Monday night, a day in the life. Cowboys at Met Life, playing the Giants. Don’t know if you’ve been to Met Life or not. I’ve been by there several times – New Jersey state fair is held in its parking lot, and I’ve had to go by the Meadowlands racetrack any number of times when they were using it as a COVID-19 vaccine megasite. Met Life looks like a megascale model of your air conditioner. I finally made it inside this summer, for an Elton John concert that I expected to be hotter than First Baptist Hell, but it turned out to be quite comfortable.
I won’t trouble you too much about the details of the football game; it was tied well into the second half, and then New York managed to break Saquon Barkley for a long gainer that put the Giants ahead. The Cowboys tied it, and then scored another touchdown, and there we were in the fourth quarter.
Cooper Rush was leading the Cowboys at the time, and the cameras kept catching Dak Prescott on the sidelines (he’d broken his thumb in Week 1, you remember) and he was just staring at the field, with a look of pure stoicism on his face. I can’t find a picture of it, but he looked kind of like this:
I mean, you had to see that face. It was like Roy Kent passing a kidney stone. It was a look of abject misery, and I knew why. Any Cowboy fan knows that face. It’s the one that we all make when the Cowboys are ahead late. It’s the face that says I know they are going to foul this up; I just don’t know how they’re going to do it.
So here’s the thing. Whatever Dak and I were waiting on didn’t happen. It just didn’t. The Cowboys were up by seven, and kicked off to the Giants. The Giants did… well, pretty much what pessimistic Cowboys fans expect the Cowboys to do in that situation. They went three and out with a penalty. The Cowboys got a long punt return from their USFL castoff, which put them inexplicably in field goal position. Even though the offense couldn’t move the ball, the Cowboys were up 10. Dak kept staring out at the field, waiting for the Cowboys to self-destruct on defense.
Well, that didn’t happen, either. I mean, it wasn’t ideal. The Cowboys gave up a fifteen-yard facemask penalty that put the Giants on the 22. But the defense found new life. Giants QB Daniel Jones missed on three passes, the last with the kind of intentional grounding penalty that’s just designed to wreck drives. The Giants were held to a field goal. All the Cowboys had to do was get a couple of first downs. But they only were able to get one, and kicked it back to the Giants with a minute-forty-five left. I know they’re going to foul this up. Dak kept staring at the field, resolute stubbornness masking the beginnings of a stomach ulcer.
And what happened? It was the Giants that fouled up–they managed to not only lose the game on an interception, but lost their best WR to a ligament tear incurred by, from what it looked like, taking a gentle jog at the end of his route. Whatever horrible thing that the Fates or the Football Gods or your malevolent deity of choice were going to unleash upon Cowboys fans… didn’t happen.
Okay, I am not going to sit here and tell you that the Cowboys are good, or that they can beat the Bills or the Dolphins or the Packers. That’s not my point. I am not here to raise anyone’s hopes in that particular direction.
My point is this. Both Dak and I, who have seen more calamitous Cowboys games than either of us can easily digest, were going into that fourth quarter expecting the Cowboys to do the same stupid things that they usually do. Idiotic holding penalties. Dumb interceptions. Dropped passes. Inexplicable play calls. Nonsensical coaching decisions. Except that… this time, it didn’t happen. I mean, the Cowboys weren’t perfect. They could have done done more. But what they didn’t do was arguably more consequential. There weren’t any turnovers. There weren’t any holding plays wiping out long gains. There weren’t any missed field goals or muffed punts. Nobody tried to, oh, I don’t know, run a draw play with sixteen seconds left and no time outs. All of the mistakes that you’d expect to see never materialized–or else they managed to happen to the Giants, which is just as good.
So that led me to my question. What if we didn’t do the stupid, self-destructive things that we usually do? Not, saying, again, that we have to be perfect. Not saying that we have to make the outstanding play or make the heroic effort. But… what if we just stopped doing the bad things?
Before the Monday night game, I’d run low on gas, and I’d stopped where I usually stop, at one of the gas stations at Pennington Circle. I went inside and got a little bag of cashews, and a Coke Zero. I was dog-tired. I hadn’t gotten anything like enough sleep over the weekend. I have a demanding job that includes an hour-long commute both ways. And I have several other excuses if you’d like to hear them. But what ultimately matters is my behavior, and this particular behavior was to grab a Little Debbie Zebra Cake and a package of raspberry coconut Twinkies. (The Zebra Cake was, unfathomably, stale.)
So… what if I stopped doing that?
Let’s ignore the scale of things a bit. I get that me eating a little bit of junk food that I shouldn’t eat is nowhere near as consequential as, say, the Cowboys offensive line getting flagged for holding to bring back a sixty-yard Tony Pollard scamper. No one is setting me back ten yards for illegal Zebra Cake. But it’s the same thing, isn’t it? I keep making stupid decisions that I know are stupid decisions, and engaging in self-destructive behaviors that I know are self-destructive behaviors. And they matter. Not every one of them matters in and of themselves, but cumulatively, they do matter. And the only way to reverse their effects is a long, slow gradual process of self-improvement and self-discipline that’s… difficult.
Maybe it’s easier to start with not doing things. Tom Wolfe famously pointed out about the pre-Mercury program in THE RIGHT STUFF that “Our rockets always blow up and our boys always botch it.” Maybe the first step towards ultimate success is to stop failing so much. Once you stop failing, maybe the sky’s the limit.