Back to Future: Two Young Players Step Up In Only 2015 Win Without Romo

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 11: Panthers 33, Cowboys 14

Four days after the team's first win in nine weeks, fortunes grew worse again on Thanksgiving Day. On the final play of the third quarter, Romo fractured his left collarbone for the second time in two months, and then-unbeaten Carolina, which had already intercepted Romo three times in his second game back from his first collarbone injury, held onto a commanding lead in one of the most disheartening Cowboys Thanksgiving Day games in recent memory.

Encouraging: The defense won't see Cam Newton again next regular season, but other top NFL quarterbacks are on the 2016 schedule, including Aaron Rodgers (Packers), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) and Joe Flacco (Ravens). The Cowboys' defense can point to Thanksgiving Day 2015 as further proof they can hang tough against the league's best players. As lopsided as the final score was, Newton and the Panthers' high-powered offense only produced one touchdown drive, aided by a Cowboys special teams penalty that gave Carolina an automatic first down instead of settling for a field goal.

Discouraging: This one's obvious: Although the Cowboys fully expect Romo to make a 100-percent recovery from his collarbone injury, his absence in the remaining five games further exposed the team's questions about the backup quarterback position, making it a top priority entering the offseason. Kellen Moore made enough plays to enter the conversation as a backup candidate next season, but he also committed seven turnovers during that two-and-a-half-game stretch.

Game 12: Cowboys 19, Redskins 16

As demoralizing as Romo's injury and the Thanksgiving Day loss were 10 days earlier, the Cowboys rebounded on Monday Night Football to win a game without their starting quarterback for the first time all season. Backup Matt Cassel threw a completion to Jason Witten for the veteran tight end's 1,000th career catch, and a couple key special teams plays helped the Cowboys get in position for Dan Bailey's deciding 54-yard field with 14 seconds remaining, his 10th career game-winning field goal.

Encouraging:The Cowboys got big plays in all three phases of the game from two of their most talented young players, Lucky Whitehead and DeMarcus Lawrence. On offense, Whitehead ran two jet sweep plays for 35 yards, including a 22-yard gain, and also caught one pass for 5 yards. His 46-yard kickoff return late in the fourth quarter was arguably the game's most pivotal play – the Cowboys got in position for Bailey's winning kick four plays later. Lawrence statistically delivered the best game of his career: two sacks, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble. The team believes both will continue to improve next season.

Discouraging:The Cowboys were fortunate their three lost fumbles against in this game didn't ultimately lead to a loss, but once again their minus-turnover ratio became a point of emphasis. The team wound up losing the turnover battle in 11 of 16 games in 2015 and finished with a league-low minus-22 differential. That must improve in 2016 – no other statistic in the league contributes more to wins and losses.

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