid glory years, and Dallas still hasn't made a conference title game. Talk about a slap in the face.
Save for the Super Bowl appearances, all it would take to cure these ills would be a Super Bowl winning run for the Cowboys. Whatever the reason, Dallas has been stymied for 22 seasons. If their results still yield nothing, people will regard them as the Cleveland Browns: a once competitive franchise that brought home the hardware and set records, but now a source for memes about failure.
Wanna chat about the good ol' days of Super Bowl success for the Cowboys? Mark is available on Twitter @therealmarklane to reminisce.
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