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Can the Cowboys finally reach the playoffs in consecutive seasons and break their curse?

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Recent history has been cruel to the Cowboys when stacking together quality seasons.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the 2019 Dallas Cowboys. The team is coming off an NFC East division title in 2018 featuring a 10-6 regular season record, a wild card round playoff victory and advancement to the final eight in the league’s playoff tournament.

The reasons for optimism about the team’s 2018 fortunes are many, and have been well-documented here at BTB:

Add it all up and there’s lots of good, solid, intellectually sound reasons for all of us to be excited. Put bluntly, the expectations for this team are so high that anything short of the team’s first return to the NFC Championship game will likely result in the dismissal of Jason Garrett as head coach. A division title, 12-4 record and another flame-out without reaching the conference championship will be deemed a failure.

We’ve been here before

And yet I’m experiencing a sense of deja vu. In fact, Cowboys fans have been here a number of times the last dozen years, and each time the team has disappointed. Four times since 2007 have the Cowboys reached the division round of the NFL playoffs. Each time they’ve lost - and each time the expectations for the next season were sky high. And each time the team failed to come close to meeting those lofty expectations, missing the playoffs every time.

A quick summary of those instances reveals the ugly truth:

Here we use Pro Football Reference’s pre-season metrics to illustrate the expectations for those teams. If the numbers aren’t clear they represent the following:

  • Over/under on number of regular season wins
  • O/U rank is how the team ranked among all 32 teams. So, for instance, the Cowboys’ 10.5 O/U rank in 2008 was the third highest among all NFL teams.
  • SB Odds is how much a gambler would win for a $100 bet in the pre-season. The rank, again, is how the Cowboys ranked among all teams.

In short, these were teams that entered the season with high expectations, similar to those we have now.

A few things worth noting:

  • The team under-performed versus expectations each of the four years.
  • The team averaged 12.75 victories in the “prior” season - but then averaged only seven victories the following season.
  • The team won only 28 games against “expected” win totals of 39.5. That’s 11.5 games spread out over four years, meaning the team “under-performed” by almost three full games each of these four seasons.
  • Not once did the team reach the playoffs.

All of this is a bit sobering and, frankly, demoralizing. Now, every year is different and past results are not indicative of future performance (obviously). What do these past disappointments reveal that might give reason for pause? Let’s take a brief look at each season and see if there’s anything that sticks out.

2008 - Front office dysfunction

Following the best regular season (13-3) in team history, with a young, improving quarterback, a loaded roster and two first-round draft picks, many thought the 2008 Cowboys were destined for Super Bowl glory. But cracks were evident all the way back in the prior season. The 2007 unit had been an unstoppable juggernaut for most of the season, but then declined dramatically (especially on offense) once the calendar flipped to December:

A 3-0 start gave hope to fans and even had a skeptical curmudgeon like me thinking positive thoughts. But then Tony Romo was hurt in a week four overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The next week, without Romo, the Cowboys were thoroughly dominated (34-7 entering the fourth quarter) by a St. Louis Rams team that went 1-14 against teams not named “Dallas”. Quality teams simply don’t get beat that way, even with the starting quarterback out. The team went 1-2 without Romo then lost the three of four games to end the season. It all culminated in a humiliating lose-and-go-home loss to the hated Philadelphia Eagles.

This was all somewhat predictable. First the front office decided to use one of two first-round picks on a backup running back - an egregious use of draft capital that made no sense then and looks even worse in hindsight. Then, to make matters worse, they chose the wrong guy (choosing Felix Jones over Chris Jones, Rashard Mendenhall, Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles).

Finally, head coach Wade Phillips, like in 2007, showed no ability to inspire his team when things turned bleak. A 1-3 close to the season saw the team go from disappointing, late, road-loss to eventual Super Champion Pittsburgh, to head-scratching home loss (final game at Texas Stadium) to a mediocre Baltimore team to getting completely eviscerated in the team’s final game. Phillips simply had no answers - an issue that would raise it’s head again.

2010 - A team falls apart

Many people believe the 2010 season ended when Tony Romo was lost for the season in week seven against the New York Giants. The reality is that 2010 team was done long before Romo was injured. The Cowboys entered that New York contest sporting a 1-4 record and it was no fluke - the team simply wasn’t very good. The season had ended before it even began.

A defense that finished second in points allowed in 2009 had somehow turned into a unit that would end up 31st in points allowed (eight times the team allowed 30 or more points). Once Romo was hurt the team simply collapsed - losing 45-7 in an embarrassing Sunday Night defeat to the Packers.

Wade Phillips’ inadequacies as a head coach were on full display for an entire nation of football watching fans. He was fired the following day and the Jason Garrett era began.

2015 - No backup plan

The Cowboys front office had seen Tony Romo miss time four of the previous seven seasons, and recognized they needed a quality backup quarterback. So they brought in former first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden. Still, when Tony Romo again suffered a broken collarbone in week two against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was understood by most fans the season was on the brink.

What no one knew was:

  1. The Cowboys grossly misjudged Weeden’s ability as he proved woefully inadequate.
  2. Head coach Jason Garrett proved wholly unable to adapt to the new circumstances of a poor quarterback leading an otherwise good roster. Garrett continued to play the exact same way as if Romo was still QB and never - at any point in the season - did he adapt to the team’s new circumstances.

Romo returned later, but by then the team had lost seven consecutive games and sported an ugly 2-7 record. Romo would record one more win upon his return but was again injured the next week and would never play another meaningful snap in the NFL.

2017 - A suspension, injuries and rigid coaching doom another season

Dallas entered 2017 with high hopes based on the previous season when rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott had led a surprise march to the NFC’s best record with a 13-3 mark. The dynamic youngsters were expected to lead the Cowboys to a new era of prosperity.

But problems began before the season even started. Ezekiel Elliott was slapped with a six-game suspension. Elliott appealed multiple times through various jurisdictions and avoided serving the penalty until mid-November. But the drama and uncertainty hung over the entire season.

On the field the Cowboys managed the kind of bewildering results that leave Cowboys fans like me thinking the team is cursed. Since the team’s inception the Cowboys have played 122 games in which the offense recorded 30+ points and 400+ yards. The team’s record in those games is 108-13-1; that’s a .892 winning percentage for those keeping track.

And yet, in weeks four and five the Cowboys managed to score 30+ points and record more than 400 yards in back-to-back games - and lose both. Yet, the team managed to rebound with three consecutive wins to stand at 5-4 in mid-November. That’s when Elliott gave up his last appeal and accepted his six-game suspension.

Dallas faced the Atlanta Falcons in what would be a difficult game without their All-Pro running back. Unfortunately, fellow All-Pro Tyron Smith would miss the game due to injury and yet another All-Pro (Sean Lee) would exit in the early minutes. Without three of their best players the Cowboys began a historically ugly tailspin that ruined a promising season.

We also saw, yet again, Jason Garrett showing zero adaptability. With Tyron Smith out, backup LT Chaz Green simply couldn’t handle Adrian Clayborn. Now, Clayborn is a legitimate NFL player but he’s not remotely close to being anything special. Yet he repeatedly beat Green using the exact same move. But Garrett and the Cowboys refused to adapt or change and allowed Clayborn to record six sacks as the Cowboys lost in ugly fashion.

The following weeks were equally horrid, with the offense recording only 22 points over three games, all losses. Those 22 points scored over three games was the worst cumulative point total in team history.

Despite all this, the Cowboys still maintained a glimmer of hope entering a week 16 tilt against the Seattle Seahawks. But more coaching blunders (a fourth quarter goalline sequence that featured some of the worst play-calling you’ll ever see) and poor play from Dak Prescott doomed the team’s fortunes.

Another promising season had ended in bitterness.

What have we learned?

There’s a couple things that jump out at me having looked through this history.

First, the obvious, injuries can ruin any team. Each of the four teams suffered significant injuries to key players. Thus, the ability to adapt to injuries becomes paramount. The Cowboys have a mixed record there. We have the debacles of 2015 and 2017, but we also have a 2016 team that saw both the starting and backup quarterback effectively miss the entire season - yet the team won 13 games. The good news is the team seems to have better depth than, perhaps, at any time in recent history.

Second, regardless of what happens during an offseason and regardless of how good things seem in July or August, the NFL season will often reveal flaws and vulnerabilities that generated very little attention during the offseason. Call this “unknown unknowns” - problems that come up that no one anticipated. Many an NFL team have seemed to be complete from top-to-bottom only to find out later they had unknown vulnerabilities.

Can the Cowboys address such challenges more effectively than they did in 2008, 2010, 2015 or 2017? Only time will tell. What I do know is injuries will occur and things almost never go as expected in the NFL. Jason Garrett’s ability to address such events is likely going to determine whether he’ll still be head coach beyond 2019.