Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
In the last week of the 2012 season, the Dallas Cowboys face an almost identical situation as what they faced a year ago. Nothing has changed since 2011. Except everything is different.
It is almost eerie when you look at the similarities between the last week of the season for the Dallas Cowboys in both 2011 and 2012. Record 8-7. Last game of the season against a division rival. Winner will be the NFC East champion. If Dallas loses, they go home and start working on the offseason roster and preparing for the draft. Game is on Sunday night, making NBC really happy and FOX really miffed.
The situation is markedly similar. But the Cowboys themselves are very, very different.
I am not talking about the names on the roster, although you can certainly look at the large turnover that happened both during the last offseason and since this season's injury-fest began as one way the team has significantly changed. But to me, the biggest differences between the current edition of the Cowboys and that of last year are almost all intangible. This, of course, delves into the subjective, and I can't present a lot of clearly meaningful statistics to bolster my case. If you have read my stuff for long, however, you know that those intangibles are what interest me the most.
The biggest difference I see between the seasons is that the 2012 Cowboys are on an upswing, while in 2011 the team was pretty much coming apart. The Cowboys had a 7-4 record after November, and at that time clearly had control over their own fate. But they went a dismal 1-4 the rest of the way, including three losses to division opponents. The worst games of the season were arguably the last two. First they lost 20-7 to the Philadelphia Eagles after Tony Romo went out with a swollen hand. Then, still with a chance to win the division in front of that eager national audience, the team came out flat and listless. I can still hear Cris Collinsworth talking about how the Cowboys just were not that good. It infuriated me - but I could not argue much with his observations. The 2011 Cowboys displayed what can be described as a clear lack of backbone in finishing the season. They were in the driver's seat, and drove things right into the ditch.
This year, the Cowboys have lacked a lot, but determination and fight have not been among the shortages. They lost some games early because they came out and got smacked too hard to recover, but starting with the fifth game of the season, against the Baltimore Ravens, they have either won or been in the game until the very end. Since the bye week, the only game that the Cowboys were in too deep a hole was the first Washington Redskins game, and Dallas still was only down one score at the end. Despite still suffering from slow starts, the team fights back. It has gone 3-1 this December, and the comeback against the New Orleans Saints was inspiring, even if the team could not manage to win in overtime. Every game this year has involved coming back from a deficit at some point. And there is little question that the 2012 Cowboys have faced far more adversity than last year. The ever-lengthening injury list and the still-raw emotions from the death of Jerry Brown outweigh the injury struggles that Tony Romo had with his punctured lung in 2011 - and the team was winning when he was having the most problems.
After the Giants eliminated Dallas in that last game a year ago, I had a lot of questions about the team. The most disturbing ones dealt with the lack of toughness they had shown, and whether Jason Garrett's often cited process was having any effect at all.
Now, those questions have certainly been answered, at least in my mind. This team has shown a great and enduring resiliency in dealing with hardship. In the last half of the season, they have looked like what Garrett has described as the kind of team he wants. They never quit, they take their lumps and just keep fighting, and they stand together. Don't take my work for it. Demarcus Ware says so, and do you really want to argue with him? (Taken from an interview before the Saints game, obviously.)
"This is the closest team I've been on in any year I've been here. And I've been here eight years," said Ware, who has watched this team climb to 8-6 _ and grab a share of first place in the NFC East standings _ with a 3-0 start to the December schedule. "It's about how all 11 guys get together, play together with that passion and intensity and do the right things. That's what we've been doing and, this December, it's been a whole different team."
Last year left me with a hollow and somewhat disillusioned feeling. I doubt that will be the case this time around. I expect the Cowboys to come out fighting against the Redskins, and even if they have more problems like they had against the Saints, I know that they put their best effort on the field. The fact that a high percentage of the players were not even with the team at the halfway point of the season and yet are still inspiring comments like Ware's says a lot about this bunch. You cannot expect players who did not have an NFL job a few weeks ago to come in and play effectively against the likes of Drew Brees or even Robert Griffin III. I do think they have a good chance against Bob and his buddies, because no matter how good a rookie quarterback he is, he is not on a level with Brees.
I really do expect the Cowboys to make it into the playoffs with a win in Landover. But even if they don't manage to do so, I fully expect to have a lot of respect for the effort they put out. These Cowboys are clearly headed in a good direction. It is a complete reversal of the way I felt about the team a year ago, no matter how similar the seasons look on the surface.