Published On: Thu, May 3rd, 2018

Cowboys' modern Big 3 failed to match predecessors' championship pedigree

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Fifteen years. That’s what Jason Witten gave the Dallas Cowboys, and the best they had to show for it was six playoff appearances and zero trips to the NFC Championship Game.

Witten will retire Thursday after a decade-and-a-half of regular-season and playoff disappointments to join his former quarterback Tony Romo in the broadcasting arena.

He will don an ESPN blazer, and soon after will be fitted for a gold jacket. Yet, while the surefire future Hall of Famer will be remembered as a consummate professional and one of its most reliable receiving targets, his career is just as memorable for how unsuccessful the Cowboys were during his time there.

Witten leaves Dallas as the franchise leader in games played (239). He battled through multiple bumps, cuts, and bruises to suit up for 179 consecutive regular-season starts, second on the active players list only to Philip Rivers. The last time Witten missed a game came in his rookie season in 2003.

He left it all out on the field for the franchise, a point best underscored by his memorable catch and run versus the Eagles in 2007.

As illustrated in that one play of thousands in his career, Witten would stop at nothing to further advance the Cowboys. However, the sad reality is the farthest they could go was the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

Much more was expected of “America’s Team.” Witten and Romo arrived in 2003 and once Romo became the starting quarterback three years later, visions of future titles were dancing in the head of owner Jerry Jones. Four years on, Dez Bryant arrived as a celebrated first-round draft pick, hailed as the final piece of the puzzle.

Together, Romo, Witten, and Bryant formed the modern-day version of the Cowboys’ triplets, a term coined for the Hall-of-Fame trio of Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith. The next group was expected to uphold their predecessors’ championship standard.

Yet, while the original version won three Super Bowls in a four-year span, their successors managed just two playoff wins.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

It’s interesting how the blame for that has been apportioned; Romo has long been the scapegoat for the Cowboys’ playoff failures and Witten and Bryant have, for the most part, been spared such criticism.

As an individual, Witten surpassed the level of excellence attained by the Cowboys tight ends that preceded him. He exceeded the output of former greats Doug Cosbie and Jay Novacek and will go down as the best at his position in franchise history: He’s leaving the team as the franchise leader in receptions (1,152) and receiving yards (12,448), and third in receiving touchdowns (68).

While his resume will also include playoff failures, he’ll be absolved of the blame, as he should be. He won’t be the first Hall of Famer without a Super Bowl ring. But his CV feels incomplete without an appearance in the big game, or even the game that comes before it.

Cowboys fans are left to wonder what might have been.

There was Romo’s botched snap in the 2006 wildcard game versus the Seahawks, the injuries that derailed multiple seasons, and, of course, the infamous non-catch call on Bryant near the end of the 2014 divisional playoff game against the Packers.

That season had the mark of something truly special. The Cowboys sported a 12-4 record and won their division for the first time since 2009, and led for much of the second-round playoff game only to see a crucial catch negated by a now-defunct rule.

It remains the high-water mark for the Romo-Bryant-Witten-led Cowboys. Much bigger – in Texas, after all – were the expectations.

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