Progress. That's a word that can describe the 2009 Dallas Cowboys. But going into 2010, every team is looking to progress. That's why our heads are swimming with the names of draft prospects while we're trying to keep tabs on which NFL free agents are going where.
Let's digress for a moment back to this past season. We all had questions going into '09, and the biggest ones were all answered by the Cowboys in a positive manner.
Can Tony Romo improve on his turnover ratio and win big late in the year? Yes.
Will somebody replace T.O.'s big plays on offense? Yes.
Can the Dallas defense consistently play 60-minute football? Yes.
Will the special teams coverage units improve? Yes.
By winning the division and finding success in the postseason, the Cowboys have raised expectations for next season. The 2009 team made a statement. And they did so by making plays when they really needed them.
Let's look at five statement plays the Cowboys made last season.
The Week Five overtime win in Kansas City has been heralded by some as the turning point of the season. Going into the game at 2-2, the Cowboys were expected to whoop the 0-4 Chiefs. Instead, the Dallas defense gave up a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. A 2-3 record going into the bye was staring the Cowboys right in the face.
Already having a career day during his first start, Miles Austin made the last play of the game: a 60-yard overtime game-winning TD score.
STATEMENT MADE: Never give up.
Coming out of their bye week, the Cowboys (3-2) met up with a hot, 4-1 Atlanta Falcons team. Prior to this Week Seven contest, the Cowboys had yet to defeat a team with a winning record.
To make a statement, Dallas had to follow up the overtime win at Kansas City by beating Atlanta at Cowboys Stadium. And they had to cut out the sloppy play. They had to win to keep up in the division against the first place Giants. They also could ill afford to drop a second conference game. Who knew how the playoff picture would pan out over the next 10 weeks?
Miles Austin was the big playmaker the week before. The Falcons found out though, that the Cowboys still had a playmaker taking snaps from center.
With 15 seconds left before the half and the Cowboys up 10-7, Tony Romo took a shotgun snap on 3rd-and-goal. Within seconds, Falcons pass rushers were all over him. He somehow managed to duck his way through and complete a TD pass to Patrick Crayton in the back of the end zone.
Instead of going up 13-7 with a field goal, they led 17-7 at the half en route to an impressive 37-21 victory.
STATEMENT MADE: Go for the throat.
In Week Eight against the Seattle Seahawks, the special teams units made a statement. Sure, David Buehler and Mat McBriar had been having a good first half of the season with their units. And sure, Patrick Crayton and the punt return team scored the week prior against the Falcons. Improvements had been seen across the board on special teams.
To seemingly defy all odds, there was Crayton and the punt return team again icing the game with a special teams score. Two weeks in a row! Are you kidding me?
STATEMENT MADE: Firing on all cylinders.
Who Dat? Dat's DeMarcus Ware stripping Drew Brees of the ball with less than 10 seconds remaining in the game!
The 8-5 Dallas Cowboys went into New Orleans and handed the 13-0 Saints their first defeat of the season. Remarkably, Ware was able to play in a limited role after suffering a frightening neck injury the week before against the Chargers. It was fitting that he "pull the hero" on the night by securing the win for the 'Boys.
The team needed it badly. Not many pundits out there gave them a chance. And after having lost the first two games of December, the late season jinx-talkers were out in full force. From this game on, the Cowboys would win out in the regular season.
STATEMENT MADE: Search and destroy.
You would think that beating the Philadelphia Eagles 20-16 on their own turf back in Week Nine was enough to silence the critics. But nooo! The NFL chose again to make the Cowboys face their division rivals to end the regular season. This time, the NFC East Championship and home field advantage in the Wild Card Round were on the line.
Having won two games in a row, the Cowboys were looking to end the regular season with a bang. Momentum going into the playoffs hinged on this Week 17 matchup against the hated Eagles. So what if they were expected to meet each other again the next week in the playoffs? Frankly, Dallas had the better team. They just needed to show it.
With the defense pitching a shutout late into the third quarter, the Cowboys needed just one big play to break the Eagles' backs. And they got it from Felix Jones.
STATEMENT MADE: The future is ours.
There certainly were many memorable plays from the 2009 Dallas Cowboys season. These five, I felt, epitomized how the team learned to cope with a disappointing '08 while also showing its zest for the future.
Miles Austin and Felix Jones showed us how fast, how explosive this offense should be. Before our eyes, guys like Tony Romo and Patrick Crayton seemed to grow into savvy veterans. On defense, young vets like DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff jelled with a handful of new starters to keep points down and keep the Cowboys in games. Coach Joe DeCamillis came in to put the cherry on top, as the special teams units saw significant improvement.
The core of the team is here. Jerry Jones said they will be "aggressive" this offseason, which suggests a few solid tweaks to the personnel. Looking back, we can see how the Cowboys made statements throughout the season. Presumably, the season itself can be perceived as a statement made.
If the Cowboys improve in 2010 to become a legitimate Super Bowl contender, then the statement made for the '09 season would read: to be continued. In the next few months, they may just have to be - as Jerry Jones said - aggressive. That's how they improved from the '08 team. Remember, statements can be made in the offseason too.