A 1-1 postseason record for the Cowboys puts us right here: passing out game balls for the 2009 season. Let's break them down a little differently this time.
We will be concentrating on players from the offensive, defensive, and special teams units. For this season review edition, we've got an MVP, a Most Improved, a Could've Seen More From, and a Rookie of the Year category for each unit. If applicable, each category also includes some Runners Up.
Make the jump to see who gets the 2009 BTB game balls.
MVP: Tony Romo - We have all seen that Romo is more than capable of putting up positive offensive numbers. He did that this year by completing 347 of his 550 pass attempts for a respectable 63.1 completion percentage. His 4483 passing yards (most in Cowboys history) and 26 TDs are mind-blowing. However, it's those negative, momentum-changing plays that had many of us concerned.
In Week 2 against the, Romo went 13 of 29 for one TD with three INTs. A 29.6 QB rating concluded his night. His turnovers helped the Giants to a 33-31 win in the first ever game in the new Cowboys Stadium. That game re-ignited the talk that "he wasn't a big game QB". Those who believed in him saw their faith soften. Those who did not had their suspicions confirmed.
But things changed. And as the weeks progressed, the change seemed to be apparent in Romo, himself. Perhaps inspired by his poor Week 2 performance, he seemed to take better care of the ball, make wiser decisions. Every so often we would get to see some Romo-magic, such as on his 4-yard TD pass against Atlanta. The difference, though, between that Romo and the one of the past, was that he took those chances only when the team needed him to. For instance, when down 0-6 against the , the team needed its QB to hang in there until he made that one magical play to attain victory.
Since Romo became the starter in 2006, his interception rate has decreased steadily from 3.9 ('06) to 3.7 ('07) to 3.1 ('08). In 2009, it dropped dramatically to 1.6 after having thrown just nine picks on the season. This helped him achieve a career high 97.6 QB rating. And he brought his fumbles down from 13 in '08 to just six (losing four). All of this in a season where he was sacked a career high 34 times.
Somebody's making progress.
Runners Up: Miles Austin
Most Improved: Miles Austin - Who can make a play? Well...Austin proved he can. And boy, did he ever make a believer out of all of us.
He teased us in Week 1 with a 42-yard TD catch and run in Tampa. Then, in Week 5 in Kansas City, it all came together for him. After failing to beat a defender to the ball on a potential TD grab, he then let another bounce off his hands. Against the winless, the Cowboys clawed for points, the offense searched for an identity. Starting for the injured Roy Williams, this was Austin's chance.
Going into the fourth quarter, he was already having the game of his career, and then to borrow a quote from Brad Sham, "Austin made the play; Austin saved the day!" We all know how that game turned out...I'll just let you watch it again for yourselves.
In his first NFL start, Austin caught 10 balls for 250 yards and two TDs. In retrospect, that overtime victory seemed to be the spark that Austin and this offense needed. He finished the year posting 81 receptions for 1320 yards (16.3 YPC average) and 11 TDs.
Most important to the Cowboys offense is the chemistry that he and Romo have. Austin fights for the ball and is a tackle-breaking machine. His speed threatens defenses, and his potential is just now being tapped.
Runners Up: Tony Romo, Doug Free, Felix Jones, Andre Gurode
Could've Seen More From: Roy Williams - Lack of production would shatter many a WR's confidence, especially one expected to be the #1 guy for the Dallas Cowboys. All trade and salary ramifications aside, Williams just did not have an inspiring year. He finished with 38 receptions for 596 yards and 7 TDs.
For a few games, it looked as if Jason Garrett had found a nice niche for Williams as a red zone threat. But that was as positive as it got for #11. Often, he and Romo did not seem to be on the "same page". When the offense needed a third-down grab, he could not be depended upon.
Drops, a lack of confidence from the QB, and inconsistency plagued RW's season. For us fans, the hope well is just about dried up.
Runners Up: Martellus Bennett, Deon Anderson, Montrae Holland
ROY: John Phillips
Hat tip to TE coach, John Garrett, for "recruiting" both Phillips and the guy below.
Runner Up: Kevin Ogletree
MVP: DeMarcus Ware - Even with nine fewer sacks (11) this year than last, Ware is still the MVP of this defense. He is the guy opposing offenses fear. He's fast enough to beat the tackles around the edge; strong enough to push them back into the QB, and athletic enough to reach around a back or TE to swat that ball out of the passer's hands.
This season started off uncharacteristically for Ware. Through the first four games, he did not register a sack. In fact, the entire defense was coming up short getting to opposing QBs. And then, right before the bye against Kansas City, something clicked. Ware had two sacks that game, and then had two more following the bye against Atlanta. It was on. And the Cowboys' defense was flying high until they hit that Giants' bump in the road in Week 13.
The following week, in a home game against San Diego, we all held our collective breath. My heart frowns just remembering Ware on the ground, being carted off on a stretcher. My fears transitioned rapidly from thinking about how the defense would play without him to how scared his family, his wife, his daughter must have been. All of us have heard about how good a person Ware is off of the field; and just over a month prior to that injury, we were brought closer to that goodness by our own Mike Fisher in his two part series with #94.
Fortunately, the neck injury was not serious enough to keep Ware out of the next game against the 13-0. His quick recovery and return served as an inspiration to the team. His sack/forced fumble to end the Saints' final drive confirmed how much he means to this defense, this team. They went on to dominate their final two opponents on their way to a playoff victory over the .
Other than the 11 sacks, Ware finished the season with 57 total tackles (45 solo) with six passes defended and five forced fumbles.
Runners Up: Mike Jenkins, Anthony Spencer, Keith Brooking, Jay Ratliff
Most Improved: Mike Jenkins - No sophomore slump here. Remember, way back during training camp, the great Jenkins/Scandrick debates? Coach Phillips couldn't even decide. When preseason rolled around, the two CBs rotated starts. In fact, that was the plan going into the regular season. Then, Scandrick got waxed by the Giants in Week 2. During the following week, Jenkins caught his first of five INTs on the season. The Cowboys ended up keeping Scandrick in the slot; and as for Jenkins, his confidence grew with every opportunity.
It has been quite some time since the majority of us can agree that Terence Newman is not the best CB on the Cowboys. And that is not a knock on Newman - rather, it's a statement about Jenkins. He has progressed into potentially one of the better CBs in the conference. He plays with confidence and it shows. Opponents only scored twice on him during the regular season and he led the team in both INTs and passes defended (23).
Those who questioned his tackling ability saw the former #31-turned-#21 take down defenders in a physical manner. He notched nearly 50 tackles this year and even had a few takedowns in coverage (remember what he did to Atlanta's).
Press. Zone. Closing speed. Run support. Jenkins can do it all. And from what he showed this year, the Cowboys should have themselves a fine DB to match up against any team's #1 WR.
Runners Up: Anthony Spencer
Could've Seen More From: Ken Hamlin - Zero INTs and two pass defenses from the free safety position is not what many people would think of as productive. Yes, he missed four full games due to injury. And yes, he was asked to double-up on certain wideouts - like on Steve Smith in the Carolina game. He did play his role, and never seemed to be too much of a liability in the passing game.
Nevertheless, he didn't make any big plays. And the dropoff to Alan Ball while Hamlin was out didn't seem very noticeable. Sure, it was nice to get him back to add a more physical presence to the secondary than what the diminutive, yet efficient Ball offers. The "Hammer's" new found rivalry with Jeremy Maclin was fun to watch, too. But, wouldn't we all like a lot more evident ball-hawking skills out of the Cowboys' secondary? How about some help in the turnover department from the free safety?
No forced fumbles either. Sigh.
Runners Up: Jason Hatcher, Curtis Johnson
ROY: Victor Butler - He made a bit of a name for himself in Week 3 vs. Carolina with two sacks and a forced fumble to help seal the victory. Then, he did the same in Week 9 by sacking a looking-to-scramble in Philly. For a rookie making a transition from college DE to pro OLB, Butler showed some potential; and Coach Phillips may have found a role for him on this defense.
Mat McBriar - Do you know how many touchbacks McBriar kicked this year? Three. Yes, three! Out of 72 punts, only three went into the end zone. That's amazing. What's even more amazing is that out of those same 72 total punts, more than half of them (38 to be exact) landed inside the opponents' 20-yard line. Let that sink in.
McB and the punt coverage team had something swell going on all season. Only 38 of his punts were returned - for a measly 8.3 average. 23 were fair catches. That's some great accuracy and great teamwork between McB and the rest of that unit.
This guy deserved a Pro Bowl bid because he averaged 45.1 YPP with a career-high net of 39.9.
Honorable Mention: David Buehler, Patrick Crayton, L.P.Ladouceur
Most Improved: Patrick Crayton - Crayton returned 36 punts for 437 yards. That's an average of 12.1 YPR with two going for TDs. On his longest, the 82-yarder vs. Seattle, he exemplified the skills needed to be a successful punt returner. Combining his veteran vision with a few quick cuts and a straight-arm on the punter, he helped the team secure that Week 8 victory.
Every training camp, we ponder who will take the punt return duties away from Crayton. Much of that pondering stemmed from his perceived penchant for the fair catch (he had 23 on the season). This season, though, he showed us that he is capable of big plays. He also showed that he's got enough straightway speed and enough wiggle to give Dallas some great field position.
When Crayton takes a punt out of bounds for a 7-yard return, he sure looks like he knows what he's doing out there. Often, that saves the offense more yards from the potential bounce. That's smart. Simply put - no player has been able to provide the consistency that he has at returning punts. And this year, he produced.
Runners Up: Sam Hurd, Jay Ratliff, Pat Watkins
Could've Seen More From: Nick Folk/Shaun Suisham - Folk went 18/28 on field goals, while Suisham hit 2/3 in the regular season. Of course, those two misses at Minnesota may seal Suisham's fate with this team. On the plus side, both kickers were perfect on the year with extra points (36/36 for Folk, 5/5 for Suisham). Unfortunately, it is highly doubtful that any coach, fan, or teammate could tell you they would have absolute confidence in either of these kickers should a game rest on them.
With a combined 64.5% success rate in the placekicking department, the staff is likely to consider other options going into 2010. It's a shame, especially when you consider how much potential Folk had.
Runners Up: Felix Jones (22.6-yard average on 30 returns), Jason Williams, Mike Hamlin
ROY: David Buehler - All he did was lead the NFL with 29 touchbacks. That is why they drafted him, and he did his job and then some. Along with being the kickoff specialist, Buehler also served roles on the other special teams units and was often seen running down to cover both his and McBriar's kicks.
Touchbacks proved to be just what the kickoff team needed. From a dismal '08 season that gave up 21.3 YPR to opponents that included a 93-yard TD, this '09 unit improved to the second best in the league, giving up just 20.6 YPR with a long of 67. That '08 unit - at times led by Folk's directional kicks - had 71 kickoffs returned on them for a whopping 1510 yards. This season, Buehler's leg helped trim those numbers down to 47 returns for 967 yards.
Like many of you, I was hoping to avoid having to review the Cowboys season until February. Alas, it could not be. Theand their loud horns were triumphant. Oh well. This Cowboys team has a good core of young players, including some rising new stars in Austin, Spencer, and Jenkins. Felix Jones was even starting to tear it up towards the end.
This season, they won their way into the final eight. Although they gave it a good go, there's room for improvement.
But before we each step both feet into the offseason, let me ask you once more...
Who get your game balls?