At this time of year, many a fan catches a little underdog fever. Much of our collective attention over the past weeks and months has been focused on the new rookie class, the college free agents and most recently, the tryout players who made the roster. It's only natural that we start rooting for some of these names.
In fact, in our collective feverish state, rooting for the player least likely to make the team instead of rooting for an established starter suddenly makes all the sense in the world.
It now seems perfectly rational to want rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams to start ahead of Miles Austin. Nobody so much as bats an eyelid when a frontpage writer on BTB argues that a tryout tackle just signed to a contract "could really do the team a lot of good".
As Cowboys fans, we are particularly 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 2013 season, it'll be on the Cowboys' veterans to get the team to the postseason. Last year, the Cowboys rookie class played 6.6% of the team's total snaps. With better health, fewer free agents, and returning redshirt players, that figure could double and perhaps even triple this year - but it would still only be a minor part of the overall snaps that are taken by the veteran players.
With the onus for the 2013 season thus squarely on the shoulders of the Cowboys' key starters and personnel groups, we'll now take a look at their 2012 performance and split the season into two parts, where one part of the season will be good, and the other will be less so. The logic here is that if we can get more of the good performances in 2013, the team is bound to significantly improve.
What we want to see again: Over the last nine games of the season, Romo threw 19 TD passes and only six interceptions and also engineered four game-winning drives. In the process, he accumulated a passer rating of 99.5 - More of that, please.
The part we didn't like so much: In his first seven games, aided by the nine interceptions he threw in two games against the Bears and the Giants, Romo threw more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (9). His passer rating over those first seven games was a paltry 77.8 - we don't want any of that this year.
What we want to see: Over the first half of the season, a healthy DeMarcus Ware recorded 9 sacks, and was on track for an 18-sack season, just slightly behind the 19.5 sacks he recorded in 2011.
The part we didn't like so much: After that solid start, things started to unravel for Ware who battled through neck, shoulder and elbow injuries, but only collected 2.5 sacks in the remaining eight games of the season. Keep in mind that the 11.5 sacks Ware collected in 2012 were still the 9th highest total among all NFL players, but it's a low value relative to Ware's own standards.
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 stood out was that the unit as a whole allowed only nine sacks through the first seven games, or 1.3 sacks per game. At that pace, the Cowboys would have allowed only 21 sacks for the season, which would have ranked tied for second in the league with the Bronocs, and just one sack off the league-leading Giants.
The part we didn't like so much: Again, there were lots of parts we didn't like, but the part that drives our collective memory of last year were the 27 sacks allowed over the last nine games. That clip of exactly three sacks per game would have resulted in 48 sacks for the whole season and would have ranked the Cowboys a joint 28th in the league with the Dream Team in Philly - that's how bad things got.
What we want to see: While Ratliff didn't record any sacks in the six games he played last year, he did record six QB hits. Had he been at full health, some of those hits may have been sacks, but regardless: If he had maintained the pace of one QB hit per game, he'd have had 16 QB hits for the year, the second best value of any defensive tackle behind only Ndamukong Suh (20).
The part we didn't like so much: Ratliff missing 10 games
What we want to see: Dez Bryant exploded for 879 yards on 50 receptions and 10 TDs in the second half of the season. Over a full season, that would be 20 TDs, 1,758 yards and an All Pro nomination.
The part we didn't like so much: Bryant had a solid 503 yards on 42 receptions and two TDs in his first eight games. That would still have put him over 1,000 yards for the season and is nothing to sneeze at. But that second half performance has left us wanting so much more. Another "solid" performance will not be enough in 2013.
What we want to see: Orton holding a clipboard and patrolling the sidelines.
The part we didn't like so much: Orton came in for Romo after that 5-interception disaster against the Bears. Ergo: If Orton plays, something likely is wrong with Romo. We don't want that. Plus, Orton can only retain his title of "Best Backup QB in the League" if he remains exactly that and consistently doesn't play a snap.
The Pass Defense
What we want to see: An above average pass defense. Heck, I'd even take an average pass defense.
The part we didn't like so much: Everything. Here's a breakdown of the Cowboys' defensive passer rating by weeks:
Weeks 1-6 (team is largely healthy): 97.7
Weeks 7-11 (team is moderately healthy): 85.6
Weeks 12-17 (team is heavily injured): 100.6
The 2012 Cowboys had the worst defensive passer rating (94.7) in franchise history and ended up 29th in the league.
Even though the Cowboys finished the season at 8-8, we often forget that after a 3-5 start to the season, the Cowboys raced out to a 5-1 record over the next six games and almost took the division before finishing the second half of the season with a 5-3 record. As you can see from the above, almost every player and every 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 2013 the Cowboys must find ways to again perform at the high level they have already shown in parts of 2012 - but more consistently.