Reality bites sometimes, and for fans of the Dallas Cowboys, the reality is that we are pretty much left looking forward to next year after the trainwreck of 2015. It feels like everything that could go wrong did. Barring a completely implausible run through the last three games and a lot of help, that is just how it is.
But hidden among the long, long run of disaster and doom are some bright spots. Not only are some players having some very good individual years, they actually offer evidence that the coaching and personnel staffs do know what they are doing. Here are four names that could be important building blocks in 2016.
Sean Lee. The often injured linebacker missed all of 2014, but he has mostly been healthy this year. And the decision to move him from the Mike to the Will linebacker position is paying off. He is showing the talent and savvy that the team really needs on the field. His performance has him on NFL.com's list of the top ten candidates for comeback player of the year.
After missing the entire 2014 campaign with a torn ACL, the Cowboys decided to shift him from the middle to the weakside, hoping to decrease the risk of further injuries. The transition has been an unqualified success; Lee has been Dallas' best defensive player, regaining his closing speed and excelling in coverage.
Lee is not only a top talent for the defense, he is a true leader for the team. If he can continue to stay on the field because he is taking less punishment playing outside, the team can only benefit.
DeMarcus Lawrence. After a rookie season that was severely hampered by a preseason injury, Lawrence has begun to emerge as a real force. The team paid a lot in the draft to get him in 2014, trading up in the second round to make sure they got a player they felt they had to have. But due to those injury issues, he had no impact until the very end of the season, and really began to contribute in the playoffs.
A rookie pass rusher generally needs a season of work to become effective in the NFL, and due to the way his development was held back in 2014, he is just now getting enough experience under his belt to become the player that the team had hoped for. He has now accumulated enough playing time to make the gamble the team took with the trade pay off.
In a year of so many disappointments, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence has been one of the few bright spots, recording five of his team-high six sacks during the last five games. Lawrence, who has only been called for two penalties, has also climbed to second on the team with 26 quarterback pressures.
Not only is Lawrence beginning to make significant contributions, he also provides hope for 2015's second round pick, Randy Gregory, to pay off. Like Lawrence, Gregory missed significant playing time due to injury. He also is just now starting to show up on the field. As one of the "extra" first-round picks he is characterized as after falling in the draft due to off-field concerns, he is poised to have the same kind of progression as Lawrence, which means he could be coming into his own around midseason next year.
Byron Jones. The real first-round pick of the Cowboys hit the ground running, and has arguably been the best defensive back the team has. Gifted with a rare combination of off-the-charts athletic talent and extremely high intelligence, both the football and overall kinds, he has played well as a cornerback and even better as a safety. That kind of position flexibility is invaluable. He looks like the latest in a string of first-round draft successes for Dallas, and hopefully will have a long and fruitful career. Now if he can just start getting some interceptions - along with the rest of the team.
La'el Collins. The tragic events he was undeservedly caught up in cost him millions when everyone in the league passed on him in the draft, but the chance for a happy ending (and what should be a very lucrative second contract) came for him when Jerry Jones and the staff went all-in on getting him signed as a UDFA. He is still learning, but he stepped in for the injured Ronald Leary and has not only acquitted himself well, but has at times dazzled, as he did on the long Darren McFadden run when he leveled one defender and ran 40 yards downfield to lead the way. He adds the truly nasty attitude great offensive linemen need to his remarkable speed. While he is still very much a work in progress, he looks to be firmly entrenched as one of the four young and talented linemen that will be the foundation of the offense for years to come.
As it might have been observed before here, it sucks to have to be looking forward to next year, especially when this season seemed to hold so much promise back in September. But there is a lot for the Cowboys to build on. In addition to the players that are active, there are also multiple key pieces that will hopefully be back from injury. And three of the four players listed above, plus Gregory, are all young and should have long careers. All NFL teams that have disappointing seasons like to point to the future, but it is easier to have hope when you have some solid players to work with. The cupboard is far from bare for the Cowboys. It may be cold comfort, but it is a lot better than it could be.