The NFL produces just one fanbase each year that is universally happy with the end-result of the season. That team is hoisting a Lombardi Trophy. The rest are left with varying degrees of satisfaction and disappointment. Even the Super Bowl loser won't have complete unanimity. The also-rans are left to evaluate what went right and what went wrong in 2009, and to decide whether their team is moving in the right direction, the wrong direction, or no direction at all.
I, like every Dallas Cowboys fan, wanted more from this season. The Cowboys looked as good over the final four games of the season (pre-Minnesota) as they have in ages. I had more confidence in this team than I did the 2007 Cowboys, and that team was a juggernaut - until December hit. This team peaked when other Cowboys teams were bombing. They managed to kill the ‘no playoff wins' meme with a beatdown of Philly. Even going on the road to Minnesota, I felt confident that if we executed like we had recently, we could get the win. Obviously, we didn't. Minnesota's defense, plus Brett Favre and Sidney Rice, worked the Cowboys over. The offensive line was man-handled, and the offense collapsed.
We know that Wade Phillips and Co. will be back for another go-around (although no official word from Jerry yet). The Cowboys have a few valuable RFAs who must get signed, but in general, the roster, especially the starters, will probably look very similar to the unit we saw in 2009. Sure, somewhere along the way we'll be surprised by a signing, or a cutting; but I'd expect pretty much the same crew to return in 2010.
The Cowboys are working the continuity theme. They're betting that what they have in place is good enough to make a serious Super Bowl run in 2010. There will be some tweaking, but what you saw in 2009 will be what you see in 2010, only another year wiser.
And that's a smart play.
The Minnesota game was a buzz-kill. The Cowboys weren't ready for that game. But that's where another year wiser comes into play. Sometimes you have to climb the ladder to get to the Super Bowl, and the Cowboys grabbed a few more rungs this year. The defense finally lived up to its potential and became a force. Tony Romo learned the wisdom of ‘keeping the football safe.' We discovered we have a #1 WR. These were all nice moves upward. What we weren't ready for was going on the road and playing a 12-4 team with a lot of weapons. You can only hope that the experience of finding out that you weren't ready will pay off next year in a similar situation. Or perhaps you just eliminate that possibility by getting home-field advantage.
We're the Cowboys fanbase. As such, we're always thinking Super Bowl, our legacy dictates that. Even though we haven't had that kind of success in over a decade, we still long for it each season. The expectations will always be high.
Just because we have expectations every year, doesn't mean they'll be fulfilled. Let's just say it plain and simple, winning a Super Bowl is tough sledding. It doesn't just happen. It's a combination of a lot of factors, some controllable, a few that aren't.
What the Cowboys are doing is staying with their plan. I've taken shots at Wade Phillips over the years as a coach. This year, he won me over. Dallas hung together when the season looked to be in trouble a couple of times. The New Orleans game was a crucial test, and the Cowboys passed. They did the same with Philly two weeks in a row. One thing that should be clear, now that Wade has the kind of players he needs to run this defense, it's starting to work. Another year together, and another year wiser, and we might see a monster defense next year.
On the offensive side of the ball, Jason Garrett finally seemed to get comfortable with his offense. The development of Miles Austin was the piece that was missing. In 2007, when T.O. was still here and producing as a #1 WR, the Cowboys offense rolled. Now that Austin is filling that role, Garrett is finding the right mix of run and pass, how to best utilize his trio of backs, and developing his offensive tendencies to be one step ahead of defensive coordinators. Romo's new disdain for turnovers has put the icing on the cake.
Joe DeCamillis fixed the special teams, except for one crucial area. Expect him to find a decent FG kicker for 2010.
I don't want to gloss over the negatives. We do have issues. At the top, Wade Phillips has now won in the playoffs, he needs to prove he can win a Super Bowl. The Roy Williams affair is still a problem and has the potential to grow into something more. The offensive line let us down when we needed them the most, a careful evaluation of that situation is called for. The aforementioned FG kicker issue. There are more issue you can find if you go looking (and BTB will do that over the offseason).
When I balance the two, the positives and the negatives, I come out with the positives winning. The arrow is pointing up with this team. The coaches appear to have the personnel they need to run their schemes, and they've figured out the best ways to utilize the personnel. The franchise has a ton of young talent locked up for years to come. The atmosphere around the team, the chemistry in the locker room, the respect among players and coaches, all appear to be positive.
The offseason is here. We have a lot to look forward to. I won't fall into the trap of the 2008 offseason, when the Cowboys' success the previous year created a mythology that the Cowboys were the team to beat that year. We remember what happened then, we not only got beat, we got pummeled by Philly 44-6 and missed out on the playoffs.
This year, in the 2010 offseason, a reasonable optimism is the ticket.
One more year together. One more year wiser.
Hopefully, a few more rungs on the ladder, all the way to a Super Bowl.