In 2009, the Dallas Cowboys had one of their best seasons in recent memory. Despite some ups and downs in the regular season, they not only managed to beat the Eagles to win their division, but they picked up Dallas’s first playoff victory since the last gasps of the 90s Cowboys dynasty. Their season would end with a loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the second round of the playoffs, but hopes were high going into the next season. The Cowboys, it seemed, had found their winning formula, and they looked poised to capitalize on their newfound success.
Instead, in 2010, the Cowboys found themselves with a 1-7 record after the first eight games of the season. Due to a combination of some tough breaks in close matchups early in the season, and other fits of missed opportunities and bad luck (including starting quarterback Tony Romo suffering a broken clavicle) the team looked absolutely miserable at the halfway mark. Head Coach Wade Phillips was fired in the middle of the season, and the team would finish well out of playoff contention. The fans lamented that a promising year had gone down the drain.
It’s hard not to feel the echoes of the same one-two punch when looking at the Dallas Cowboys over the last two seasons. In 2014, despite times when it seemed like all was lost, the Cowboys stormed back to outpace the Eagles in the division, win the NFC East, and pull off the team’s first playoff victory since the one in 2009. After years of false starts (both literal and figurative), Jason Garrett seemed to have finally found a winning formula on both sides of the ball. Though the team’s post-season ended in a controversial loss to another NFC North opponent, hopes were once again high for the following season, where Dallas was penciled in as a playoff, and maybe even Super Bowl, contender.
Instead, in 2015, Tony Romo suffered another clavicle injury; the team again found itself on the losing end of a number of bad breaks in close games, and the Cowboys struggled, stumbling to a paltry 2-6 record at the halfway point of the season, hopelessly out of playoff contention. Once more, a season where Dallas looked so primed for success had gone down in flames. And it felt all too familiar.
The circumstances surrounding the 2015 season and the 2010 season don’t align perfectly. Romo’s injury happened much earlier in 2015 than it did in 2010. It’s very unlikely that Jerry Jones will fire his head coach this time around, let alone eight weeks into the year. And while the 2015 Cowboys have shown more than a little fight despite six consecutive losing efforts, the 2010 Cowboys had clearly quit on their lame duck coach by midseason. Regardless, those two Dallas teams, separated by five years, have some eerie parallels, and it leaves the fans once again wondering why the meaningful part of the Cowboys’ season ended this early.
Make no mistake, the 2015 Dallas Cowboys season is over. No team in NFL history has made the playoffs after winning a mere two of its first eight games. Dallas is dead last in the NFC East, and the team still has two weeks until Tony Romo theoretically returns to action.
If Dallas had beaten Philadelphia last night–giving them another win in the division and keeping them within spitting distance of the Giants–there might still be a flicker of hope that the team could hold on until Romo came back. But now they’re done. Finished. Statistically, if not mathematically, eliminated from contention.
The sooner the fans accept that, the sooner we can make our peace with this abomination of a season and move on. And part of that process is asking: what did we learn from this season?
First and foremost, we learned, yet again, that chance is a cruel mistress, especially in the NFL. In the run up to the 2014 season, the general consensus was that the Cowboys would be lucky to continue Jason Garrett’s streak of three consecutive 8-8 seasons. Instead, the team put together arguably the best Cowboys season since Troy Aikman was under center.
On the other hand, as the 2015 NFL season loomed on the horizon, the prognosticators generally agreed that they expected good, maybe great things from Dallas, with the Cowboys considered among the class of the NFC. Instead, injuries at key positions left the team ill-equipped and scrambling, rendering the Cowboys essentially irrelevant with half a season still to play.
It goes to show that despite the billion-dollar industry devoted to analyzing every facet of professional football, and the army of beat writers, analysts, and talking heads devoted to each individual team, a team’s fortunes in the NFL can change in an instant, without any of the experts able to see it coming. Teams who seem underwhelming on paper can become unlikely playoff contenders, and hopeful beginnings can turn into lost seasons in the blink of an eye. This is the NFL, where nearly every game matters, and the margin between success and failure is harrowingly thin.
To the point, in the midst of Dallas’s (still ongoing) six-game losing streak, all but one of the games was winnable. One game was a 1-point loss at home; two others went into overtime, and two more offered ample opportunity for Dallas to seize the victory. Each featured at least one ill-timed turnover, or special teams miscue, or strategic misstep that proved to be the difference between the Cowboys winning and losing, and eventually, between the team having something to play for as its stars returned to action and the 2015 season being a lost cause.
How different does the complexion of the Cowboys’ season look at the halfway mark if they’re able to go .500 over those six games, or even just win one or two of them? It turns this midseason review into a dose of cautious optimism rather than a post-mortem.
But perhaps all we’ve really learned is that a team cannot lose three of its five best players and still compete. Orlando Scandrick’s preseason injury took away the best player from the Cowboys’ surprisingly effective 2014 defense. Dez Bryant’s foot injury showed how vital the star receiver’s presence is to keeping opposing defenses honest and making the Cowboys’ offense function. And the unsuccessful efforts of former first-round pick Brandon Weeden and former Pro Bowler Matt Cassel ought to show the legion of Romo-doubters in Dallas how miraculous it was for the Cowboys to find a quarterback of his caliber in the ranks of undrafted free agents, and how important to the success of the team he really is.
While Tyron Smith continues to be a rock at left tackle, Sean Lee has also missed significant time, and the cumulative effect is too many major absences at the top of the Cowboys’ depth chart leaving the team wanting. Add in the suspensions of the disappointing Rolando McClain and the traveling circus that is Greg Hardy, plus further injuries to promising guys like Lance Dunbar, Ronald Leary, and Randy Gregory, and it’s not hard to feel like this team was snakebitten before it could even get out of the gate.
But injuries are a part of the modern NFL, and the fact that the 2015 Cowboys crumbled under the weight of all these players’ absences lends credence to the critics who lambaste the Cowboys’ supposed “stars and scrubs” approach to personnel, wherein the “next man up” approach cannot sustain a team that’s allegedly so top-heavy.
That said, maybe no team, no matter how stacked from top-to-bottom, could have weathered this type of storm. The personnel moves made by GM-in-all-but-name Will McClay and Secretary of Cap Management Stephen Jones over the last few years have largely been sound. While there’s room to take issue with certain contracts or personnel decisions here and there, it’s harder to chalk up this season’s implosion to systemic problems in the front office, as fans have been able to do in the past.
But that’s what we’re left with when trying to diagnose the 2015 Cowboys, as the lights slowly go out on what’s left of their season — more questions than answers.
Is this a team that was not built to withstand the reality of injuries in the NFL, or was this such a slate of maladies suffered by so many key contributors that no team could have bounced back from it? Are the Cowboys simply unlucky, having lost five winnable games, all of which included a few bad breaks for Dallas, or are these losses indicative of larger problems in the team’s discipline and strategies?
Is Scott Linehan’s offense too one-dimensional and too easy for opposing defenses to dissect, or is the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator doing the best he can with replacement-level quarterback play and limited options? Is a fairly stout Rod Marinelli defense keeping the Cowboys in games despite a struggling offense, or are the measly four turnovers his D has generated over half a season holding the team back?
Is Jason Garrett showing remarkable strength and keeping his team focused in the midst of some significant setbacks, or do questionable in-game decisions and basic mistakes in execution demonstrate that after five years as a head coach, he still lacks the situational awareness to manage the game, prepare his players, and make the most of what’s at his disposal?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. And I doubt we’ll learn them over the course of the now largely perfunctory back half of the Cowboys’ season. But I do know that whatever the confluence of factors that led the team into this pit of despair, they are, for the moment, insurmountable.
Cowboys fans are quite familiar with having their team’s season end in heartbreak. But this time, it feels different, even from the 2010 season. It feels different not just because the Cowboys’ season essentially ended in Week 8, rather than at 8-8. Instead, it’s a distinct, but no less painful form of heartbreak, that comes with the realization that–after all the promise of this season, all the hope that the team could build on last year’s success, all the ways in which it seemed like the front office, the coaching staff, and this collection of talented football players had figured out how to make this thing work–all we can do is look back at the 2015 Dallas Cowboys season, shake our heads, and wonder, “What if?”