Despite a disappointing end to the season, Cowboys fans once again have good reason to be proud of what their team accomplished. And perhaps even more importantly, Cowboys fans can look forward with confidence to next season, hopeful that the playoffs will not end after the divisional round.
And that feeling is quite a marked departure from the feelings we've shared at the end of the last four seasons. To find out just how different things are this year, I went back to a post I published on January 2, 2012, titled "Loss To Giants Is Just The Rude Awakening Cowboys Needed." The Cowboys had just lost a Week 17 win-and-you're-in season finale against Giants, and things were not looking too rosy.
You'll find a word-for-word version of that original article from 2012 below on the left, mirrored by my 2015 version of that post on the right. Compare and contrast.
January 2, 2012
Imagine the Cowboys would have won against the Giants. We'd be in the playoffs. With some luck, we might even have gotten a win against the Falcons in the wild-card round, or perhaps not. In any case, the season would have been considered a moderate success.
We could have looked back on the season and surmised that the Cowboys were actually better than their W/L record indicated. After all, we were just a little unlucky during the course of the season, losing four times by four points or less and once in overtime. And surely, those five blown fourth quarter leads were just a fluke.
We could have argued that the Cowboys had a pretty good pass rush. After all, they finished seventh in the league with 42 sacks. Or we could have argued that the secondary wasn't really that bad, after all, the Packers, Patriots and Saints all ranked below us in passing yards allowed. Even the O-line wasn't that bad, after all, they ranked 18th in sacks allowed, right?
Heck, a couple of upgrades here or there and we'd have been ready for a Super Bowl run in 2012. You think I'm kidding? Here's Jerry Jones after the game against the Giants:
"Just hours ago I thought this core group had an opportunity to go very far into the playoffs," Jones said. "So I'm very disappointed. I'm frankly surprised that we didn't do better and that we didn't win this ballgame.
[... Not until] right up until the end of the fourth quarter did it really dawn on me that we probably weren't going to be in the playoffs. And that's a shame, because we've got a team in here that I think is good enough to play and play well, but we didn't show it tonight."
Thank God we lost to the Giants.
Everything that's wrong with the Cowboys was highlighted in yesterday's loss:
A team that cannot rise to the occasion when it most needs to and lost four of its final five games down the stretch. An offensive line that allowed a season-high six sacks and was as porous as it's been all season. A running game that's scored only five TDs all season. A special teams unit that ranks close to the bottom of the league in almost all categories. A secondary that ranks 25th in defensive passer rating. A pass rush that can't get pressure on the QB when it counts.
The Cowboys missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, the first time since the 2004 and 2005 seasons. That's how bad things currently are. The Cowboys are 8-8, and that is not an accident. The Cowboys are an average team, and have been for quite a while. Everybody knows it, except the Cowboys themselves and their most hardcore fans.
And where Wade Phillips was used as the convenient cop-out for last year's 6-10 record, the excuses will not be as easy to come by this year. And that is a good thing.
The Cowboys must now focus on fixing this team. And let's be crystal clear, this team needs a lot fixing - on offense, defense, special teams and on coaching. Perhaps the way the season played out this year will provide for a greater sense of urgency than the Cowboys displayed in 2009, when an improbable late-season defensive surge lifted the Cowboys into the playoffs and delayed some inevitable rebuilding.
Thank God we lost to the Giants. That loss and missing the playoffs may just have been the rude awakening the organization needed.
And please, stop all the talk about how talented this roster is, or how a roster with this much talent should have produced better results. Stop it right now. The talent on this team got us to 8-8. It's going to take a talent transfusion to get this team anywhere.
The Cowboys must look at the entire offseason talent acquisition process - free agency, the draft, UDFA's, trades - and figure out a way to get this team back on track.
After the loss, Garrett said the Cowboys have to get better across the across the board, starting with him and including the coaching staff. He didn't want to talk about specific players, but the DMN notes that 21 Cowboys (or 40% of the roster) have contracts that expire at the end of the season. That's a good place to start as the Cowboys think about what needs to be done to become a competitive NFL franchise again.
January 13, 2015
For the first time since 2009, the Cowboys made the playoffs. They took care of the Lions in the wild-card round, and took the Packers down to the wire in the divisional round. Despite the early playoff exit, the season must be considered a success.
Very few people, if any, expected the Cowboys to finish the season with a 12-4 record. After all, the Cowboys were expected to have the worst defense in NFL history. DeMarcus Ware, Jason Hatcher, and Sean Lee were all gone, and passing on Johnny Manziel was surely going to come back to haunt them big time.
Yet the Cowboys emerged with one of the best offensive lines in the league, and scored more than 30 points in a league-high 10 games running and passing behind that O-line. Even the defense overachieved with a lot of effort and a lot of hustle. After all, they ranked 18th in yards allowed, even though that ranking owes a lot to the ball-control offense.
Heck, a couple of upgrades here or there and we'll be ready for a Super Bowl run in 2015. You think I'm kidding? Here's Jerry Jones after the game against the Green Bay Packers:
Jones called it a "surreal" feeling to be at the end of his team’s wild ride.
"I know I’m saying the words and we’re standing here talking about it being over, but I can’t feel like it’s over at all," he said. "It wasn’t over, what, 10 minutes ago."
"We have a team here that had a chance to compete for the championship. I think we are right now good enough to compete with the eventual Super Bowl winner and win the ball game. And that hurts."
Thank God the Cowboys are talking about championships again.
While Jerry Jones never stopped talking about championships, one 6-10 season and three successive 8-8 seasons made that sound like the ramblings of an owner out of touch with reality. No more:
The Cowboys are now a team that can battle through adversity and boasts a meme-busting 4-0 record in December. They have one of the best offensive lines in the league for the foreseeable future. They have the top-rated passing game in the league as measured by passer rating. Their running game ranked second in the league in total rushing yards.
Yet for all the accolades on offense, the defense remains a major work in progress. The pass rush was anemic, despite picking up the pace in the second half of the season. Their 28 sacks rank 28th in the league, and are the fourth lowest total for the Cowboys since 1992. Everybody knew it, especially opposing QBs.
And while the last few years have seen the Cowboys focus on rebuilding their offensive line, there are no excuses for not rebuilding the defense this year. And that is a good thing.
The Cowboys are well aware of this. Stephen Jones, speaking on 105.3 The Fan yesterday, acknowledged that a pass rusher is "absolutely" a priority in the off-season. More than that: The Cowboys plan on chipping away at that defensive line the way they chipped away at that offensive line. If their success at rebuilding the offensive line is anything to go by, good things are in store for Cowboys fans.
Thank God the Cowboys are talking about championships again, because that means the rebuilding of the defense will be a top priority from now on.
And that rebuilding will require some tough decisions about this year's defensive players. Only four of the 11 defensive starters against the Packers were originally drafted by the Cowboys. That number has got to go up next year, just as the overall quality has to go up.
But the Cowboys may not want to wait for another three or four drafts until they get their defense right, so some free agency moves may be needed to upgrade this defense.
Jerry Jones said the Cowboys have "about 30 percent turnover every year." 22 Cowboys players (17 unrestricted free agents, five restricted free agents) have contracts that expire at the end of the season. That's a good place to start as the Cowboys think about what needs to be done to compete for a championship again. And that's a much better place to be compared to where they were in 2012.