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A Tale of Two Halves: Trending Dallas Cowboys Players In 2012

After a 3-5 start to the season, the Cowboys raced out to a 5-1 record over the next six games before finishing the second half of the season with a 5-3 record. The Cowboys played better in the second half of 2012, and we look at which players trended up and which trended down over the final eight games of 2012.

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The Cowboys record of the final eight weeks suggests that the Cowboys played better football in the second half of the 2012 season. It also stands to reason that some players were better in the second half of the season than they were in the first half. Dez Bryant is a prime example of that. Bryant had a solid 503 yards on 42 receptions and two TDs in his first eight games, but exploded for 879 yards on 50 receptions and 10 TDs in the second half of the season. As such, Bryant is certainly one of the "trending" players on the roster.

But not every player's performance is as easy to quantify using traditional stats. Which is why we turn to Pro Football Focus and their grades to see which players were trending in the second half of 2012 - both up and down.

To understand which players where trending in which direction, I looked at all players who had at least 200 snaps for the season, and who had those snaps distributed fairly evenly across the two halves of the season. That excludes players who missed significant time with injuries like Sean Lee (+12.1 grade for the season), Bruce Carter (+3.5), Jay Ratliff (+2.3), Orlando Scandrick (+0.3), Sean Lissemore (-6.0) and Ernie Sims (-8.1).

Quick note on the grades: The average grade, or what you would typically expect from an average NFL player, is a zero. A negative grade denotes a below average performance, a positive grade denotes an above average performance as graded by PFF. Also, these grades are cumulative, meaning that if you add the grades for the first and second half of the season, you get the total grade for the whole season. And without further ado, here are the Cowboys players who trended up in the second half of 2012:

Players Trending Up in 2012
Player 1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Dez Bryant -5.1 10.0 15.1
Jason Witten 4.7 14.3 9.6
Brandon Carr -4.4 4.5 8.9
Dwayne Harris -0.9 4.8 5.7
Anthony Spencer 9.0 14.0 5.0
Ryan Cook 0.4 5.3 4.9
Tyron Smith -0.3 4.1 4.4
Felix Jones -1.7 2.0 3.7
DeMarco Murray 2.1 5.2 3.1
Jason Hatcher 11.3 14.4 3.1
Tyrone Crawford 0.1 3.1 3.0
Victor Butler 2.9 4.3 1.4
Josh Brent 2.6 3.4 0.8

The table above is sorted by the change in grades between the first half and the second half. As such, it doesn't do justice to players like Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher who both followed up an outstanding first half with a stellar second half. Spencer really only had one bad game according to PFF and that was in Week 16 against the Saints (-4.5). Without that one game, he'd be very close to the top in this ranking.

Overall though, the table highlights the players who stepped up their performance, most notable among them Dez Bryant. Jason Witten struggled early in the season with his spleen injury but was back to his All Pro self later in the season. Brandon Carr had a little trouble adjusting but also came through in the second half, as did Ryan Cook, whose second half grade comes as a pleasant surprise.

Another pleasant surprise here is Dwayne Harris, who seems to have come into his own in his second year in the league. Note that these grades do not include performances on special teams. Harris' grade for special teams after Week 9 when the Cowboys started using him is a cool +6.3. Considering that Harris played only 218 offensive snaps in the second half, one could argue that Harris is the most improved player on the team, and certainly trending up. Another nice development here is rookie Tyrone Crawford, who had an above average second half of the season.

Next up: Players who dropped off.

Above average players trending down in 2012
Player 1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Tony Romo 9.9 6.7 -3.2
Nate Livings 7.0 4.3 -2.7
Miles Austin 7.3 0.9 -6.4

Romo, Livings and Austin are players that had a strong first half according to the PFF grades and dropped off in the second half to varying degrees, but still remained above average. The only worrying drop-off here is Miles Austin, who struggled once again with his hamstrings, and it showed on the field.

Nex table: below average players who improved to league average:

Below average players trending toward average in 2012
Player 1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Doug Free -9.3 -0.8 8.5
Gerald Sensabaugh -4.8 0.1 4.9
Kevin Ogletree -3.3 0.2 3.5
Dan Connor -3.4 -0.2 3.2
John Phillips -1.7 -0.3 1.4

For what it's worth, Doug Free had the biggest improvement in this group. That is good news insofar as the desolate performance of the first half wasn't repeated, but Free barely managed to play at a league average level for the last eight games of the season. Perhaps the reduced snap count (from 578 snaps in the first eight games to 479 snaps in the last eight) helped a little, as did the competition from Jermey Parnell.

Sensabaugh struggled with various injuries throughout the season, and had a below-par season by his standards after grading out at +3.5, +10.5 and +3.1 in the previous three seasons. Overall though, this is a group of players whose further stay with the Cowboys is being hotly discussed at Valley Ranch right now.

And finally, the group of players trending down:

Below average players trending toward average in 2012
Player 1st Half Grade 2nd Half Grade Change
Marcus R. Spears -0.8 -2.5 -1.7
Lawrence Vickers 1.3 -2.0 -3.3
Mackenzy Bernadeau -3.0 -7.8 -4.8
Danny McCray 0.5 -6.4 -6.9
Morris Claiborne 1.5 -6.0 -7.5
Mike Jenkins 1.9 -8.9 -10.8
DeMarcus Ware 7.7 -5.9 -13.6

All of these players played at significantly below average levels in the second half of the season. DeMarcus Ware had the biggest drop-off, but he also had to struggle with a number of different injuries. Morris Claiborne struggled in his rookie season, and his grades would look a lot better had it not been for the Eagles game in Week 10, for which he received a -4.6 grade.

Outside of Ware and Claiborne though, the future of these players as members of the Cowboys does not look overly positive. Mike Jenkins struggled mightily as a slot corner, and his grade reflects that. Danny McCray has already been relegated to his special teams role, and will likely remain there. Bernadeau's grade is heavily influenced by the -6.8 he received playing center in Weeks 11 & 12 against Cleveland and Philly. So that's something to keep in mind when evaluating his performance as a guard, but also when evaluating his potential as a center. Vickers never turned into the dominant blocker most fans had hoped he would be, and Marcus Spears, already a healthy scratch once in the season, is also trending in the wrong direction.

As is to be expected based on their second half record, the Cowboys played better as a group in the final eight games of the season, and this is reflected in the individual grades where the Cowboys have more players trending up than down. But this type of breakdown, and particularly the players featured in the last two tables, highlights some of the key issues the Cowboys need to address: the right side of the offensive line needs to be upgraded, the holes in the secondary need to be plugged and a beat up and ageing pass rush needs to be fortified.

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