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The year the Cowboys should have won a Super Bowl but didn’t even win a playoff game

2007 - From unexpected hope to sudden end.

New York Jets v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys franchise is tied for second all-time in Super Bowl wins with five. The five Super Bowl winners (1971, 1977, 1992, 1993 and 1995) are rightly honored for their outstanding performance. But Cowboys’ history is full of many terrific teams that didn’t win the Super Bowl. Today we look at the great 2007 team that came to a disappointing end.

Pro Football Reference has a Simple Rating System that assigns a numerical value to each team’s season. It’s called “simple” because it is. The basic formula is:

  • Take a team’s average margin of victory and add (or subtract) it’s strength of schedule.

You can learn more about PFR’s SRS here. The PFT folk’s simplest explanation is the number represents the team’s point spread against an average NFL opponent that season. So if a team has a 10 SRS that means they would be a 10-point favorite over an average team. Think of it this way:

  • >15: among the greatest teams ever
  • 12-15: elite team; should win Super Bowl
  • 10-12: outstanding team; should be in Super Bowl
  • 7-10: high quality team; legitimate Super Bowl contender
  • 4-7: playoff participant; borderline Super Bowl contender
  • 0-4: mediocre
  • below 0: poor

So, let’s look at a relatively recent Cowboys squad that ranked high in SRS but didn’t add a Vince Lombardi trophy to the team’s display.

Offseason dysfunction

The Cowboys entered the 2007 season in a state of upheaval. Bill Parcells had abruptly resigned following the team’s disappointing last-minute playoff loss in Seattle. Jerry Jones wouldn’t hire a new head coach until February 9th, naming Wade Phillips as the team’s seventh head coach (and sixth since Jones assumed control in 1989).

The delayed decision meant Phillips took over a team with most coaching positions already filled, including newly appointed offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. This was 100% Jerry Jones dysfunction. Asking a head coach to come to a new team and not allow him to pick his own coaching staff is unheard of in the NFL. Phillips, however, had no choice with virtually all NFL coaching positions having been settled by that late date.

The 2006 season had seen Tony Romo seize the starting quarterback position and a return to the playoffs for only the second time in seven years. Still, most pundits considered the team a wild card contender and they certainly weren’t expected to be a Super Bowl contender.

On-field success

Shockingly, the Cowboys rolled to a 5-0 record to start the season before suffering a loss to the undefeated New England Patriots. The hot start immediately energized a fan base that hadn’t had much to cheer the previous 10 years. Dallas then won their next seven games to log the team’s best 13-game record in team history (12-1).

The Cowboys offense was a juggernaut in 2007. Romo set Cowboys’ records in yards (4,200) and touchdowns (36). Terrell Owens (81 catches, 1,355 yards, 15 TDs) and Jason Witten (96, 1,145, 7) were Romo’s primary targets. Marion Barber, despite getting no regular season starts, nearly reached 1,00 yards (975) and found the end zone 10 times.

The defense also had star power. DeMarcus Ware, playing in his prime, recorded 14 sacks. Greg Ellis chipped in 12.5 sacks to give the defensive front a dynamic two-man attack. Dallas would finish third in the league with 46 sacks. Terence Newman and Roy Williams led the best Dallas secondary of the last 15 years. Twelve Cowboys would be named to the Pro Bowl and five would be named All Pro.

Yet Dallas surrendered a lot of points, giving up over 20 per game (13th overall). Penalties were a constant problem and a general lack of discipline (timeouts and clock management) plagued the team. Romo tossed 19 interceptions in addition to his 36 touchdowns. The Cowboys defense, despite elite-level pressure on the quarterback, generated “only” 29 turnovers (15th overall). Dallas also surrendered four non-offensive touchdowns (two interception returns, a fumble return and a kick-off return).

The 2007 team’s numbers:

Most of the above is self-expanatory. I’ll simply mention the final segment, which uses PFR’s advanced metrics:

Strength of schedule looks at every opponent and how they performed against every other opponent and then judges how strong a team’s schedule was compared to average. In this case, the Cowboy’s 1.3 strength of schedule indicates the teams they faced, in aggregate, were 1.3 points above average. (You add that 1.3 number to the the team’s 8.2 margin of victory to get to the team’s final 9.5 SRS number).

Simple rating system: I covered this above. The team’s 9.5 number indicates a high quality team that is a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Offensive SRS: this indicates how much of the team’s overall SRS number comes from offense

Defensive SRS: this indicates how much of the team’s overall SRS number comes from defense

We see the offense was elite:

  • 7.8 SRS number
  • Second in points scored
  • Third in yards
  • The 28.4 points per game is the sixth highest in team history and the secondnd highest of the Tony Romo era (behind 2014’s 29.2)
  • The defense was not nearly as good, recording only a 1.7 SRS and 13th in points allowed and ninth in yards allowed

The 2007 Dallas Cowboys were the franchise’s first legitimate Super Bowl hope since the 1996 team. But the team faltered badly in December and January. The following shows the team’s margin of victory (or loss) game-by-game.

Note that through game 13 Dallas was basically rolling. Nine of the team’s 11 wins came by double-digits, including five by 17+ points. The 10-point victory in week 13 was the key point in the season. The Cowboys entered that game at 12-1 with a one-game lead over the 11-2 Green Bay Packers for best record in the conference.

The Packers would visit Texas Stadium for a week 13 showdown likely to determine homefield advantage. Dallas would race out to a 27-10 lead before backup quarterback Aaron Rodgers (with 17 NFL pass attempts on his resume) would lead a comeback that cut the lead to three. The Cowboys, however, put the game away in the fourth quarter for a 34-24 final to insure the Super Bowl path from the NFC went through Dallas.

Late-season doldrums

There was very little to cheer after that victory. The next five weeks were all subpar performances compared to those from earlier in the season:

  1. First the Cowboys needed a missed chip-shot field goal and two Tony Romo fourth-quarter touchdown drives to defeat a mediocre Detroit Lions team. The winning score came on a Romo pass to Jason Witten with 18 seconds remaining. It was an unimpressive victory.
  2. Next came a demoralizing Christmas day home loss to a 5-8 Philadelphia Eagles team. The potent Dallas offense scored only six points, was limited to 53 yards rushing and Tony Romo threw three interceptions and no touchdowns. It was an abysmal home performance. (This was also the game when Brian Westbrook famously gave himself up before scoring in the final minute to prevent the Cowboys from getting the ball).
  3. Needing a victory to maintain homefield advantage the Cowboys took care of business on the road against Carolina. The 20-13 victory was workmanlike with the team holding the ball and racking up a 39-21 advantage in time of possession.
  4. Then came what I consider the key game in the season. The week 17 tilt on the road against the Washington Redskins was meaningless; the Cowboys post-season slotting had already been determined. The day was miserable: 39 degree weather with windchill near zero and a steady rain. The Cowboys didn’t bother competing; they simply curled up and surrendered. Sixteen rushes netted a single yard. The offense gained only 147 yards total. Washington held the ball for 38 minutes in the 22-7 defeat. It was a complete and thorough beating.

I was dismayed. Good teams simply don’t quit and allow a division opponent to physically dominate you. Good teams don’t turtle simply because the weather conditions are uncomfortable. Good teams simply don’t get their butts kicked in this way. The once promising season looked shaky with the team going into the playoffs playing the worst football they had all season.

With two weeks before the team’s first home playoff game since 1998 players had a week to relax and we endured the infamous Cabo incident. I’ve never had a problem with Tony Romo or anyone else taking time off to relax in such a situation.

What I did have a problem with was the overall lack of urgency from the team after the win over Green Bay. At no point after that game did the Cowboys come remotely close to playing at the same level they had earlier in the season. Instead, they seemed to think just showing up was enough to win. In such a situation I look at leadership and firmly place the blame on head coach Wade Phillips.

Phillips is a brilliant defensive coordinator but a poor leader. Watching the Hard Knocks episodes from 2008, I was appalled (but not surprised) by his lack of honesty with players, his detached demeanor and especially his lack of discipline. It was clear he wasn’t setting the tone on the team.

I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when the Cowboys lost to the Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Cowboys did not play poorly. In fact, a look at the box score makes one scratch their head wondering how the Cowboys lost:

Consider:

  • Dallas outgained the Giants by >100 yards
  • Dallas turned the ball over only once
  • Dallas enjoyed a 13 minute time of possession advantage
  • Dallas ran for 154 yards and limited the Giants to 90 yards rushing
  • Dallas converted 10 of 16 third-down attempts

Since the Super Bowl merger 24 playoff teams have rushed for 150+ yards, held the ball for 36.5+ minutes and turned the ball over once or less. Those teams are 22-2 with the 2007 Cowboys being one of the two losers (the other was the 2014 Chiefs’ epic choke to Indianapolis when they blew a 38-10 third-quarter lead).

The game essentially came down to the Giants converting their only three effective drives into 21 points. The Giants three touchdown drives covered 185 combined yards in 19 plays. On the team’s five other drives they gained only 70 yards on 24 plays. In baseball, when you score 4 runs on 5 hits it’s called good “sequencing”; this was the Giants’ version of good sequencing.

The key sequence of the game was a Giants’ touchdown drive just before the end of the half. Dallas had just finished a 10 minute, 20-play, 90-yard touchdown drive to take a 14-7 lead with 53 seconds remaining. It was the Cowboys’ second consecutive 90-yard touchdown drive and they seemed in control.

Eli Manning, however, would need only 47 seconds to go 71 yards for a game-tying score before the half ended. The key play was a 19-yard completion on 3rd-and-10 to Kevin Boss (really, Kevin Boss?) that took the ball to the Cowboys 4-yard line.

The Cowboys offense would sputter throughout the second half, putting only three points up on the board. The Giants would score a touchdown on their second drive of the second half after a long kickoff return set them up at midfield. Otherwise, the Dallas defense shut the Giants offense down in the second half.

Football is a team sport but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two plays from Patrick Crayton completely undermined the rest of the team’s effort. First, there was this (apologies for the poor image quality; I couldn’t find better video clips):

This was late in the third quarter, with Dallas up 17-14 and facing a 3rd-and-13 from their own 17. It is Tony Romo at his quintessential best. He escapes pressure, finds himself flushed to the left hashmark, then slings a perfect throw cross-body to an open Crayton streaking across the field.

At minimum this would have been a key third-down conversion that moved the ball to midfield. In all likelihood it’s a backbreaking 83-yard touchdown that would have given Dallas a 10-point lead.

Then we have this play, which haunts me to this day. Dallas is in desperation mode, facing 3rd-and-10 from the Giants 25 with only 11 seconds remaining. Romo is given perfect protection, goes through his reads, throws to the end zone and juuuust misses Crayton, who has gotten behind his man.

Another view, however, shows the pass was in fact absolutely perfect, the ball placed exactly where it should be for an easy catch. Crayton, however, stopped on his route for inexplicable reasons.

Romo would be intercepted on the next play, ending the game and bringing the Cowboys season to a sudden end. Thus, what should have been a signature moment in franchise history, is instead a regretful memory. Imagine how Tony Romo’s legacy would have changed had Crayton simply kept running his route.

Rather than fans thinking of Cabo when remembering that season, they would instead think of the time Romo engineered a dramatic, last-second comeback to vault the Cowboys into the the NFC Championship game for the first time in 12 years. It would have been one of the biggest moments in team history and the team’s most dramatic playoff win since Roger Staubach’s Hail Mary pass.

And who knows what would have happened then?

They say the difference between losing and winning can be inches and there’s no better example of that than the Cowboys disappointing end to the 2007 season. By SRS that team was the 10th best in Dallas Cowboys’ history.

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