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The history of the Dallas Cowboys: 2006-2010

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The Tony Romo era begins

NFL: Preseason-Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

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 (tie) 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 2006-2010, which was a time of both promise and frustration for Cowboys’ fans. If you’re not familiar with the series you can find previous chapters here:

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part I (1960 - 1965)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part II (1966 - 1970)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part III (1971 - 1975)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part IV (1976 - 1980)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part V (1981 - 1985)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part VI (1986 - 1990)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part VII (1991 - 1995)

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part VIII: 1996-2000

The History of the Dallas Cowboys - Part IX: 2000-2006

2006-2010

The Dallas Cowboys entered the 2006 season with a fairly talented roster, but still adrift in a sea of mediocrity. The arrival of Bill Parcells three years earlier had restored some sanity to the franchise after years of neglect at the hands of Jerry Jones. Parcells had upgraded the roster-building process, replacing the inept Larry Lacewell regime. He had also built a high-quality staff that included future head coaches such as Sean Payton, Mike Zimmer, Tony Sparano, Todd Haley and Todd Bowles. However, persistent losing seasons had been replaced by persistent mediocre seasons. The 2006 team was coming off a disappointing 9-7 season and expectations weren’t very high.

The biggest issue the team faced was the quandary at quarterback. Thirty-four-year-old Drew Bledsoe was entering his second year as the Cowboys’ starter but had been unable to repeat his Pro Bowl-caliber play from earlier in his career. His utter lack of mobility and occasionally reckless style resulted in lots of negative plays (49 sacks, 17 interceptions and 17 fumbles in 2005).

The 2006 season looked no different as the team entered their week six contest at home against the New York Giants. The team was 3-2 and looked headed for another loss, trailing 12-7 at the halfway point. A particularly ugly, goal-line interception by Bledsoe had killed a potential scoring drive and ended the half. It would be the last pass Bledsoe threw in the NFL as Parcells finally made the decision to replace Bledsoe with Tony Romo. Romo’s first attempt was intercepted, as were two more in the second half of an eventual 36-22 defeat.

Despite the loss it was evident that Romo had jump-started the offense. In addition to the three interceptions he also threw for 227 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts. The team simply looked more dynamic and dangerous. Romo had been given an opportunity and seized it. He was named the team’s starter. The team would win six of his first seven starts, setting off Romomania and giving Cowboys’ fans real hope for the first time in nearly a decade.

Romo provided the missing ingredient the talented Cowboys needed, immediately propelling them to contender status. They would win 38 of their next 51 regular season games started by Romo en route to two division titles, the team’s first since the last 90’s.

But they were never able to convert that regular season success into playoff triumph. Yes, the team won its first playoff game in 13 years in 2009, but also suffered multiple demoralizing playoff failures.

In addition, dysfunction returned full force when Parcells unexpectedly retired after the 2006 season. With the strong-willed Parcells gone Jerry Jones quickly descended into the mercurial, undisciplined decision-making that would undercut Romo’s career throughout this period.

On-the-field results

We see the team was consistently good through most of this period, with winning records four of the five years. The thirteen wins in 2007 tied the 1992 team for most in franchise history. The team averaged 10.5 wins per season from 2006 to 2009, the best run of sustained success since the Triplet’s peak era (1991 to 1996). But we also see disappointing results as both the 2008 and 2010 teams entered the season with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations then failed to make the playoffs.

We see here the team had mostly good and occasionally great offenses. The 28.4 points scored per game in 2007 was the most since 1983 and the sixth-highest total in team history. But the 2008 and 2009 offenses were fairly mediocre before the 2010 squad returned the team to top-10 scoring status.

We also see the defense struggled during most of this period. Despite new head coach Wade Phillips’ reputation as a defensive guru, and a deep pass rush that exerted consistent pressure on opponents, the team routinely posted below-average points allowed stats. Only the 2009 team featured a better-than-average defense and it was one of the best in the league and one of the best in team history. Then came a complete collapse as the 2010 team allowed the second-most points in the NFL.

Point differentials tell a significant story. The 2007 team had an outstanding 8.1 point differential, but otherwise either the offense or the defense was struggling, preventing the team from fielding a unit strong on both sides of the ball.

(Note: chart is reversed, showing how many teams the Cowboys ranked above. For instance, in 2006 the Cowboys ranked fourth in points scored, above 28 teams).

Rankings tell much of the story about the offense. In both 2006 and 2007 the Cowboys fielded a top-five offense, in terms of both scoring and yards. The 2008 team was mediocre. The 2009 team was again elite in terms of yards, but was average in points scored (usually a sign of a team that turns the ball over frequently or often fails in the red zone). The 2010 team returned to a top-10 offense.

Here we see one of the oddest charts you’ll ever see. Two things really stand out:

  1. The team was consistently better in terms of yards allowed compared to points allowed. This would be the opposite of what was noted earlier: an indication of a team that doesn’t force turnovers and/or isn’t very good at defending the red zone. We’ll see that this “feature” would haunt the team in the playoffs and key games.
  2. The massive drop off from 2009 to 2010. After fielding one of the best defenses in the league in 2009 (second in points allowed, 10th in yards) the Cowboys fielded one of the worst defenses in 2010 (31st in points allowed, 24th in yards allowed). A team that entered the 2010 season with a dominant defense ended with a unit in shatters.

The table above tells an interesting story:

  1. The emergence of Tony Romo as franchise quarterback (and his injury that derailed his 2010 season, resulting in Jon Kitna getting more starts that year).
  2. The revolving parade of players as lead running back; first Julius Jones, then Marion Barber then Felix Jones.
  3. The transition from a high-powered, big-name free agent acquisition (Terrell Owens) to a high-powered, no-name, rookie free agent acquisition (Miles Austin) at receiver.
  4. The short-lived and wildly schizophrenic Wade Phillips era.

The rankings during this time display the same schizophrenia with units ranking high one year, low the next. Even in the same season, we’d see the Cowboys demonstrate confusing performance (second in yards in 2009, yet somehow only 14th in points scored). We also see the real reason the 2008 team failed so badly, ranking 30th in turnover differential.

Finally, the bottom row shows the team’s Simple Rating System number. This number basically indicates how much a team would be favored over an average NFL team that season. The 2007 team’s 9.5 SRS number is outstanding; any team with that number is a legitimate Super Bowl contender. It still stands as the team’s highest since the early 90’s and sixth best in team history. The 2009 team’s is also very solid (7.1); any SRS number above seven is very good. These numbers simply demonstrate that fans were right to have high hopes for those teams - and then be disappointed when they failed to advance deep into the playoffs.

Division Results

The NFC East was a division of parity throughout this period with the Cowboys (twice), Eagles (twice) and Giants (once) taking turns claiming the division crown. The Cowboys’ record during this period reflects that, with the team having records around .500 every season and against all three division opponents. Only four times did the Cowboys either win both games (three times) against a division foe or lose both games (once). And of course one of the times the Cowboys swept the Giants in the regular season (2007) they then lost to the Giants in the playoffs. The Cowboys were better against non-division foes than division foes during this period, winning 53% of division games and 64% of non-division games.

Playoff Results

Considering the team’s overall regular season record of 48-32 during this time, the above playoff table is head-shaking. Only three playoff appearances in five years and only a single playoff win. Two of the playoff losses were last-second, gut-punch defeats that still resonate with Cowboys’ fans. The lone playoff victory, however, was an emphatic, highly-satisfying dismantling of an Eagles’ squad in the late stages of the Donovan McNabb era.

Unfortunately, that playoff victory was immediately followed by the team’s second-worst playoff defeat in team history (only the 1991 team lost by more points, losing 38-6 to the Detroit Lions).

Key Personnel

We see above these teams had quality talent spread throughout both the offensive and defensive units. The offense was loaded with Pro Bowl talent at every position: QB, RB, WR, TE and the OL. We witness the sustained greatness of Jason Witten as well as multiple Pro Bowl winners spread across the offensive line. Only running back had a relative dearth of awards, with Marion Barber accounting for the only Pro Bowl award during this time.

On defense, we see DeMarcus Ware playing at peak powers, earning three First-Team All Pro awards as well as perennial Pro Bowl nods. He was joined by Jay Ratliff and Greg Ellis as award-winners on a 4-man front that consistently put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, averaging 43 sacks per season (including a franchise-high 59 in 2008).

Notice also that the only players to enjoy success after this period were three players acquired prior to 2006: Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware. As we’ll see, none of the players drafted between 2006 and 2009 enjoyed much more than “average NFL player” success.

Drafts

And here we see one of the primary reasons why these teams didn’t enjoy better outcomes and why they ended this period in shambles. The best that can be said about these drafts overall is they were “competent”.

The 2006 draft was Bill Parcells’ final with the team and he famously whiffed on linebacker Bobby Carpenter in the first round. That draft yielded only one player who became a Cowboys regular, Jason Hatcher. Otherwise it was a complete bust.

The 2007 draft was decent, including a fine first-rounder (Spencer would start 67 games and record 33 sacks with the Cowboys), a quality kicker (for a while anyway) and an offensive lineman (Doug Free) who would start 114 games for the Cowboys.

The 2008 draft had many Cowboys’ fans anticipating great things as the team would add two first-round picks to a 2007 squad that had won 13 games. But this was during the height of Jerry dysfunction and the team braintrust decided to use one of those picks on a backup running back. Worse, the team chose University of Arkansas’ backup running back Felix Jones, passing over runners such as Chris Johnson, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles and Ray Rice. Those four would combine for 10 Pro Bowls, three All Pro seasons, a 2,000 yard season and nearly 400 NFL starts. Jones, on the other hand, would start only 25 games and rush for less than 3,000 yards in his career. It was a classic case of poor decision-making (selecting a running back when you already had one) combined with poor execution (choosing the wrong running back).

The team’s other first-round pick, cornerback Mike Jenkins, started his career well, earning 11 AV and a Pro Bowl nod his second season. But he declined after and was nothing better than a fifth or sixth defensive back the rest of his career. The team’s third-round pick was the talented Martellus Bennett. But again, you have to question the wisdom of investing a third-round pick on a tight end when you had All Pro Jason Witten playing every snap and a coaching staff that seemingly had no interest in deploying two tight ends effectively.

Then came the 2009 draft, which combined several bad decisions and is one of the worst drafts by any team in NFL history. Cowboys’ special teams had been a weak spot for years and the brain trust decided they needed to address that situation. So they concentrated on drafting players who could contribute on special teams, apparently bypassing players who can play every down. Dallas traded out of both the first and second rounds (you know, where all the best players are usually found). Shockingly, this turned out to be faulty thinking.

Of the twelve players selected by Dallas only Victor Butler would start any games as a Cowboy and he started all of two. The 15 AV accumulated by the 2009 draft class is by far the worst of any Cowboys’ draft (the 1995 class, also without a first round pick, generated only 30 AV and the 2000 class, without either a first- or second-round pick, generated only 32). If nothing else, these results should tell you why trading away high draft picks is generally a bad idea.

The need for keeping your high draft picks was well demonstrated in 2010 when the team hit big on both first-round pick Dez Bryant (99 starts, all-time franchise touchdown reception leader, three-time Pro bowler, one-time 1st-team All Pro) and Sean Lee (72 starts, two-time Pro bowler, one-time 1st-team All Pro). It was an extremely strong draft rebound from the 2009 disaster and began a string of generally solid drafts that has lasted to the present.

The real issue during this time is the complete absence of any star players, with the exception of Bryant and Lee in 2010. The 2006 through 2009 classes had some good roster pieces (Hatcher, Spencer, Free, Folk, Jenkins, Jones, Scandrick) but they combined for only a single Pro Bowl honor.

Thus, whatever success came during this 2006-2010 period was driven mostly by players acquired the previous five years. That’s why by 2010 the team was running on fumes and didn’t have the depth of talent enjoyed by the 2006-2009 squads.

Key games

Despite playing only four playoff games this period features a rich bounty of significant, memorable games. Unfortunately, many of them are bitter memories for fans of the organization. In addition, this period seemed to kick off a long period of Dallas games ending in bizarre, unprecedented fashion as the Cowboys became synonymous with crazy.

Game #50

And perhaps no game ended in more frustrating or crazy or demoralizing fashion than this wild card matchup against the Seahawks. The Cowboys had looked like a true Super Bowl threat midway through December of 2006. After starting 4-4, the Tony Romo-led team had won five of six games to stand 9-5 and looked poised for a division title and deep playoff run.

Instead, the team suffered a humiliating 23-7 defeat at home on Christmas day to allow the Eagles to seize control of the division. The Eagles gained more than twice as many yards (426 to 201), held the ball for more than 37 minutes, recorded three turnovers and three sacks. But the game is most remembered for Eagles’ running back Brian Westbrook purposefully stopping short of the goal-line in the last minute of the game when he had an uncontested touchdown. This is one of the few times that such a strategy was a sound decision.

That game was followed by an equally inept performance in a 39-31 loss to the woeful 3-13 Detroit Lions at home. The game was meaningless, but surrendering nearly 40 points to a team that had won only two games to that point was nonetheless embarrassing.

Thus, the team entered Seattle wounded and a limping shell of what the team seemed a couple weeks earlier. But the Seahawks had their own problems. Their secondary had been decimated (they were missing their first, second and fourth cornerbacks) and forced the team to pick up former Cowboy Pete Hunter. Hunter had been watching football from his couch the previous week and hadn’t been on an NFL roster all season.

It was expected the Cowboys would attack the Seahawks’ vulnerable secondary behind Romo. After surrendering a first drive field goal to the Seahawks the Cowboys came out using five receivers and an empty backfield on the opening drive. But it didn’t succeed due to multiple unforced errors:

  • First Terry Glenn dropped an easy first down pass. He made up for it by beating Hunter two plays later for an 18-yard gain and a first down.
  • Romo then failed to see Glenn wide open after cleanly beating Hunter for what should have been an easy 45-yard touchdown.
  • Instead, Romo tried to hit Owens on a short crossing pattern and threw behind him, forcing a punt. The inability to take advantage of the opportunity would become a persistent problem.

The rest of the first half was classic Cowboys from this period: high-quality play mixed with boneheaded mistakes, penalties and missed opportunities.

High-quality play came in the form of an Anthony Henry interception to set up a FG on the Cowboys’ second drive.

Mistakes came in the form of:

  • Jason Witten fumbling after a catch with Pete Hunter (of course) recovering. It was Witten’s one and only fumble of the year.
  • The Dallas defense not being set and getting caught flat-footed on a 30-yard Shaun Alexander run.
  • Seattle converting back-to-back third downs via defensive holding calls on Kevin Burnett and Nathan Jones.
  • Both Bobby Carpenter and Terence Newman having potential interceptions hit them cleanly in both hands and both having the ball bounce away.
  • Romo again not seeing an open Jason Witten and instead taking a 13-yard sack to kill another Cowboys’ drive.

Trailing 6-3 late in the half Romo led the Cowboys on their only touchdown drive of the game. It was a 76-yard drive that featured all the good, bad and crazy of this 2006 season:

  • First the referees negated a big Dallas gain by whistling the play dead in order to “reset” the clock. Neither announcer nor myself understood why the play was blown dead.
  • Dallas then mixed running and pass plays to move downfield at the two-minute warning.
  • Romo then again fails to see a wide open Owens (third instance of Romo not seeing a wide open receiver in the first half).
  • Marion Barber, who has 16 touchdown runs on the season, has yet to touch the ball in the game.
  • On third-and-two from the Seattle 35-yard line Romo hits Owens for a sure first down but Owens wasn’t ready for the ball and dropped it.
  • With 45 seconds remaining Bill Parcells then unnecessarily calls a time-out; the ball had been dead. Parcells used the timeout to decide to go for the first down and eschew the 52-yard FG attempt.
  • A good decision as Romo hit Witten on a deep seam route for 32-yards to the Seattle 3.
  • Marc Columbo then committed holding, setting the team back 10 yards.
  • Romo finally hit Patrick Crayton on a sideline route with Crayton racing and stretching for the end-zone. So despite penalties, dropped passes and the quarterback not seeing wide open receivers the Cowboys managed the touchdown and a 10-6 halftime Cowboys’ lead.

With the Cowboys receiving the ball to start the second half there was reason for optimism. However, the mistakes that plagued the team throughout this period again struck on the team’s opening drive with Romo holding the ball too long and fumbling. The Cowboys recovered but had to punt.

The rest of the half was much of the same. Aaron Glenn dropped another potential interception. Marion Barber dropped a potential third-down conversion. Terence Newman was twice called for pass interference. Nose tackle Jason Ferguson raced in untouched but somehow couldn’t grab Hasselback for a drive-ending sack. The team allowed back-to-back fourth down conversions on a Seahawks’ touchdown drive.

That drive ended with Hasselback tossing an easy 15-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Stevens. Stevens had cleanly beaten safety Roy Williams, something that happened with increasing frequency during this period. That gave Seattle a 13-10 lead. The Cowboys would strike back immediately. Throughout this era the Cowboys’ special teams were consistently outplayed, yielding big plays and making numerous mistakes and penalties. But here Miles Austin ran the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for the only post-season kickoff return score in franchise history. The Cowboys had responded in spectacular fashion to regain a 17-13 lead. The best part of the play is the huge smile on Austin’s face as he can see himself racing up the sidelines for the touchdown on the stadium’s big screen.

The Cowboys followed with another spectacular play, this time from the defense. On Seattle’s first play Terrance Newman leaped up on the sidelines to purposefully tip a pass to Roy Williams, who made the interception. The Cowboys drove to the Seahawks’ 11-yard line. Julius Jones had been doing the bulk of the running but in the short yardage situation Marion Barber was given the ball on third-and-inches but was stopped. Barber, despite his well-earned reputation for being the hardest back to tackle in the NFL, had the worst third-and-short conversion rate of any running back in the NFL in 2006 (10-for-20). Dallas settled for a field goal and a seven-point lead (20-13). Ten minutes remained.

The Cowboys then combined both outstanding play with mind-numbing mistakes to put the game at risk. First, Newman was targeted on consecutive plays. He was cleanly beaten by Bobby Engram for a 30-yard gain. The very next play Newman was called for pass interference, setting up Seattle at the Cowboys’ 1-yard-line. It was a horrible call that never should have been made.

But the Cowboys defense stiffened, stuffing the Seahawks for what seemed a pivotal goalline stand:

  • DeMarcus Ware first blew up a running play for a seven-yard tackle-for-loss.
  • A second down incompletion set up a third-and-goal situation.
  • Hasselbeck passed to Jerramy Stevens to the 1.5-yard-line, setting up fourth down.
  • With just under seven minutes remaining Seahawks’ coach Mark Holmgren opted to go for the touchdown. Hasselbeck’s pass was incomplete and the Cowboys’ defense had held.

That’s when the bizarre started happening. Throwing from his own end zone, Romo threw off-target to Terry Glenn on a short, wide pass. Glenn caught the ball, but had to balance himself by putting his hand with the ball in it on the ground. This resulted in a fumble that was batted around and eventually recovered by Seattle for a seeming touchdown. Review determined the play was instead a safety and the Dallas lead cut to five, 20-15.

A poor Mat McBriar punt on the ensuing free kick set Seattle up at midfield. Roy Williams was then burned on consecutive plays. First, on third-and-short he had an opportunity to tackle Alexander for a loss, but missed the tackle, allowing a first down. On the next play Stevens again cleanly beat Williams for a relatively easy 37-yard touchdown pass. Seattle went for two points but didn’t covert, leaving the score 21-20.

Four and a half minutes remained and the Cowboys needed only a field goal to regain the lead. Dallas then led a methodical drive that mixed runs and passes (including Owens catching only the second ball on Pete Hunter) and eventually reached the Seattle eight for a critical third-and-seven play. Just under two minutes remained.

The following play has been dissected and discussed ad nauseum. Romo hits Witten for what is initially called a first down at the Seattle one-yard line. Review, however, conclusively showed Witten did not make the first down. While it’s easy to second-guess after the fact, a better Romo pass or Witten extending the ball would have resulted in a certain first down or even a Cowboys’ touchdown.

Instead, the Cowboys faced fourth-and-inches from the Seattle two-yard-line.

The next play has lived in Cowboys’ infamy ever since. Attempting the equivalent of an extra point, holder Tony Romo bobbles the snap, picks the ball up and races to the sidelines. For a brief moment it looks like he’ll make it to the pylon and score the touchdown (or at least gain a first down) but is tackled from behind. It’s still shocking when I see it today and it still makes me sick to my stomach.

Many forget, however, the game wasn’t over at this point. Seattle had to play from their own one-yard-line with 1:19 remaining and the Cowboys possessing all three time-outs. A three-and-out would have forced a Seattle punt from near their own end zone and likely more than a full minute remaining.

But on first down Alexander ran 20 yards to effectively end the game. Dallas did eventually force the punt, but the extra play ate most of the time off the clock. Dallas took over at midfield with only 2 seconds remaining. A desperation heave into the end zone failed and the Cowboys season was over.

It was a gutpunch defeat. Worse, Bill Parcells shocked just about everybody when he announced his resignation from the Cowboys’ just a few days later.

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