From The Mag: Seven weeks of crazy in Big D

Drew Anthony Smith for ESPN

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 21 Ideas of the Year Issue. Subscribe today!

SO THE IDEA was to check in on the Dallas Cowboys, see how they're doing, hang out a little bit. There are some interesting personalities in that locker room, which raised a few questions back in October: How's everything going to work out with Greg Hardy? How's Jason Garrett holding the seams together without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant? What's Jerry Jones thinking about the team he declared a Super Bowl contender? There might be some fodder there for a good football story, a tale of determination in the face of adversity or something along those lines. You never know, the thinking went, something interesting might happen.

More than a month later, after seven straight losses, two backup quarterbacks, one collarbone broken twice, a conga line of running backs, a sideline eruption, more Twitter than previously thought possible, one AWOL starter and a brief PETA incursion, only one question remains: Where do you start?

Maybe you start on the early evening of Oct. 25, near the sideline of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Giants, with Hardy slapping the clipboard of special-teams coach Rich Bisaccia and then raging along the sideline while Bryant tries to calm him. Or maybe an hour or so later, when Hardy stands at his locker stall and interrupts eight straight questions with "No comment; next question," his words like shoes in a dryer.

The Cowboys, in the delicate phrasing of one player, are a team of "unique egos," on the field and in the front office. Over the course of more than a month, I witness many incidents that validate the description. I can tell you that Bryant favors walking through the team's Valley Ranch practice facility carrying a pill-shaped speaker, music thumping. He is usually covered in more layers of clothing than the weather would deem necessary, and he is usually smiling. It appears he derives pleasure from the fact that everyone tracks his whereabouts by the music, as if listening for an approaching siren.

I witness the Cowboys sign and release running backs like a novice gambler convinced he'll draw a straight on the river. I stand at the locker of a starting offensive lineman and listen to him say he'd just learned Christine Michael's name that day, six weeks after the running back known as C-Mike had been traded to Dallas from Seattle, and four days before he would play his third game with the team.

Along with everyone else, I try to square the Cowboys' contradictions when it comes to Greg Hardy. He was signed to a one-year, $11.3 million deal despite a 2014 conviction for domestic violence stemming from an incident involving his ex-girlfriend. (The conviction was later dismissed, and his record was expunged.) He is tolerated despite the sideline tantrum in New Jersey and missing or arriving late for several meetings. Five days before the Cowboys play the Dolphins, two marginal players -- corner Corey White and C-Mike -- are released, partly because of substandard performance, partly maybe because they don't wear suits on the flight to Tampa.

I come to know the many aftereffects of the moment Romo walked off the field Sept. 20 saying "It's broken" after being hit by Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks. I watch that moment metastasize, week after week, until Romo's absence becomes a bigger presence than any actual human on the field. Sure, quarterbacking has become fetishized in the NFL, but the Cowboys have been acolytes longer than most. Meredith, Staubach, Aikman, Romo -- hell, even Clint Longley owns a chapter in their mythology. So it only stands to reason that every deficiency through seven straight losses is attributed to life without Romo. Offense, defense, playcalling, special teams -- doesn't matter. His void fills every void.

By Week 7, when backup Brandon Weeden and his three straight losses are shoved aside in favor of newly acquired Matt Cassel, Romo's absence is brought up so much it feels like an airborne narcotic, something being pumped through the ventilation ducts. They lost by failing to convert a third down here or hit a wide-open receiver there, and none of it would have happened if Romo were playing.

Eventually, I call a source close to the team to see whether I am missing something. Even taking into account the vast talent difference between Romo and Weeden/Cassel, is it possible for one player to leave such a chasm? "There were plenty of cracks in this team's foundation that would have led to struggles with or without Tony Romo," the source says. "But Romo overtook everything."

Without Romo, the Cowboys bring back the type of extremely conservative playcalling that died in the late 1970s. I watch offensive linemen throw their bodies around the field, pushing forward to open holes for the running backs, taking enormous punishment from enormous, angry men to protect their quarterback -- only to see it lost in Sisyphean fashion because of a bad interception or an avoidable sack or a muffed punt. I stand next to rookie guard La'el Collins in New Jersey and watch him wince as he peels the tape from his wrist, saying, "Just two or three more plays, man, and we win all these games."

I hear every mathematical permutation of the question, "Do you think you can win a game before Romo gets back?" And I hear every mathematical permutation of the answer except for the one that proves to be correct: no.

DAY AFTER DAY, I sit in mesmerized admiration while listening to coach Jason Garrett's soothing, almost womblike predictability as he answers questions with innocuous and grammatically precise sentences. He is never dismissive, even when he is dismissing. There is always a smile, even when there is an edge. His words, delivered in a voice that betrays no place of origin, float out of his mouth and die the moment they hit the air. Nothing is ever definitive; no specifics are ever offered. Asked heading into Week 9 about whether Cassel's starting spot is secure until Romo's return, Garrett replies, "I'd prefer not to take a global view on that."

(His hair, the color of an autumn maple, is always perfect, and I imagine him checking each strand before he leaves the house. Also: It never seems to grow. Over those weeks, as I sit through his daily news conferences, listening to his words dissolve, my thoughts stray to the improbability of his hair. Does it move? Is it an artificial-turf version of human hair? Amid the empty reports of ankle injuries and game plans and opponents' tendencies, Garrett's hair becomes something of an obsession.)

Garrett is a man of impressive stability and personal discipline -- his players speak of a man whose passion fills the room. "He's got a great way of keeping guys together and bonding a team," linebacker Sean Lee says. Two days before his team plays in Miami, seven games down but with Romo's return exactly 48 hours away, Garrett sits in his office with his feet on his desk, his mood light. He speaks of his 85-year-old father, Jim, a longtime coach and Cowboys scout who urges his children to appreciate "the inherent value of the experience." When Jason and his siblings went off to college, Jim and Jane Garrett made sure to tell them, "You go to college to get an education, not a job." If it's consistency you want, Jim's your guy: He went for a run every day for 30 years. "I kid you not on this," Jason says. "For 30 straight years, he ran every day. When I say every single day, I mean every ... single ... day. Sick, broken ribs, bad weather, didn't matter.

"And so I certainly try to be consistent. One of the things we all have to be careful about when we deal with the press in 2015 and you're playing or coaching for the Dallas Cowboys is getting off track. ... Every decision I make and we make is in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys, so really everything we say publicly and privately should follow that. My players get used to me saying this all the time: How matters. How you conduct yourself every day, how we approach every day, how we play -- all that stuff matters. The result matters, but how is really important."

There is a sign on a wall between the team's practice field and the locker room: it is a privilege, and not a right, to coach and play for the dallas cowboys. The message carries a hint of warning -- "Don't forget your suit" is at least implied -- and every time I see those commas, I assume Garrett had something to do with the grammatical precision.

The Cowboys really do hold themselves apart, as if they're a 53-man metaphor for America's hopes and dreams. The pregame ritual at AT&T Stadium is so excessive it veers toward parody: The World Famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (salary: reportedly $150 per game) bounce from a tunnel at the 50-yard line to form a giant V, an army of young men wearing cowboy costumes sprint through the V and fan out in formation carrying enormous Cowboys flags that spew fireworks from their poles. Only then, and precisely then, does Garrett appear to lead his gladiators through the tunnel and onto the field.

"America's Team" sounds quaint now. After 20 years without a Super Bowl, it sounds more like the answer to a trivia question than a legitimate description. Yet Garrett talks about "maintaining the right standard" so often that he admits it's nearly reflexive. The idea embodies all the grand notions, suggesting that playing or coaching for the Cowboys imbues an individual with an athletic and civic responsibility not required of the Bills or Bucs. But all this self-mythologizing doesn't seem to reflect reality. The standard, vis-à-vis the Hardy conundrum, appears to have a sliding scale, based on ability, seemingly countervailing all definitions of the word "standard."

"We're not going to be able to control 63 players with every decision they make," Garrett says, "but we do have a standard and an expectation." Or maybe it's an impossible job. Over the course of the seven-game losing streak, it's hard to count the number of times Garrett is forced to address an issue that arises on Twitter. "I'm not on Twitter," he says. "I've literally never looked at it." But there is Cole Beasley's wife lashing out at fans after he muffed a punt late in the Week 7 loss to the Giants. There is Romo, leading up to his return against the Dolphins, tweeting a clip from the movie Major League that shows Tom Berenger saying, "There's only one thing left to do ... win the whole f---ing thing," which is treated with the seriousness of a declaration of war. "Well, yeah, that's what we've got to do," Jason Witten says.

Far more seriously, five days after Deadspin releases photos of Hardy's bruised and battered ex-girlfriend, the defensive end changes his Twitter bio to include the words "innocent until proven guilty." This decision dominates the news cycle for two days, prompting Hardy to miss meetings before the Week 10 loss to Tampa Bay and forcing Garrett to have his fourth behavior-related meeting with Hardy.

The photos heap backlash upon backlash. U.S. Congressman Michael Burgess questions why Hardy is still playing in a league that professes a new understanding of the seriousness of domestic violence. "The Dallas Cowboys pride themselves on being 'America's Team,'" Burgess writes in a statement, "and they have an obligation to their fans, players and families to conduct themselves with the highest professional integrity."

Garrett, no doubt sensing the slipperiness of this particular slope, chooses his words even more carefully than usual. "I do think we anticipated a reaction to signing him," he says, "and we probably anticipated a reaction when other information came out about it. But again, the calculation was, can we create the right environment for him to become the best version of himself? And I've certainly seen strides. Like other guys, you have to continue to call him on things when he doesn't do things the right way, maintain that standard for how we conduct ourselves on and off the field."

I ask linebacker Rolando McClain, who started the season on a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, what he thinks of the locker room dynamic, and he says, "It's like getting stuck in your room with your brother. Sometimes you want to beat the crap out of him. Other times you're just happy as ever that he's right there."

After spending time around people such as Witten and Tyron Smith and Darren McFadden and Byron Jones and Sean Lee, it seems entirely conceivable that Garrett is correct when he says, "We've got 99 percent of our guys doing the right things 100 percent of the time, or maybe it's 100 percent of the guys doing the right things 99 percent of the time." But it is also unquestionably true that when that 1 percent -- from whichever equation -- acts up, the repercussions are like a boulder dropped in a puddle.

GARRETT LOVES TO talk about a virtual-reality system the Cowboys use to help their backup quarterbacks get virtual reps during seven-on-seven drills. As a former longtime backup quarterback himself, he knows the difficulty of trying to prepare while standing on the practice field with little to do. They put on a headset that allows them to see and hear the play, as if they were the ones taking the snap and reading the coverage. It sounds really cool, like one of those inventions that figures to advance professional sports while accelerating their obsolescence. Anyway, that's not the part Garrett loves to talk about.

When the Cowboys played a preseason game in San Francisco in August, Garrett visited the STRIVR Labs company headquarters in Palo Alto, near Stanford. "So you're standing there on what you think is like a two-by-four, and the floor separates," he says. "Suddenly you're 15 stories up on a skyscraper, looking straight down, and then the floor drops again and now you're 40 stories up. You know that you're in this room. You know that your feet are on solid ground, but you almost get frozen by it. There was another one where you're standing in a room and all of a sudden you see all these gremlins attacking you. You know it's not happening, you're telling yourself you're in a room in a building, but you start moving, trying to avoid these gremlins. It's really wild."

After getting his guts ripped out by late-game losses for weeks on end, Garrett is sitting here talking about virtual gremlins attacking him from all angles. He's talking about the feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when your brain is telling you that the things you hold dearest in life -- consistency, the stability of the ground beneath your feet -- are illusions. As metaphors go, it doesn't get much richer.

"I don't know how you want to use that knowledge," Garrett says. "But ..."

He says nothing more. He delivers a wry smile you can take any way you'd like. His eyes say: You're on your own here.

THE COWBOYS OPEN their locker room to the media for 45 minutes every afternoon. It's a generous allotment, probably too generous when you consider the impossibility of finding more than one significant player willing to talk. When someone like Witten or Lee or McFadden makes an appearance at his locker, the rush of reporters and camera folks is like iron filings to a magnet.

On my first day in Dallas, I see starting running back Joseph Randle sitting at his locker by himself. This seems like a rare opportunity, so I introduce myself.

"When do I get to be on the cover of the magazine?" he asks.

At this point in the season, Randle has 291 yards rushing in five games. He's one week from losing his starting job to McFadden. Not to be dismissive, but I wait an extra beat or two for a laugh that never comes. And then I remember that Randle was arrested for shoplifting underwear and cologne from a Dallas department store a year ago and managed to parlay it into an endorsement deal with an underwear company. Maybe it's best not to underestimate him.

"Well, if you tell me a good enough story," I say.

He turns to his locker and grabs a pair of shoes.

"Is this like a real interview?" he asks.

"I thought you wanted to be on the cover."

"I already talked this week," he says, turning back to his locker. "Get me next week."

Against the Giants, Randle carries the ball twice and leaves the game with an injury of questionable severity. By Wednesday, apparently upset by his demotion, he has missed a treatment session. The Cowboys release him the next Tuesday, one week before the NFL announces a four-game suspension because of domestic violence allegations involving his ex-girlfriend in Kansas and about two weeks before Randle is arrested after causing a disturbance in a Kansas casino.

I CAN SAY this about Jerry Jones: He's accessible. After every game, he stands outside the Cowboys' locker room and answers questions for as long as anybody is willing to ask them. He's heavy on the stream of consciousness, and a PR person is usually within earshot, strolling like a pit boss. In New Jersey, after the Cowboys' 27-20 loss, there is an almost visceral recoil when Jones defends -- no, praises and defends -- Hardy for whacking the coach's clipboard inside a huddle that didn't concern him and then raging around the sideline like a balloon getting relieved of its helium.

"He's, of course, one of the real leaders on this team," Jones says of Hardy. "And he earns it with respect from all of his teammates, and that's the kind of thing that inspires a football team."

There is something about this postgame scene that makes it feel as if the floor is no longer under the Cowboys' feet. It was Cassel's first start after Weeden went 0 -- 3, and the Cowboys seemed to feel they were on to something. An inspiring fourth-quarter touchdown drive by Cassel raised hopes, until it was followed by a 100-yard kickoff return by former Cowboy Dwayne Harris -- the catalyst for Hardy's anger. It was like a hornet was released into a crowded room; anything seemed possible.

But afterward, Jones answers questions with an almost tranquilized equanimity. Whatever torture resides inside him, it is absent. He expected so much after last year's 12 -- 4 season and wild-card win over Detroit; he glides through life as if it's his God-given right to finish on top, yet here he is sounding as if he's resigned to his fate. Without prompting, he mentions his first year as owner, the 1 -- 15 disaster in 1989 that followed the unpopular firing of Tom Landry. "Well," he says. "Twenty-eight months later, we were winning the Super Bowl."

Maybe it's all a gamble: drilling a hole in the ground, firing an icon, winging it at backup QB, buying a stake in DraftKings. "I've said this two or three times, this is the life we chose," Jones says. This is a 73-year-old man who has chosen to be the general manager of his own football team despite indications that others might be more qualified for the job. This is a man who is lionized as a titan of industry, a man worth $5 billion and climbing, a man who is at the moment wearing a suit that costs as much as a midsize SUV. Sorry, but "the life we chose" falls a bit flat.

Perhaps sensing this, Jones changes course. "I had a conversation with another owner about times like this," he says, and here he lapses into Jerry-the-storyteller mode. It is undeniably charming, the way he trains those hypertrophic eyes on you, cocks his smile and pauses at all the right times. "Well, this owner, he said to me, 'I have some advice: Drink.'"

MATT CASSEL IS the movie version of a quarterback, the kind of guy described as a leader by looks alone. He's tall, his gaze is steely, his jawline is formidable and his posture leads by example. I don't know whether I've ever met a more polite athlete. After losing to the Seahawks, he apologizes to the media for using the word "damn" in an interview.

He is the backup's backup, regarded as the most accomplished NFL quarterback never to have started a game in college. Still, his body of work shows nothing more than an uncanny ability to be overestimated, an attribute that can be traced to his main professional achievement, going 10 -- 5 as Tom Brady's replacement in New England in 2008. Over the ensuing years, as Cassel has bounced from the Patriots to the Chiefs to the Vikings to the Bills to the Cowboys, his work in New England has become one more reason Bill Belichick is lauded as Hoodie Jesus.

"I learned a long time ago," Cassel says, "that you can't read or see what's going on outside. It takes away from what's going on inside the building and what the coaches are trying to achieve. There are times when the criticism is something you deserve as a quarterback, and there are times when the people doing the criticizing don't know what they're talking about."

He is talking after he failed to lead the Cowboys to a touchdown in a 13-12 loss to the Seahawks. Needing a field goal on the last drive, he was sacked on a play that cried out for him to throw the ball away. A little more than two hours later, on national TV, during halftime of Packers-Broncos, against the video backdrop of Cassel being sacked by Bruce Irvin, former All-Pro safety Rodney Harrison says, "He looked like he never played quarterback before."

INSIDE A PARTY tent on a construction site in Frisco, one of the endless suburbs north of Dallas where nothing is more than an hour old, stucco is king and luxury car dealerships have replaced cattle ranches, Jerry Jones is in the middle of a group of men who -- like him -- are accustomed to standing around like statuary while others approach with smiles and extended hands.

After five straight losses and the roiling turmoil of the roster he concocted, the old speculator is here to spike another shovel into another piece of earth. This is nothing new: He bet on oil and won, on Romo/Hardy '15 and lost, and now he's betting on Frisco with the same public-money safety net he found to his liking when he built AT&T Stadium in Arlington. The announcement he is here to make is neither surprising nor especially newsworthy: Omni Hotels has released the plans for the hotel it is building as part of the Ford Center at the Star, the Cowboys' 91-acre, $2 billion practice facility/retail complex scheduled to open next year. In typically understated fashion, the Star is termed "the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters." There will be a city-owned 12,000-seat stadium to be shared with local high schools, two practice fields, restaurants, a bar, team offices and a high-end hotel.

Former quarterback and current Cowboys broadcaster Babe Laufenberg serves as the master of ceremonies. He notes the jackhammering and backup-beeping and crane-lifting going on in the background and says, "We're going to fight through the noise." Laufenberg launches into a story about Jerry from the construction days at Cowboys Stadium, when he was attempting to interview Jones for a live radio spot and fought through similar construction noise. "Can we get them to hold off for 10 minutes 'til we're finished?" Laufenberg asked. Jones looked at him -- probably with that same half-smile, half-wince he's giving Laufenberg at this precise moment -- and said, "Babe, you see those people out there? They're costing me $1 million a day. We're going to fight through the noise."

There are more knowing nods than laughs, which tells you what kind of crowd this is. Jones stands and walks to the microphone. He thanks all the appropriate people, tosses an inside-joke insult at Laufenberg about his substandard quarterback play and begins to talk.

He's really good. Amazingly good. No notes, no hesitation, he talks about projects and land use and all the wonderful people who have miraculously found themselves in this place at this time. Every single person he mentions is a tremendous individual. It doesn't really matter what he's talking about; they lean toward him like sinners before the truth, their faces shining rictuses of self-satisfaction. He gets nods. He gets laughs. His children -- Charlotte, Jerry Jr. and Stephen -- sit in the front row and beam. This is the affirmation he needs, the reminder that there's more to life than five-game losing streaks and running backs with personal problems and a collarbone that insists on healing at the normal rate.

"People ask me, 'How did you get Omni?'" Jones says in a tone that can only be described as humblebraggy. "Well, you team up with that top brand and it lifts all boats."

The NFL trade deadline is about two hours away, and the Cowboys' decision makers are talking about a hotel and celebrating yet another victory of commerce. Deadspin is roughly 72 hours from publishing photos of the numerous bruises on Hardy's ex-girlfriend. At Valley Ranch, Randle's locker remains in pre-AWOL condition, his stuff lying around as if he had just rooted through it in a rush to get onto the field: a pair of Air Jordans, socks, gloves, cleats, T-shirts, a coffee cup.

After Jerry finishes speaking and all the important hands endure one more round of shaking, Stephen Jones, who serves as the director of player personnel, says the decision to release Randle because of his personal problems has no relation to Hardy's situation and should not be perceived as a change in policy.

Back at Valley Ranch, it's Tuesday, so Jason Garrett is thinking about Tuesday.

"It was important for us as a football team to focus on the task at hand that we have going forward without him," he says of Randle.

ON NOV. 2, the Monday after the Week 8 loss to the Seahawks and before the Week 9 loss to the Eagles, PETA calls animal control in the suburb of DeSoto to suggest it confiscate Dez Bryant's baby capuchin monkey, Dallas.

Later that morning, I listen to the following exchange in Garrett's daily news conference:

Reporter: "Do you have any comment on Dez's monkey?"

Garrett: "I don't."

Reporter: "You have not met Dallas?"

Garrett: "I have not met Dallas. I heard stories that he has a monkey. There has been visual evidence of that."

At 11:22 a.m., Tony Romo jogs out of the locker room and onto the practice field, wearing shoulder pads, a helmet and shorts. Free to practice for two weeks but not play in games, his first throw in a warm-up drill is a soft sideline spiral to Bryant, who catches it one-handed over his left shoulder with the nonchalance of someone snagging his car keys.

That afternoon, Cassel's weekly interview session includes this question: "Matt, is that a mustache?" Cassel gives a laugh and runs a couple of fingers through the embryonic growth above his lip. "For Movember, you know," he says, a little embarrassed. "I'm trying to recruit guys in here, but I'm not having any luck. So I'm the only weirdo with a mustache."

If my goal was to be caustic, or merely unkind, it would be necessary to question the leadership skills of a quarterback who cannot prod his teammates to grow a mustache in Movember.

I'm beginning to understand how Garrett felt inside that virtual-reality chamber. Even though everything appears normal -- the floor underneath us is solid, the people are real, Garrett's hair is unchanged -- the events taking place seem to be the product of a febrile imagination. Who knows, maybe tomorrow everyone in the building will be sporting a Teddy Roosevelt mustache.

NEXT MAN UP. That's the theme here: Romo goes down -- next man up. The NFL is never more unintentionally honest than in those three words. It's the ultimate disposable culture, where human beings are not only imminently replaceable but immediately forgettable. "Yeah, I can see that side of it a little bit," Cowboys center Travis Frederick says. "But the game is set up in such a way that you have to be ready to replace anybody at any time." Next Man Up, viewed from the outside, can be construed as an indictment of the whole operation. But only in the NFL can those three dehumanizing words become a rallying cry, a part of the lore, just one more marketing slogan to slap on a T-shirt and sell in the team shop.

The Cowboys spend seven weeks exposing the fallacy of Next Man Up.

Romo goes down and refuses to be replicated.

Weeden loses three games, but he plays in a straitjacketed offense that doesn't include Bryant. He commits fewer turnovers (two) in three games than Cassel does in his first three quarters (three). When he is replaced by Cassel, I watch Weeden stand alone at his locker, getting his stuff together while everyone in the room tries to pretend he isn't there. Just a week earlier, people cared. A week earlier, Weeden's words were anticipated, his jokes greeted with the overlaughs that help define the reporter-athlete relationship. Now he exits like a guy who walked into the wrong room.

Randle begins the season as the starting running back, and he is replaced by McFadden, all in the name of finding the Next Man Up to replace DeMarco Murray, who signed as a free agent with the Eagles when the Cowboys decided the NFL's offensive player of the year was expendable.

When Bryant breaks his foot in the season-opening win over the Giants and misses the next five games, there are many Next Men Up -- Terrance Williams, Devin Street, Brice Butler -- but none of them can get downfield in a way that remotely approximates Dez.

The week before Bryant returns, Garrett releases one of his greatest hits when asked about the stability of his star's surgically repaired foot. "He's very functional in life right now," he says. "We're trying to see how functional he is on the football field."

WEEDEN WALKS OUT of the Cowboys' locker room for the final time when Romo is eligible to return to the active roster. The next day, Romo speaks to the media for the first time since his injury. The demand is so great that the Cowboys' PR staff sets him up outside the locker room, against a wall with a huge star painted on it.

Three times in a 13-minute interview, Romo mentions the risk of reinjury, twice bringing it up unprompted. First he says, "Every time you come back, there's a few weeks where you're risking it. ... The re-breakability is going to be there. It's a real thing, happens all the time in the NFL, but you've got to go play." And then he says, "You have to know that you can just break it -- pretty easily this time, a lot easier this time than the first time." And then he says, "You are not necessarily playing through an injury ... you are really coming back healthy. It's just the fact that a hit could reinjure it faster than others."

By the third time, it seems like the point of the entire exercise is for everyone in the room to leave knowing he has resolved two truths: 1) His collarbone is not sufficiently healed to withstand another sandwiching between a large defender and the turf, and 2) he is positioned in a tenuous spot between self-preservation and professional obligation.

On the other side of the room, Cassel stands at his locker, unbothered, mustache in midbloom, checking his phone.

"This is different from the past few weeks," I offer.

"Yeah, I guess so," he says. "It's OK, though."

He laughs, grabs a case of Gatorade from the back of his locker and heads out, head down, like a guy who walked into the wrong room.

THE RETURN OF Romo -- more like The Return of Romo™ -- restores Jerry to his rightful place as the master of all that surrounds him with a 24-14 win over the Dolphins. His favorite Romo moment comes on the first drive, which starts at his own 4-yard line. On third down, he drops back into the end zone, where he appears destined to be sacked for a safety. Somehow, he spins away from two defenders and flips a left-handed pass to McFadden. To hear Jerry tell it, they'll be making movies about this play for years.

"In a driving monsoon -- driving monsoon weather," Jones says in his best cinematic voice. "If you ever want to draw a picture of his positive, competitive mentality, do it out there with a shoulder that had six fractures -- six, OK? -- and the first thing he did was go out there and throw the ball with his left hand in a driving rain. There's no glory there, OK? That's just big men coming at you hard -- in a monsoon."

After seven weeks of playing not to lose, the Cowboys find a team that can't win -- but this one game is all Jones needed. It erases all the doubts and explains away all the losses. Romo plays. McFadden runs for 129 yards and looks like Murray. Hardy gets half a sack and behaves himself. Dez catches a touchdown pass.

The Cowboys had seemed to grow in prominence with each Romo-less loss, so winning with him turns perception into reality. With The Return of Romo™, nothing seems impossible. There is serious talk of following seven straight losses with seven straight wins. Nobody is immune: The Cowboys, 3 -- 7, are installed as favorites against the 10 -- 0 Panthers on Thanksgiving. Somehow, the entire world seems to be breathing the same air that has been pumping its way through Cowboys HQ.

That's when I leave the Cowboys behind. The win provides symmetry. After all, what more could happen?

On Thanksgiving, Romo will throw three interceptions, and two will be returned for touchdowns. And on the last play of the third quarter, with the fable of a season grinding into a fine powder, Romo will drop back to pass and will be unable to avoid a blitzing Thomas Davis. Romo will twist as he's hit and will land on his left shoulder. It will not be a particularly hard hit, or even a bad fall, but he will roll over and put his right hand between his neck and shoulder, and my mind will go back to his news conference. After the game, Davis will tell reporters, "I don't really know if his shoulder had healed for him to get hit like that and go back out."

By the end of the long weekend, with Romo declared out for the regular season and even the hardiest delusions presumably shattered, the Cowboys were 3 -- 8, tied with the 49ers for the worst record in the NFC. By all reasonable estimates, it was done, over. A season of grand design had collapsed under its own weight. And yet ... and yet ... if you turned your head just right, you could still hear the cavalry's bugle charge.

Less than a week after Romo's clavicle broke for the second time, Stephen Jones said the team would not put him on the injured reserve list. Estimates suggested he could be ready for a divisional playoff game, or the NFC championship game at the latest. The franchise remained narcotized. "We're competitors," Stephen told ESPN's Todd Archer. I could imagine Romo, his arm in a sling, looking to the heavens and wondering what it would take to release him from this hell.

Over the span of more than four weeks, I can confidently say I heard every tortured reason the NFC East -- that fentanyl bog of submediocrity -- can keep the Cowboys viable no matter how many games they might lose. As long as the division "sticks around" and "doesn't run away," as long as New York or Philadelphia or Washington doesn't get all fancy and vault itself above .500, Dallas can keep losing its way into contention. Could the division be won at 8 -- 8, 7 -- 9, even 6 -- 10? The possibilities for failing up seem limitless.

I hear every mathematical permutation of the question, "Can Dallas make the playoffs?" And I hear every mathematical permutation of the answer except the most likely one: no.

But in Miami, for that brief and shining moment, none of that matters. Jerry Jones' grin speaks of validation. He stands there in the middle of the room, the man in full once again. This is his virtual reality; where Garrett had his feet under him but felt like he didn't, Jones feels solid ground where none exists. He talks about how the Cowboys might be an "ugly baby, but we love it." He keeps an eye on the comings and goings of the reporters in front of him, making sure to repeat his best lines when a new group arrives. His smile is omnivorous.

"The eternal optimist in me says we're getting started now," Jones says. "My hope is that this game allowed our fans to see the team we thought we were going to be when we started the season. That's the team we thought we would be. That's the team we put together in the spring. That's the team to look at. With Romo, it's a hell of a team."

He's running his fingers across his 20-year-old Super Bowl ring, holding it about chest high, and you'd swear he is showing the damned thing off. This, after all, is the life he's chosen, and nothing that's happened before or since -- not seven straight losses, not photos on a website, not Romo's irredeemable collarbone -- could extinguish this moment. Out on that field, for this one afternoon, everyone could see what he's created. It is the most obvious thing in the world: what could have been.