At this time of year, much of the attention of an NFL team's fanbase is focused on the new rookie class, the free agency acquisitions and the college free agents signed to the 90-man rosters.
It is that peculiar time of year when many a fan catches a little underdog fever. That time of year where rooting for the player least likely to make the team instead of rooting for an established starter makes all the sense in the world. Where it seems perfectly rational to want college free agent Adrian Hamilton ($4,000 signing bonus) to start ahead of Anthony Spencer ($8.8 million franchise tag). Where nobody so much as bats an eyelid when you mention a player who has never started a football game in his life as a strong candidate for the number three wide receiver spot (but he's really, really fast). And where an injury to a back-up guard brought in for a little over the veteran minimum makes some of us want to call in a congressional oversight committee to investigate what's going on at Valley Ranch.
As Cowboys fans, we are perhaps especially susceptible to underdog fever. After all, the Cowboys have a rich tradition of taking little-known players and turning them into superstars, most recently with the likes of Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jay Ratliff.
But even if some of the underdogs in this year's class do make the roster and eventually turn out to be stars themselves, when we look ahead at the 2012 season, it'll be on the Cowboys' veterans to get the team to the postseason. After the break, we review the 2011 performance of some of the Cowboys' key starters and personnel groups and split it into two parts, the parts we want to see in 2012 and the parts we don't want to see. So make like Scooter and jump all over the break.
As we review the 2011 performance, we'll split the season into two parts for each player or personnel group we look at. One part of the season will be good, on will be less so. The logic here is that if we can get more of the good performances in 2012, the team will significantly improve.
What we want to see again in 2012: Over the last 11 games of the season, Romo threw 23 TD passes and only four interceptions. In the process, he accumulated a passer rating of 108.9 - More of that, please.
The part we didn't like so much: In his first five games, Romo threw for almost as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (eight). He still did manage a 91.7 passer rating over that span, a rating surpassed for the season by only seven NFL teams. Not clear yet? Let me rephrase that then: At his worst last season, Romo's 91.7 passer rating was better than 24 other quarterbacks in ESPNs season-ending ranking of quarterbacks by passer rating.
What we want to see: In his first seven games, DeMarcus Ware recorded 12 sacks, or almost two per game. At that point, Ware was on pace for a 27.5 sack season, and would have obliterated the NFL record of 22.5
The part we didn't like so much: After that great start, things slowed down for Ware. In the remaining nine games, Ware 'only' collected 7.5 more sacks for an average of less than one per game. We're obviously complaining at a high level here. Keep in mind that those 7.5 sacks in little over half a season are more than Anthony Spencer has collected in any single season so far.
What we want to see: There was a lot not to like about the Cowboys' O-line at the beginning of last year, but one thing that did stand out was that the unit as a whole allowed only 15 sacks through the first nine games. At that pace the Cowboys would have allowed only 27 sacks for the season, which would have ranked them seventh in the league, just ahead of the Giants.
The part we didn't like so much: Again, there were lots of parts we didn't like, but one part that stood out were 24 sacks allowed over the last seven games. That clip of almost 3.5 sacks a game would have resulted in 55 sacks for the whole season and would have ranked the Cowboys a joint last in the league with the Rams.
What we want to see: Jason Witten started last season red hot. In his first four games, he notched 27 receptions for 366 yards. He had six or more receptions in every one of those games and 90 or more receiving yards in three of them. New England's Rob Gronkowski set the NFL record for tight end receiving yards last season with 1,327 yards. Had Witten maintained his blistering, season-opening pace of 91.5 yards per game, he'd hold the TE receiving record with 1,464 yards now.
The part we didn't like so much: Blame it on the emergence of Laurent Robinson, blame it on whatever you want, but Witten wasn't able to maintain his 91.5 yards per game pace, not even close. Over the remaining 12 games, Witten's per-game-average slipped to a more pedestrian 38.4 yards per game.
What we want to see: A healthy Austin. When healthy, Austin is easily one of the most explosive guys in the league.
The part we didn't like so much: When he was injured.
The Pass Defense
What we want to see: The pass defense has received a lot of (largely deserved) criticism for the 2011 season. But what often gets overlooked is that the Cowboys' pass defense held up quite well in the first part of the season, no small feat considering that the combination of Newman, Jenkins and Scandrick played together in only two games before week 13.
Through the first ten games, the Cowboys' pass pass defense allowed only 14 passing TDs, and picked off 14 passes en route to a defensive passer rating of 79.1. Had they maintained that level of performance, the Cowboys would have been tied with the Chiefs for the seventh best pass defense in 2011. Hard to believe now, but over those first ten games, the Cowboys allowed a 90+ passer rating only three times: in the win over the 49ers, the week eight loss to the Eagles and the overtime win over the Redskins in week 11.
The part we didn't like so much: Where the Cowboys had at least one interception in nine of their first ten games, they managed only one more interception in the remaining six games. Of their last six opponents, they held only the passing-game-challenged Buccaneers to a passer rating below 90 points (89.7). Sure, both Jenkins and Newman were noticeably banged up, but the defensive collapse isn't just on them. Over the last six games, the Cowboys had a 105.0 defensive passer rating. Only the Vikings managed a higher value over the entire season.
Even though the Cowboys finished the season at 8-8, we often forget that at one point they were 7-4 and a game ahead of the Giants. As you can see from the above, each player and each unit had stretches last season where they played some very, very good football. Unfortunately, nobody was able to sustain that performance over the entire season.
To be successful in 2012 the Cowboys must find ways to again perform at the high level they have already shown in parts of 2011 - but for a lot longer.