Now that we've debunked the three biggest myths about the past season, it's time to dive a bit deeper into what was so memorable about Dallas' performance in 2011. Clearly, it was a season of breathtaking high's (leading the division 11 games in) and excruciatingly low lows (another December to remember). Nonetheless, the team had very bright spots and some very dim ones as well and they all come together to provide the indelible memories of the 2011 campaign.
Tony Romo's performance after the Detroit game - if you've read my posts for any length of time, you know that I haven't always been kind to Tony. Romo is still inconsistent, can hold the ball too long and hasn't yet put together the kind of season that would have me mentioning him ahead of sub-elite guys like Eli and Schaub, but you have to give him credit for finding a great balance of playmaking, risk-abatement and cerebral play in the latter portion of the season. The biggest advance he has made is that I think he's seen almost every blitz known to man and has developed the ability to diagnose it before the snap. I saw a very good, even elite QB playing for Dallas down the stretch and if he can consistently deliver that same standard of play in 2012, this team will be far better than 8-8.
Personnel gems - Dan Bailey, Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiametta and DeMarco Murray were true finds and look like long-term contributors (contracts notwithstanding) and even a potential star or two in the mix. Give credit to the pro and college scouts. They earned their paychecks this year.
DeMarco Murray - of all the players Dallas has seen join their roster over the last 5 years, no one provides me as much hope for what may be to come than the running back from Oklahoma. His balance, speed, toughness and, most of all, his instincts made him look like one of the best backs in the NFL shortly after being inserted into the starting lineup. New Year's wishes for Murray - get healthy, stay healthy, hold onto the ball and just keep doing what you do!
Chaff out, wheat in - Dallas waived goodbye to noteworthy figures such as Roy Williams, Andre Gurode, MBII, Tashard Choice and others as they charted a course toward upgrading talent and getting younger at key positions. Many of those people had the wrong psychological makeup for what Jason Garrett wanted to build. I liked the boldness in the decision-making of the Trinity of Jones, Jones and Garrett.
Sean Lee - this might be the best thing we remember about Wade Phillips. I like how this guy plays the game. If he stays healthy, and that may be a big ‘if', 50% of our LB corps could be elite next year. Nice.
Witten - How can you not just love this guy?
No surprises - they beat the teams they were better than and they lost to teams who were better than them. Taking a look at all of the team records now that the season is over, you can plainly see that Dallas didn't lose to a team that finished with a record worse than their own 8-8 mark. And really, how far off were they from beating the Jets, Giants (game 1), Pats and Lions? Trying to put this into perspective for the long haul, I distinctly recall Dallas beating Green Bay 27-16 in 2008. After the game, Mike McCarthy said "they are just a better team than we are right now". Two years later, those Packers won the Super Bowl and are the favorites to double up. Just let that sit a while.
Doug Free - the worst O-lineman on the team, which is truly saying something when you look at who we had at guard and center, he didn't live up to his hype or his pay check. Opposing defensive ends routinely beat him like he owed them money. Romo and the rest of the offense suffered as a result.
Romo's games up to and including Detroit - he caught a ton of flak about his play during this period (some of it deserved, some not) and the team looked like it had an offense with a leader that couldn't get his ship righted.
Jason Garrett's double duty - it became plainly evident that Garrett was too inexperienced to jump into a dual role the likes of Andy Reid or Sean Payton. Why he chose to (and why Jerry let him) go without an offensive coordinator just because he struck out with Paul Chryst is utterly inexcusable.
The interior O-line - question: what happens when you insert a rotating group of three JAGs at center and both guard spots into the starting lineup for a team that should be a playoff contender? Answer: the Dallas Cowboys in 2011. 'Nuff said.
The Pass Rush - I know, I sound like a broken record, but in the 1990's, Dallas knew it needed a great outside pass rusher to serve as the missing piece to its burgeoning defense and Charles Haley complemented the younger DE's and DT's to create a nightmare for opposing QB's. In 2011's version, if you doubled Ware, you generally stoned the Cowboys' pass rush. I've watched that last game against the Giants a few times now and it was just heartbreaking to see so many defensive players unable to beat their man and create any pocket pressure. Ratliff (who really should not be a NT in Rob ryan's scheme) got next to no push in the middle and Coleman & Hatcher weren't much different than 2010's Spears and Igor. You know what's REALLY bad? 23. That's the number of sacks generated by all of the Dallas defenders not named DeMarcus Ware. As a result, the DB's and LB's were forced to shadow pass catchers for far too long and Dallas made average QB's look like pro bowlers.
The defensive secondary - it had to be one of the worst in football because they literally were lost in coverage at critical moments in so many big games. I don't know that they single-handedly lost Dallas a ton of games, but they sure didn't help us win many. With Dave Campo gone, hopes run high for a new DB coach that will help that group better prepare for their opponents.
Punting and Kicking - why is it that I was unable to breathe every time we kicked the ball or had the ball kicked to us? My close calls with asphyxiation had more to do with missed tackles, questionable coverage schemes and revolving door blocking techniques (that's a unique coaching skill) than any chronic medical condition I might have. Thankfully, we didn't give up any TD's on returns, but we were 27th in yards-per-return on punts and 21st on KO's. If not for the season's biggest surprise in Dan Bailey, Joe DeCamillis would be in a witness protection program.
The Eagles - Dallas is dangerously close to letting the Eagles get into their heads in the same way Dallas got into the heads of the Redskins some years back. Dallas has played far too many non-competitive games against them and it looked like the two teams were headed in the exact opposite directions as the year ended. That, and having your owner/GM say he is scared of them doesn't bode well for their contests in 2012. 54-14 in two games. Yeesh!!!
Whatever it is we do between offensive plays - is it me or do the Cowboys coaches and players just pay NO attention to the play clock? Why are so many snaps just barely getting off at the :00 mark? Why is Romo having to tell people who just came out of the huddle what their assignment is? This is the SAME offense we've had for four years now! It's the same guy calling the same plays. It's incomprehensible. And does Romo really need to keep the linemen in their stance for 12 seconds while he goes through his pre-snap reads? If Aikman had ever done that with Larry Allen, he would have lost a few teeth in the ensuing conversation to help get his mind right.
Overall inconsistency - no unit on this team was ever able to establish any degree of consistent high performance nor even some measure of consistent improvement, over the course of the season. From game to game you didn't know which group would underperform. The offense would hang 44 on the Bills one week and then score 60 total over the next 3 weeks. The defense would look confused against the Lions one week and then lock down Brady, Welker and Gronkowski the next. Maddening. Garrett talked about how they would practice and prepare and improve every day as being some of the hallmarks of his leadership paradigm. He has work to do.
There's a sampling of what I'll be thinking about this offseason as the Trinity looks to continue the Cowboys' makeover. What about you?