By Zach Walker
When the schedule was released, I scanned it and thought that, that final six game stretch following the bye-week was seriously a daunting test for the Dallas Cowboys. The season started to hammer itself out and it got a little easier to believe that they could really do damage. The New York game was always going to be exciting, but the Cowboys were the better team at the time of the game. Thanksgiving was supremely underwhelming, and they got hammered. An even week of rest led into the Chicago game, and despite a late surge from the Bears in the fourth quarter, the game was won in forty-five minutes. An extra couple of day’s preparation for the game against the Eagles for the second matchup. The game would end up being an epic game of swinging momentum that the Cowboys would end up taking. The Colts were next for the final home game, and it wasn’t a game, it seemed to be more of 60 minute long apology for their previous home game with a massive flex of power against the Colts. The final game against Robert Griffin and his Washington teammates was always going to be tight, that’s just the way those teams do it.
The playoffs. Detroit caught a dragonfly and a pixie with the same arrow, on its way to a bulls-eye, with an overturned ruling of Ndamukong Suh standing on Aaron Rodgers’ injured ankle. That’s serious adversity to face, because Suh is the top defensive tackle in the league. The game did not go to plan for the Cowboys. A huge penalty on punt block extended what would become a 99-yard drive. The Cowboys would end up overcoming a two touchdown deficit to defeat the Lions. The controversy over a picked up pass interference would lead the Cowboys into Green Bay to face the less than 100 percent Aaron Rodgers and his perfect home record. The game was a game, and there were plays left on the field, and meat left on the bone, but the big one, the decisive moment was the fourth and two throw down the left side of the field to Dez Bryant in one-on-one coverage with Sam Shields. Dez made an attacking leap at the ball in the air, caught it over Shields, got a foot down, then a second, then a third, got his right hand down during a lunge for the goal line, got his right elbow down before his left hand and wrist hit the ground and the ball moved up his face where he rolled to further secure it. The original call of a catch down to the one yard line was overturned and the ball went over on downs to the Packers, and like a tree being fed into wood chipper, the Packers ground the clock into dust and didn’t allow the Cowboys another possession. End of season, still doesn’t feel like it’s over, it feels like it was stripped from us all.
I’m going to do a positional breakdown rather than a game by game recap. Starting with the quarterbacks. Tony Romo played his best season of football. In terms of statistics, Romo blew himself out of his own pond. In a season where he attempted a near career low in passes thrown, and a flat 100 fewer throws compared to a season ago, Romo only missed last season’s yards mark by 123 yards. Romo had three more touchdowns and was a single interception better than his previous season of 31 touchdowns and ten picks. He toasted his previous bests in both total quarterback rating (QBR) and passer rating, with a QBR of 82.7, dusting his best of 71.2 from 2007. His passer rating from 2011 was 102.5 and that’s a seriously good, but his 113.2 from this year just separates itself. But to go with stats comes the situations. Eight wins on the road, 20 touchdowns to only two interceptions, with a 70.6 completion percentage, that’s better than Aaron Rodgers when he’s at home. Romo was best when the Cowboys’ season reached its tipping point, at eight and four having just lost big time on Thanksgiving to the Eagles, going into the month that seemed to always kill the Dallas Cowboys season. December was coming up for the Cowboys with Romo playing his best football, and maybe the best football of anybody in the entire final month of the season. Two hairs shy of 75 percent completions, twelve touchdowns to only a single interception and 13 yards short of 1000 yards for the month, and all four wins, bringing the season total to 12. In the playoffs, two games, Romo threw for 484 yards, four touchdowns, completed 68 percent of his passes and didn’t turn the ball over. The entire season, Tony Romo had only one game where he eclipsed 300 yards passing, very un-Romo. Brandon Weeden got into four games, and remains a question mark going forward. In relief, Weeden looked very sharp. Having to come in for Romo during the Washington Monday night game, Weeden threw six passes and looked very capable while tying the game up at 17 points a piece. With Romo needing a game to rest his broken back, Weeden got the start against Arizona. Played like a backup, missing throws all over, unable to get the ball to wide receivers for most of the game and seriously struggling throughout the entire game. Weeden threw two passes the rest of the season, an eight yard pass in London and a 43 yard dime to Terrence Williams for a touchdown against the Colts. Weeden is a backup, nothing more, so the search for the heir to Tony Romo will continue through the future.
The running backs. If DeMarco Murray had a checklist before the season, I’d doubt that a box will have gone unchecked. Lead the league in rushing yards, an MVP candidate, named to the All-Pro team, showed major improvements on his durability, and showcased his skills to the entire league during a contract year. Murray started the season with eight straight games of at least 100 yards rushing, and 13 total games with those totals or better, including the Green Bay playoff game. There has been a lot of thought and speculation that any back could get 1200 yards behind the Cowboys offensive line. While it’s true, a running back could be successful behind, then in front of this line, saying those things is truly an oversight to Murray’s skill set. His vision is spectacular, his cuts are samurai-like and really puts defenders in the rear-view, his pass blocking means he has a true one-back skill set, and his pass catching ability will have any quarterback throwing at him with confidence. If Murray takes the money and skips town, no one could blame him. Murray has a skill set that’s worth more than four million per season, but if he takes the home town discount, that’d be a hell of a pickup for Jerry Jones and company. Joseph Randle is the second back, and if Murray walks, the team is his until they make a move. Randle’s off the field decision, following the Seattle game, really put himself behind the eight ball, because how could they trust the offensive burden to a guy caught stealing underwear? Randle is a soldier back, not much deviation from the designed play, and Randle is very good at it, bursting through the holes and getting great chunks of yards. On 51 carries, Randle gained 343 yards and scored three touchdowns and had a six point seven yards per carry average, that’s healthy enough production to believe that Randle could become a star back behind the imposing Dallas offensive line. Lance Dunbar is the third back, and the switch-blade back and more of the passing threat than a runner. Dunbar’s average per catch is 12.1 yards, well over a first down per reception, and will likely remain the third option no matter what happens with Murray, due to the offense’s lack of using him in the run game.
The wide receivers. It’s all about Dez Bryant. And the worst thing, 32 teams have a shot at him, and some could throw down huge money for the services of the Dez. Who could blame any of those teams? Dez Bryant ended up with huge totals: Eighth in the league in yards (1320); 12th in the league in receptions (88); led the league in touchdowns (16). Dez Bryant is an always have one man on him, have three guys thinking about what he’s going to do after he beats that guy. There’s no question, Dez must be the Cowboys priority this off season. Terrence Williams disappeared during huge chunks of the season, after the October 27th game against Washington, until the Indianapolis game December 21st, Williams had seven catches. In the Colts game, he had two catches for two touchdowns. Williams finished the season with 37 catches, 621 yards, and eight touchdowns, just really solid numbers. In the postseason, Williams had four catches for three touchdowns, that’s excellent bang for the buck production it could be said that, “big time players, show up in big time games.” Another reason for the drop in Williams’ production is the emergence of Cole Beasley. Same amount of catches as Williams, with 37, but fewer yards just 420. But Beasley seemed uncoverable at times, getting open for crucial moments, and covering passes into first downs at pivotal points in the game. Dwayne Harris is the punt and kick returner, but along with those duties, his role in the offense was expanded, to blocking wide receiver. Weird, but that’s what he is, and he’s damn good at it. Rookie Devin Street caught two passes in the season opener then his production stopped, but between Dez, Terrence, Cole, DeMarco, Witten, and the ball staying on the ground, it’s not like the fifth round rookie shouldn’t exactly expect the ball to come his way.
The tight ends. Well, the Cowboys have Jason Witten, so they have been, are, and gonna be alright. Witten is the most solid rock in NFL, and if you have an argument, you’ll have to wow me to prove me wrong, then just ignore your ramblings. Witten is always there, and this season was like all the others, above good production, bigger impact than can be measured with numbers. Three quarters of his catches go for first downs, a higher percentage than Rob Gronkowski (though he does have more catches). Though he tied his career low in receptions (past his rookie season), his impact for the offense was never more apparent than in the playoffs. 11 catches for 134 yards and some very clutch catches. Gavin Escobar catches more ire from fans, than passes from Tony Romo, for what the pick that he was selected with could have been used for. However, Escobar did get good time on the Cowboys double and triple tight end sets as an extra blocker in the running game. Witten caught five touchdowns, Escobar caught four and off of only nine total catches. James Hanna is primarily brought in as a blocker, and is pretty darn solid at it.
That offensive line. Two first team All-Pro selections, a second team All-Pro selection, those same three are pro-bowlers, and it is all one very daunting unit. Tyron Smith is an All-Pro, worth 100 million dollars, WORTH a 100 million dollars, and still might be considered underpaid, because Smith is great. Eight penalties on Smith, two holds all season long, and really only had two games that I can remember. The opener, allowing two 49ers sacks on Romo; and the first Giants game, where Jason Pierre-Paul had a very good game of chess with Smith. Beyond those games, Tyron played like the elite left tackle that he is. Ron Leary got injured in the Washington game, and had to miss the Arizona game, besides that, Leary was for long periods during the season. His best work as a pro, was the Houston game, where at times he was forced to play against the 2014 NFL defensive player of the year JJ Watt, and Ron Leary held his own against him. Late in the season, Leary started to get beat a little more, forcing pressure into the face of Tony Romo, he’s got room for improvement in 2015. Travis Frederick is a second team All-Pro and a pro bowler. Frederick had six penalties by the end of October, didn’t have a single flag on him after that. Frederick had one bad snap all season, in Seattle, and that’s a bad spot to do it, but if that’s his one, I’ll take that. Frederick is the youngest member of the offensive line, and has a lot of room to grow, but as a center it’s what inside his helmet that matters most, and as a graduate in computer engineering, his head seems to be on straight. Now, Zack Martin. Rookie first team All-Pro, rookie pro-bowler, all-around man-beast. Four penalties, three in the regular season, and he was always appeared to be in complete control. Martin was almost majestic to watch in space, running down linebackers or safeties at the second level. Martin needs to add some strength, after watching the Lions game, but then again, Martin isn’t going to face Ndamukong Suh every game. Martin was such a good pick for the Cowboys, eons better for the team than the alternative. Doug Free is free following the end of this season, and might be a hot ticket in free agency. Two seasons ago, pitchforks were being sharpened and torches were lit to run Doug Free out of town, but now that seems like such a long time ago. Free isn’t Doug “Let ‘em” Free anymore, his penalties are way down, the pressure from his side is also farther apart. Free was banged up for chunks of the season, and Jeremy Parnell filled in. Parnell held up okay, but it’s probably harder to jump straight into the fringe than starting from the beginning, with the continuity of the line, but Parnell is also a free agent, so a move is going to need to be made, but maybe another young buck in the draft.
The defensive line. A.K.A. “Rush Men.” I start with the impending free agents along the line. Henry Melton, with the way the contract was drawn up, is likely to be released based on the fact that he couldn’t stay healthy. Which is a bummer because for a stretch, he was really kicking butt, getting big pressure, but the money that gets freed up if he doesn’t return, is too much to avoid. Anthony Spencer bought into what this line was all about, sacks aren’t crucial, pressure is everything. Late in the season, Spencer was getting in on a ton of plays, in the Lions game, he made the finishing sack on Matt Stafford, before Lawrence re-fumbled the ball. Spencer is 31 after this season, and could likely cost more than the Cowboys want to pitch after him. George Selvie wasn’t the same sack producer from a season ago, down from seven to three, but his pressure was good, but they could likely get those same sacks from a rookie or DeMarcus Lawrence fully healthy next season. Nick Hayden is likely not returning, because of the log jam of guys that are still signed, Brent, Bishop, and Coleman. Now the returning guys. Tyrone Crawford took the move inside to defensive tackle sort of the same way Greg Ellis took to outside linebacker, it totally clicked. Crawford was getting huge pressure for seemingly the entire season, and maybe his emergence means that the Cowboys can get a rush end in the first round rather than a defensive tackle. He had three sacks, but way, way more pressure than the numbers shine on. Jeremy Mincey is a fan favorite, fun to watch, superb leader, fire starter. He had six sacks on the season, an extra one against the Lions, and hit Rodgers to knock the ball out and recovered his own change in the final game. Mincey brings white hot heat on the quarterback, and I’m ecstatic that he’s coming back next year. DeMarcus Lawrence didn’t play until the Arizona game, and didn’t really make an impact in the regular season. Then the playoffs rolled around, and Lawrence made an all-time rookie move, he picked up a fumble, during a two minute drill when his team had the lead, he then fumbled the ball back to the Lions. A minute of game later, Lawrence righted his wrong, and picked up his first sack in the NFL to end the game. Lawrence got his second sack in the Green Bay game, during the Packers final drive of the first half. Before the season, I said that Lawrence would get more sacks than DeMarcus Ware did last season, six. He didn’t but he has two playoff sacks, one in each of his first two games. There were several role-playing, rotation defensive linemen. Terrell McClain was very good at getting pressure, and when fully healthy, should get even more push. Ken Bishop tracks the play very well for a 300 pound young man, he was really tracking plays down in the Packers game. It was great to see Josh Brent back out there, and I guess I forgot how big that man is. He’s massive out there, and plays as wide as he is strong, just blanketing opposing linemen in strength and mass, can’t wait to see how he comes back after a training camp. Davon Coleman is a rookie, like Bishop. And like Bishop, he’s a high motor guy that just needs further refinement.
The linebackers. Two hammer blows before the season started, put this group behind the eight ball quickly. During OTA number one, Sean Lee goes down; then in preseason, the Cowboys lose Devonte Holloman to career ending neck injury. I won’t lie, I had zero faith in Rolando McClain being anything for the Cowboys, and I can’t see how anyone could have. The 25 year old retired twice. Boy, did he open my eyes this season. It’s hard to think that this defense was as successful as they were this season without McClain. He didn’t crush the stats sheet, but when he was on the field, his whereabouts needed to be accounted for, because he is a fantastic wrap-up, physical at the point of attack tackler. McClain fought through various boo-boos throughout the entire season, and it was amazing that he played as many games as he did. In the playoffs, his injuries boiled over the sides and played about a half against the Lions, and didn’t even reach the second quarter against the Packers. The Cowboys would love to put McClain on the same field alongside Sean Lee next season, but perhaps a team will give McClain bigger money than the Cowboys can offer. Filling McClain’s spot was Anthony Hitchens. Actually, in this “next man up” defense, Hitchens was thrown into action at every linebacker position. The fourth round pick was said by draft experts that he was a reach, and could have possibly been there later in the draft. Well, as with Travis Frederick, the Cowboys took a player that they wanted, and in the same fashion, fans got to see a player truly evolve. Hitchens was everywhere, and after Durant got hurt, Hitchens was an every game start. Going into the playoffs, Hitchens had a high-ankle sprain, usually a three to four injury, but he started and more importantly finished the games, with McClain going down in each playoff game, he showed major grit and toughness to power through his injury. It’s going to be fun to watch him grow. Bruce Carter had a horrific 2013, and going into a contract year, for his sake, he needed a big season. Carter missed three games in the meat of the season, but despite that he finished with a team leading five interceptions, good enough for a tie for third best in the league. He really turned it up for the 2014 season, and will be very interesting to see how the Cowboys handle his pending free agency. Justin Durant was on pace to have an atomic season, two forced fumbles, a pick, and about 30 tackles through the first six games, but his inability to stay healthy might have him packing his bags for a move out of town. Jack Crawford got his two sacks in his hometown of London. Cameron Lawrence got his sack in that same London game. Kyle Wilber had two plays that I can watch in my head, his pass break-up down the left side of the field in Seattle and his interception against Detroit, and when he was in the game, his coverage looked improved and his pass rush ability was strong as ever.
The defensive backs. Barry Church had a solid season, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and led the team in tackles. There is only one thing wrong his game and it’s because his safety running mate, JJ Wilcox, plays a lot like him. Wilcox is a missile, a lot of times, you’ll see him absolutely shoot into the frame of the camera trying to bust up a run. Wilcox collected three interceptions and forced a fumble. I absolutely love the way that he plays, he plays like he’s on fire and all hopped up on about 40 energy drinks. Jeff Heath racked up tackles in a purely relief role on the defense, and played pretty well in the Packers playoff game, breaking up the two-point conversion keeping the game at five point difference. The corners seemed to be doomed from the start, like the linebackers. Brandon Carr lost his mother as training camp was starting and understandably missed some time, Morris Claiborne also was dinged up coming into the season, and Orlando Scandrick was suspended for the first four games of the season. Scandrick was able to come back to games early because of policy changes, and came back to have a typically Scandrick season of tight coverage, solid tackling, and occasional play making. Scandrick plays very high strung, and on edge, and it usually benefits him in man coverage. Morris Claiborne was in route to just an awful season, and after being benched before the Saints game, he was injured in that game and went down for the season, he is going into a contract year and needs to slay a lot of dragons to stick around. Brandon Carr had a really bumpy season, at times he looked like an undrafted rookie thrust into action after a long stint in the hospital following a motorcycle crash. However, late in the season, Carr turned it up, playing well and what looked like newly found confidence. Carr’s contract must be reworked, to free up some cash to close some deals with Dez and other Cowboys’ free agents. Tyler Patmon had an excellent pick six in the Arizona game, and didn’t do much else down the stretch, but also wasn’t blown apart too badly. Sterling Moore is just a solid corner, but I figured his playoff experience with the Patriots would have really helped the Cowboys secondary, but not much.
The special teams. Dan Bailey is as solid of a kicker that there is in the league, but his kick protection really let him down at times, allowing three kicks to be blocked, including in the playoff game against the Packers. The miss against the Lions, however, blew me away. It wasn’t enough to not score a touchdown off of a sweet turnover from a Mincey deflection to Wilber, but for Dan Bailey to miss a 41 yard field goal from in between the hashes, everyone has got a big problem with that. That’s not a kick I want my bad-ass kicker missing in the big game. I realize it was a hiccup, because he hit 51 yarder later in the game. Chris Jones is solid, no problems, maybe some more pop, but that’s a nit-pick. L.P. Ladouceur is just flawless, nothing wrong in his game. Dwayne Harris averaged over nine yards per punt return and nearly 25 yards per return taken on kickoffs. Harris is another one of the looming free agents, which means he’s either returning, or someone else is going to have to step up on special teams. C.J. Spillman was a supreme pick up from the 49ers, excellent special teams coverage man, also a free agent.
The coaches. Jason Garrett has grown, by fire, into a very effective head coach, and is going to be here for a while, having signed a five year contract to stick around and finish the fight. Rod Marinelli isn’t going anywhere either, signing a three year deal, as did Scott Linehan, securing the continuity for the foreseeable future of the team. Marinelli, what else to say, the guy is an artist, molding these guys into madmen, while shaping these young guys like Hitchens into bright spots for the defense. Linehan had excellent plays called for the offense, and really did a number on this offense taking it from a passing power to an offensive juggernaut.
This season was a ride, and if the man upstairs, Jerry Jones (I picture this spire, stretching into the clouds for his office) can get some of these players to buy into coming back and getting further, then drafting well, this ride could continue for the next few seasons. Must bring back Dez though.