HOW 'BOUT NEXT YEAR'S COWBOYS?
Craziest season for the Cowboys in the past two decades? There's no question. This one was a roller coaster, with unbelievable comebacks, devastating losses and the kind of drama that would make a Lifetime movie look dull. Yes, the roller coaster ended in a mangled wreck with Sunday's loss to the Redskins, but at least the ride has come to a stop. Cardiologists around North Texas can let out a sigh of relief.
Back in September, I put out a list of the top 10 predictions for the Cowboys season. Although no one could have predicted this wild 8-8 season, there were a few surprises and a few results that surprised no one.
1. DeMarco Murray will run over the NFL
DeMarco Murray had no problem running over the NFL — when he managed to stay on the field. The man runs like he's single-handedly trying to win WWII, which is fantastic when he turns what should be a 2-yard gain into a 20-yard one. It's not so good when his second effort gets him out of position and stripped. It's even less worthwhile when his 100 percent play gets him injured.
The Cowboys need Murray on the field to win. His presence opens up the offense more than even his yards per carry suggest.
As the second half of this season proved, the Cowboys need Murray on the field to win. His presence opens up the offense more than even his yards per carry suggest.
All of this stems from his "won't-go-down" mentality, but it's that same style that kept him off the field for more than a third of the season.
The sky is the limit for Murray. He just needs to make sure he can get on the field first.
2. Miles Austin will be a nice bench warmer
Yes, his hammies tightened up during the preseason and during the year, but Miles didn't miss a full game all season. In the end, however, no one really seamed to notice.
It's not that Austin wasn't trying: 943 yards and six touchdowns are nothing to sneeze at. But these stats came from a team that was forced to abandon the run for a large majority of the season. What Cowboys fans want from Austin are the sort of game-changing plays that push your team over the edge. Dez Bryant made that happen. If Austin had been able to explode for a game or two, this might have been a different season.
3. Sean Lee will be the leader the Cowboys have been missing
Sean Lee is the best player on the Cowboys. Yes, you have two future hall of famers in Witten and Ware, two young phenoms in Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, and a QB with nearly 5,000 yards. But the discussion isn't even close.
When he was on the field, Lee made the defense seem like it had 12 players on the field. He read plays with staggering accuracy. He made plays with an uncanny ability to get to the ball carrier, and he picked balls out of the air like they were intended for him. The only thing he couldn't do was stay on the field.
Injuries are the only thing that will hold Lee back from a stellar career. (He's been injured in four of his last four seasons.) Leadership, on the other hand, isn't an issue at all. The kid led the defense both on and off the field. He has the skill and mechanical playing style of Jason Witten but with the vocal chords to demand excellence from his teammates as well.
4. Dez Bryant will be the leader the Cowboys have been missing
What a year for Dez Bryant. Twelve touchdowns and 1,382 yards are amazing, sure. But let's be clear: Bryant carried this team on his back for the second half of the year. After a slow start, when it looked like he would never cross the threshold, Bryant shattered the ceiling and turned into the Cowboys' No. 1 weapon.
Three years into the experiment, and the results are clear: Dez Bryant is for real.
Different players lead in different ways, but there's no leadership like winning. When the Cowboys were down 3-5 halfway through the season, Bryant turned on the burners en route to 10 TDs in eight games. Moreover, his ability to play through injury set the tone for a team that was playing for its life.
Best of all, he seems to have matured off the field, thanks in no small part to the close bond that he seems to have built with receivers coach Jimmy Robinson.
Three years into the experiment, and the results are clear: Dez Bryant is for real.
5. Tony Romo will continue to put up unbelievable numbers
The only number more amazing than Romo's 4,903 yards is his number of passing attempts: 648. Don't realize how crazy these numbers are? How about the fact that Romo threw the 10th most passes of all time and had the ninth most passing yards of all time. Of any quarterback. Ever.
I think I nailed this prediction on the head.
Unless your quarterback is Drew Brees, these numbers aren't necessarily what you want to see as a coach (especially Romo's 19 interceptions). Generally, it means that your team is down by an absurd amount, and you have a very limited amount of time to score a lot of points. For example, Tony Romo had two games with 62 pass attempts.
In the end, numbers don't lie. Romo threw the ball a lot. But they don't tell the whole story either. Which brings us to No. 6.
6. The Cowboys will still find new ways to choke when it matters most
By the Cowboys, I meant Tony Romo.
After two disastrous seasons in a row, it seemed pretty clear at the start of this campaign that Romo would single-handedly lose at least two games this season, just as he did last year against the Jets and the Lions. This year, it ended up being three.
Romo is not clutch. His first pass in the NFL was a pick. His first playoff game saw him dropping a hold for a field goal that would have won the game. He has played in three win-and-in games, each against a different NFC East opponent, and lost all three in dramatic fashion.
With Tony Romo, you take the good with the bad. Unfortunately, when it matters most, you're gonna get the bad.
Yes, Romo had some amazing games this season, especially once he and Bryant became soul brothers. But he also had three terrible games in which he threw 12 INTs and sunk the ship.
This is Tony Romo. You take the good with the bad. Unfortunately, when it matters most, you're gonna get the bad.
7. Felix Jones will thrive as a backup/special teamer
Wrong. Felix Jones did a limited amount with his limited reps. The original theory went something like this: Jones is a complimentary back, and keeping him fresh will allow him to be the home run threat that he was always meant to be.
In reality, his season went something like this: Jones showed up to camp out of shape and did nothing to inspire any confidence on offense. Worst off all, he couldn't even hold on to the ball on kick returns and got yanked from that job too.
It's entirely reasonable to imagine that Felix Jones won't find a team to play for next year. His contract is up with the Cowboys, and his number of snaps clearly states what they think of him.
8. The Cowboys will remain winless against the Eagles
Double wrong. Maybe the writing was on the wall for this one, but I just wasn't reading it because of the way in which Vick's Eagles had crushed the Cowboys both physically and morally over the past two seasons.
It's rare to see such a debacle as the Eagles displayed this year, one in which your starting quarterback and tenured head coach both get the ax. At least the Cowboys can already look to put two wins on next year's schedule.
9. The offensive line will once again get Romo hurt
Amazingly, Romo stayed unscathed, but not due to the O-line. Rather, he managed to keep his health through a combination of highlight-reel material dodges and throwing the ball away (often into opponents' hands) whenever he was about to get rocked.
The O-line needs to be addressed in the upcoming draft, hopefully in the first round. And the second.
The Cowboys' O-line stinks. How badly? For the first half of the season, left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle Doug Free were in a heated neck-to-neck battle for the most penalized player in the league. The suspense was killing Cowboys fans across the country.
The O-line needs to be addressed in the upcoming draft, hopefully in the first round. And in the second. Then, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett need to take a hard look at Doug Free's future with the team.
10. The defense will improve. Right?
It's hard to keep track of a Cowboys team that jumped around more than House of Pain. But, in the beginning of the season, when the offense was entirely inept, this defense kept the Cowboys alive.
Yes, they clearly improved. Anthony Spencer played the best ball of his career and hopefully earned a contract extension. Bruce Carter showed what he is capable of, and Jason Hatcher played his role as best he could. But the real revelation was in the secondary.
Although he clearly let down those who were expecting the second coming of Deion Sanders, Mo Claiborne proved a solid corner. However, the real difference maker in the secondary was Brandon Carr, who made play after play on defense, including a beautiful overtime interception to beat the Steelers.
In the second half of the season, injuries decimated the defense, causing the Cowboys to start making desperate calls to players on the street. Although I hope to never again write the names of players such as Brady Poppinga, Sterling Moore or Charlie Peprah, the scrubs did pretty well for the circumstances. They learned the defense quickly and never gave the game away, always keeping the Cowboys' hope of a last-second comeback alive.