Editor's Note: The Cowboys suffered their worst season in 25 years, winning just four games. As the team looks to improve in 2016, the writers of DallasCowboys.com will go through each of the 16 games in 2015, picking out both a positive and negative occurrence from each week of the season as the Cowboys try to build for the future.
Game 9:Buccaneers 10, Cowboys 6
For all intents and purposes, the Cowboys' realistic hopes of a playoff berth ended in Tampa Bay, when they lost their seventh-straight game. It was also their third loss of the season in which they failed to score a touchdown. Even Dan Bailey wasn't his normal, reliable self, as he suffered one of his only two misses of the season against the Buccaneers. Despite their struggles, the Cowboys had a chance to grab an ugly win with a goal line fumble recovery. But a defensive holding call on Jeff Heath negated Jameis Winston's turnover and Tampa scored the game's only touchdown to help the Buccaneers to a win.
Encouraging:It's hard to sell this particular loss as anything other than a miserable disaster. But lost in the shuffle of the ugliness of it all was one encouraging statistic. During the course of the game, DeMarcus Lawrence recorded a sack for just the second time all season. He built upon that with an impressive second half streak, as he finished the season with seven sacks in his final eight games. His performance down the stretch gives cause for optimism that the Cowboys have found their next premier pass rusher, and it started that day in Tampa Bay.[embeddedad0]
Discouraging:Stop if this sounds familiar, but Morris Claiborne injured his hamstring in the loss to the Buccaneers and didn't return to the game. He would go on to miss the next two games, and after a brief re-appearance, he'd sit out the last three games of the season. Claiborne had been having a relatively productive season up until the trip to Tampa, but injury concerns have been a problem throughout his four-year stint in Dallas. The fact that Claiborne missed five games in his contract season could play a big factor in whether the Cowboys try to bring him back this spring.
Game 10:Cowboys 24, Dolphins 14
The Cowboys' record sat at a lowly 2-7, but there was reason for optimism and excitement as Tony Romo made his return to the active roster. The Cowboys' starting quarterback reminded everyone of his ability early, as his third play from scrimmage saw him make a spinning, left-handed throw to Darren McFadden to avoid a safety. Romo looked rusty, as he threw two early interceptions, but he rebounded to find both Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant for touchdowns. Throw in a 29-carry, 129-yard effort from Darren McFadden, and the Cowboys looked like the playoff contender so many expected them to be. The defense was stalwart, as well, holding the Dolphins to just 210 total yards and adding a pick-six by Rolando McClain. The win improved the Cowboys' record to 3-7, which was just enough to spark some belief heading into Thanksgiving.
Encouraging:Jerry Jones said it in the locker room after this game: this was the team that the Cowboys were expecting to see in 2015. The Week 1 win against the Giants was ugly and turnover-prone, and the Week 2 win against Philadelphia saw Brandon Weeden guide Dallas to the finish line. In Miami, things came together much more smoothly. The running game cranked out 166 rushing yards on a solid Miami front, and Romo found both of his big play targets for touchdowns. The Cowboys completely dominated the time of possession, and they got a timely takeaway from their defense. All of the elements that were supposed to make this team good clicked in Miami. Thankfully for the Cowboys, the vast majority of those elements should return in 2016.
Discouraging:Granted, it was Romo's first game back in eight weeks, but the Cowboys still managed to lose the turnover battle in this game. He threw two early interceptions – one of which negated a red zone scoring opportunity. This isn't necessarily meant as a knock on Romo, considering he threw just nine interceptions during the course of the 2014 season. But it's just a reminder of how terrible the Cowboys were at ball security this season. Dallas finished -22 in turnover differential, which was last in the league by a wide margin. It absolutely has to improve next season or the Cowboys don't stand a chance – even if they have Romo.