Today we return to a series I began last year. For the unfamiliar I’m looking at Cowboys’ history in five-year increments. As we all know the Dallas Cowboys have a long and storied history. The team ranks:
- Second in Super Bowl wins
- Second (tie) in Super Bowl appearances
- First in playoff victories (despite many teams having played for decades longer)
- First in playoff games played
- Second in playoff appearances (again, despite many teams having played many more seasons)
- Second in total wins since NFL-AFL merger
- Most profitable sports franchise in North America
In short, the Dallas Cowboys have been a great NFL franchise and their history is worth celebrating. We could all still learn some things we didn’t know, remind ourselves of interesting things forgotten and relive things we’ll never forget.
NOTE: much of the information I use in these posts comes from Pro Football Reference, which is an invaluable resource, so a shout out to those who run that site. Your work is much appreciated.
Today’s post looks at 2001-2005, which was a sad time to be a Cowboys’ fan. If you’re not familiar with the series you can find previous chapters here:
The Cowboys entered 2001 a shell of their former glory. After nine consecutive winning seasons, three Super Bowl championships in that run, plus six division titles and numerous playoff wins, Dallas won only five games in 2000. No one could deny the great Triplets era of football was over.
Instead, the Cowboys were suffering through the height of Jerry Jones delusion and dysfunction. Head coach Dave Campo had presided over the 5-11 debacle in 2000 but would do no better his next two seasons. Among the numerous embarrassments suffered by the team and its fans was an opening day loss to the expansion Houston Texans in that team’s inaugural season.
Perhaps worse, from Jerry Jones’ perspective, was the team had become irrelevant. Not only were the Cowboys not a playoff contender, they weren’t interesting in any way. The coach was bland and ineffective; the roster void of stars. The only thing really interesting that happened during those years was Emmitt Smith breaking the all-time NFL rushing record.
Jones finally admitted defeat and realized he needed to bring in an experienced football man with a track record of success. Thus Bill Parcells was named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys shortly after the dismal 2002 season ended. While the team would not enjoy the on-field success that Jones and fans hoped for with Parcells’ hiring, there’s no debate that Parcells reinvigorated and reorganized what had been a chaotic, dysfunctional, losing organization.
The century began with the second and third of back-to-back-to-back 5-11 seasons. Parcells arrival yielded immediate dividends as the team won 10 games and reached the playoffs in 2003. They could not sustain the momentum, however, with a six-win season in 2004 and just missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 2005. The 35 wins represents the third lowest total within any of these five-year segments, behind only the early 60’s expansion era and the dismal late 80’s.
Not once during this era did the Cowboys outscore their opponents. In fact, in both 2002 and 2004 the team was outscored by more than a touchdown per game (the mark of a very bad team). Parcells’ 2003 coaching job deserves some recognition when you realize the team was outscored by nearly two points per game yet managed a 10-6 record.
(Note: chart is reversed, showing how many teams the Cowboys ranked above. For instance, in 2002 the Cowboys ranked 30th in points scored, above only two teams).
A look at the offensive performance reveals a large part of the problem. Both the 2001 and 2002 teams were abjectly horrible on offense, ranking near the bottom of the league in both points and yards. From that point forward the Cowboys proved they could move the ball, ranking in the league’s top third each of the three years. However, the team’s point totals didn’t match those rankings, showing the team couldn’t efficiently convert those yards into points.
(Note: chart is reversed, showing how many teams the Cowboys ranked above. For instance, in 2003 the Cowboys ranked second in points allowed, above 31 teams).
Defensively the team was much better but also wildly inconsistent. The 2001 team ranked in the league’s top 5 in yards allowed but in the league’s bottom third in points allowed. Similarly the 2004 team was mediocre in terms of yards allowed but near the league’s bottom in points allowed.
We also see why the 2003 team made the playoffs, as it featured one of the best Cowboys defenses ever, ranking first in yards allowed and second in points allowed.
The following table summarizes each season:
Several things stand out to me:
- Four different “primary quarterbacks” in five seasons. That’s generally a sign of a desperate team looking for answers and that’s exactly what the Cowboys were during this time.
- The wide receiver spot also shows a lot of inconsistency, with four names. It’s also very telling that none of the four players were drafted by the Cowboys.
- Five different players led the team in AAV, including 3 non-skill players. This isn’t always an indictment, but AV leaders are usually a QB, RB or WR.
- The AV leader values are mediocre, with an average of only 12.6 AV per season. The late 90’s teams had AV leaders that averaged 16.4 per season while the early 90’s teams had AV leaders who averaged 18.8 AV per season. This tells us the best players on these teams would have been complementary pieces, not key stars, on quality teams. Names like Dat Nguyen and La’Roi Glover support that idea.
- The 2003 playoff season was driven by a 5-1 record within the division, the only time the Cowboys had a winning division record during this time.
The above table is painful to look at simply because there’s a ton or red and orange and very little green. In fact, the green is so rare you can quickly see the very few instances where the team was good:
- 2001 defensive yards allowed
- 2003 defensive points and yards allowed
- 2003 point differential
Note the team ranked 20th or lower every year in turnover differential. Considering turnovers are much less consistent than either yards or points, that’s a remarkable “achievement”. But, when you mix together a concoction featuring Dave Campo as head coach, Bruce Coslett as offensive coordinator and Chad Hutchinson as your QB, well... these things happen.
Also note the team’s SOS numbers show they played below average competition every year other than 2004 (a negative SOS number indicates below average competition). This simply means the team’s poor record probably doesn’t capture how bad these Cowboys team were.
It’s hard for me to write this, but the early aughts were a time when the NFC East was simply dominated by the Philadelphia Eagles. They won the division every year from 2001 to 2004 and reached the NFC Championship game each of those years. It’s not surprising they compiled a 70% winning percentage against the Cowboys during that time.
Otherwise, the Cowboys were highly competitive against the rest of the NFC East, compiling an 11-9 record against Washington and New York. Not surprisingly they dominated a sad-sack Redskins team throughout this time period (70% winning percentage).
This is really sad. During the Cowboys’ worst eras ever they never made the playoffs so I didn’t have to create a table that showed the sad results. Because the Cowboys managed one playoff appearance during the early aughts, however, I have to show the following:
One playoff game. One playoff embarrassment. The truth is that 2003 team grossly overachieved simply by making the playoffs. As noted earlier, the team had a negative point differential and faced a below-average schedule. It’s really not surprising a team featuring Quincy Carter at QB and Troy Hambrick at RB struggled when facing a quality opponent. The 20-point shellacking was fairly indicative of each team’s capability.
I usually include a chart showing playoff results, so in this case we get this:
Another sad image illustrating what a dark period this was in Cowboys history.
While the team wasn’t great overall during this time they did have some talented performers. We see a mix of holdovers form the glory 90’s (Larry Allen, Dexter Coakley) and the introduction of quality players drafted during the parcells years (DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten). Note that Larry Allen was named to four Pro Bowls during this time after having earned six such honors previously.
Also note that Jason Witten was twice named to the Pro Bowl (in his second and third season) and would go on to win eight more Pro Bowl honors.
Looking back at this I shake my head at Roy Williams career. He was outstanding early in his career, going to the Pro Bowl five consecutive years and being named All-Pro once. He was arguably the hardest hitting safety in Cowboys’ history. He absolutely fell off a cliff after his fifth season, which is odd, because safety is normally a position where players age well. I had forgotten how good he was.
We see in the above table both why the team struggled in the early part of the decade and why they were better later in the decade. The 2001 draft was totally bereft of any significant contributors. Of course, the team was hamstrung by Jerry Jones’ insipid decision to ship two first-round picks to Seattle in 2000 for Joey Galloway, depriving them of the seventh pick in the 2001 draft.
Quincy Carter is the lone pick from the 2001 draft who contributed anything and, while he started 34 games at QB for the Cowboys, the fact he was out of the league by 2005 is more indicative of his value as a player.
The 2002 draft was the first draft since 1998 when the Cowboys added more than a single significant contributor. But by then the Larry Lacewell-led regime had proven so inept that Jerry Jones finally decided different voices were needed and brought Parcells into a leadership position.
The next three drafts then produced nine players who would provide the foundation of the team’s renaissance in the late aughts.
- The 2003 draft produced two players who are still playing today: Terence Newman played nine seasons for the Cowboys (66 AV), has played another six and started in the NFC championship game just a few weeks ago. Jason Witten, meanwhile, has accrued 114 AV with the Cowboys (15th all-time in team history). He’s a sure-fire Ring of Honor member and a certain Hall of Fame inductee.
- The 2004 draft, however, is noted for taking the wrong running back and allowing a draft pick to get away. Parcells, who historically had loved power running backs (Joe Morris, O.J. Anderson) bizarrely passed over the consensus pick (Steven Jackson) for a smaller, less accomplished back (Julius Jones). While Jones would have a decent run with the Cowboys (nearly 3,500 yards in four years) Steven Jackson would earn two Pro Bowl honors, and gain more than 11,000 yards over his 11-year NFL career. It was one of the significant draft misses during the Parcells era.
- Parcells, however, made up for all that with the 2005 draft. Each of the team’s top five picks that year eventually proved significant contributors, as did the team’s final pick. In total the team drafted 6 players who combined for 409 starts, 12 Pro Bowl selections and 278 AV. It was the team’s best draft since 1991 and one of the best drafts in franchise history. The headliner was future Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame Member DeMarcus Ware. But each of the team’s first five picks became regular contributors, which is an absurd success rate.
Under Parcells guidance the team drafted two Hall of Famers in three seasons and the 2005 draft laid the foundation for whatever success came after the dark memories of the early aughts. But it was an undrafted player who would most influence Cowboys’ fortunes for the next decade and, in the process, become a lightning rod for both Cowboys’ fans and critics alike.
Tony Romo was signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2003 draft. He famously beat out Clint Stoener for the third QB spot. (Romo likely chose the Cowboys over the Denver Broncos, who also bid for his services, because the Cowboys had a history of keeping three QBs while the Broncos usually kept only two). He then survived in 2004 only because Quincy Carter was released due to substance abuse allegations.
Romo wouldn’t play a snap at quarterback until 2006 but he was the single biggest player acquisition of the era and shaped the future of the entire franchise.
When you have only one playoff game across five full seasons there aren’t many “key games” but we’ll look at notable moments from this time period.
- October 15th, 2001 vs. Washington Redskins
This game was notable for only one reason: it was a Monday Night Football game that featured two 0-4 teams. Befitting their second-rate status the two losing teams combined for a boring 9-7 Cowboys victory. It was the first time in MNF history that two winless teams with at least four losses had faced each other.
The Cowboys suffered perhaps the most humiliating defeat in team history. They faced off against their in-state rival in their opponent’s inaugural game of their expansion season. The Texans raced out to a 10-0 lead and eventually won on a 65-yard touchdown strike from David Carr to Corey Bradford. Yeah, when you’re getting beat by Carr-to-Bradford you know it’s going to be a loooong season.
- September 15th, 2003 vs New York Giants
After losing the 2003 season opener to the Atlanta Falcons the Cowboys pulled off a miracle comeback win on the road against the Giants on Monday Night Football. The Cowboys had taken a 29-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the Giants scored 18 unanswered points concluding with a Matt Bryant field goal to take a 32-29 lead with 11 seconds remaining. Amazingly, the Cowboys, without any timeouts, managed to tie the score.
First, Bryant’s kick off bounced out of bounds giving the Cowboys the ball at the 40. With only 11 seconds remaining and no timeouts Quincy Carter had perhaps the best moment of his Cowboys career, hitting Antonio Bryant for a 26-yard gain. Bryant got out of bounds allowing the Cowboys to trot Billy Cundiff out for a game-tying 52-yard field goal.
After trading punts in overtime the Cowboys eventually moved to the Giants’ six-yard line before kicking the game-winning field goal.
I can remember at the time feeling like this was the best, most exciting win since the late-90’s era. The Cowboys would win their next four games to jump out to a 5-1 start and eventually the team’s first playoff birth in four years.
I can’t speak for all fans, but I know for myself I wasn’t all that excited about the Cowboys’ prospects in the team’s first playoff game in four years. Yes, I was happy the team was simply in the playoffs but I also knew the 2003 team wasn’t that good.
After starting 5-1 the team had gone 5-5 and every time they faced a high quality opponent had gotten their hats handed to them:
- Lost to Tampa Bay 16-0
- Lost to New England 12-0
- Lost to Miami 40-21
- Lost to Philadelphia 36-10
That’s four losses were by a combined score of 104-31 and good teams simply don’t lose that many games by that margin. So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when a good Panthers team slowly ground down the Cowboys into dust in a convincing 29-10 victory. The Cowboys were out-gained 380 to 204. The Panthers held the ball for for nearly 35 minutes and forced two turnovers while not turning it over themselves. In short, Dallas was non-competitive. It was the Cowboys fourth consecutive playoff loss.
- December 6th, 2004 vs Seattle Seahawks
This was a relatively meaningless game between a poor Cowboys team and a mediocre Seattle team (that would win the NFC West with a 9-7 record then promptly lose in the playoffs). But this Monday night game was a wild affair that featured one of the greatest comebacks in Cowboys history.
The Cowboys fell behind 14-3 early but then responded with 26 straight points to (seemingly) take control with a 29-14 lead five minutes into the third quarter. Seattle, however, struck back with 25 points of their own to take a 39-29 lead with only 2:46 remaining.
Dallas responded with one of the greatest comebacks in team history, scoring 14 points in just over two minutes.
- Taking over at the Dallas 36 with 2:41 remaining Vinny Testaverde completed four straight passes, the final a 34-yard touchdown strike to Keyshawn Johnson. (Note: Johnson’s catch probably shouldn’t have counted as his elbow hit out of bounds before he got his second foot in bounds. It was almost identical to the non-catch Dez Bryant made against the New York Giants in the Cowboys failed comeback bid in 2012).
- Billy Cundiff then executed a perfect on sides kick which Jason Witten caught in midair. (Of course it was Jason Witten).
- Taking over at the Dallas 43 the Cowboys then used the rushing of Julius Jones to finish the game off. Jones would rush four times for 44 yards, including a 13-yard scamper for the game-winning touchdown with 28 seconds remaining.
Those 44 yards would give Jones 198 on the evening; he also contributed three touchdown runs. It was his biggest game in a six-year career that would see him run for over 5,000 yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Seattle comeback was about the only excitement for Cowboys fans in an otherwise dismal 6-10 season. And frankly, one of the few positive moments in a depressing five-year period. The future would be brighter, however, as the team would make the playoffs three of the next five years and would finish under .500 only twice in the next 13 years.