IRVING, Texas – The plan was to be preparing for an NFC Wild Card Game. Instead, the lockers have been cleaned out, the halls are quiet at Valley Ranch and already, plans are being made to get better in 2012.
Before we look ahead too far into the offseason, the writers of DallasCowboys.com have sifted through some of the highs and lows of the Cowboys' 8-8 season that left them on the outside of the playoffs for the second straight year.
Staff writers Nick Eatman, Rob Phillips and Josh Ellis picked their best and worst of the 2011 campaign, displayed in a two-part series.
Today, we'll look at the best win, worst loss, best play, worst play, the biggest unsung hero and the biggest disappointment from the past 16 games. *
Nick: It has to be the only game against a team with a winning record, right? The San Francisco win was big at the time, but got bigger as the year went on and we found out how tough the 49ers were, especially at home. But from the way Romo came back with the punctured lung and rallied the team, to Dan Bailey turning the corner in one half of play, to then Jesse Holley's moment in the sun, that is the best win for me.
Josh: The win at San Francisco had everything. Overtime, a comeback, an unlikely hero in Jesse Holley, a redemption story for Dan Bailey, who had missed a chip shot to start the game. Not to mention, Tony Romo played through broken ribs and a punctured lung, overcoming what would prove to be one of the league's best defenses and a team that was far better than anyone knew at the time.
Rob: It's got to be the best team the Cowboys played all year, and their only opponent with a winning record. The Week 2 overtime win at San Francisco avoided an 0-2 start that might have immediately crippled their playoff hopes. The Tony Romo haters found out their quarterback is pretty tough and pretty clutch, too.
Rob: So many heartbreakers to choose from. The finale at the Giants wasn't a heartbreaker, though. It was a major disappointment that with everything on the line – the division, the playoffs – the Cowboys dug themselves a 21-0 hole and didn't even look competitive until the second half.
Nick: Take your pick here. Lots to choose from but give me the season finale against the Giants. That's the worst loss because if they win that game, the losses against the Jets, Lions, Patriots, Cardinals and Giants at home are wiped away. You still had a chance to salvage the season and win the division and it's 21-0 before they knew what hit them.
Josh: I think it has to be Detroit in Week 4, just based on the sheer size of the lead the Cowboys blew. That was a recurring theme for the club this year, but there was nothing worse than giving away a 24-point lead midway through the third quarter. I mean, 24 points?
Josh: A few ways to go with this one, but what about just having the December swoon yet again? One might have hoped that Jason Garrett would be able to toughen up the Cowboys a little bit – if mental toughness was a problem, as Emmitt Smith claimed – but that wasn't the case. They were 1-4 down the stretch.
Rob: The team's trouble closing out games due to offensive, defensive and special teams mistakes. They were 4-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. In games that tight, maybe a .500 record (give or take a game) is about right. But in truth, it was a microcosm for the entire season. The Cowboys lost four of their last five and sleepwalked through the first half in the Meadowlands.
Nick: Once again, so many options to pick from, but the one that keeps standing out is the loss at New England. Remember, this game was coming off a bye and after the Detroit collapse. The Cowboys played a great game defensively and it just had that feel that Dallas would come away with a huge road win. And in a matter of seconds, it was gone, which seemed to be a trend that followed the defense as the year went on, losing late leads.
Nick: The week of the Jets game, I had never heard of Tony Fiammetta and wasn't sure how to pronounce it. Then it didn't seem like I needed to since he was cut three days later. But once he re-signed, it was obvious that he provided a spark to a stagnant running game. Whether it was Felix Jones or DeMarco Murray, the best rushing games occurred when Fiammetta was in the lineup, which wasn't consistent considering his injury situations this year. But we found out how needed strong fullback play was to this offense.
Josh: I don't know how you can't have a lot of respect for what Montrae Holland did this year, after getting himself completely out of shape while injured during training camp. When he returned in Week 7, after training at an Ohio center for offensive linemen, he became a really consistent player for the Cowboys up front until tearing his biceps in Week 16. The running game immediately improved, and one might argue he was the Cowboys' second-best lineman while he was playing, behind only Tyron Smith.
Rob: Laurent Robinson signed off the couch in September and wound up with a team-high 11 touchdown catches, the most since Miles Austin's 11 in 2009 and not far off from Terrell Owens' franchise-record 15 in 2007. That's the not reason he's the pick here, though. For an offense that has had red zone inconsistencies, seven of Robinson's 11 touchdowns came inside the 20. That's big.
Rob: Did the Cowboys discover a feature back on one single play? DeMarco Murray's 91-yard touchdown run against the Rams – granted, thanks to a hole the size of a bus – was the start of a record performance. Had it not happened, would Murray have gotten as many carries that day and gone on to as much success as he had before his injury? Maybe not.
Nick: The one that sticks out the most is the first offensive play in overtime of the 49ers game, when Tony Romo hit Jesse Holley (of all people) down the middle of the field to set up the game-clinching field goal. That one is hard to beat. Romo could barely breathe with his fractured ribs but checked out of a run to hit Holley, who didn't even need to score a touchdown to have a career-changing moment. And because he didn't score, it gave Dan Bailey the chance to come full circle and win the game, after missing a chip shot earlier.
Josh: Imagine how things might've been different if Dan Bailey hadn't made that 48-yarder at the end of regulation in San Francisco. The Cowboys would've been 0-2, and he would've missed two kicks that day, including a gimmee, and maybe gets the axe. Instead, the Cowboys went on to probably their highest-quality win of the year, and he started on a streak of 26 consecutive makes.
Josh: Theblocked punt against the Jets in Week 1 was the biggest killer in what was a huge letdown game. If Joe McKnight doesn't get through to Mat McBriar, the Cowboys very well could've held on in a crazy environment, in the Meadowlands, on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11. That sort of win to start the season could have galvanized the team going forward. Instead, blowing great opportunities like that became the norm.
Rob: I don't believe Jason Garrett "iced his own kicker" against Arizona. He and his staff didn't think their field goal unit was ready, so they used a timeout. That's it. But Dan Bailey's 49-yard miss on the "official" try led to the Cowboys' opening December loss when they began the month in first place. It's a play and a game no one will ever forget ... for all the wrong reasons.
Nick: It's third-and-5 with about three minutes to play and the Cowboys holding onto a 34-29 lead against the Giants. Tony Romo had torched the New York secondary on the previous two drives with bombs and went for a third. This time, he had Miles Austin streaking down the sideline, with a defender five yards behind him. But Austin lost the ball in the lights and cut the route off a little short, allowing the ball to go overthrown. The Giants take it, drive and win the game. If Romo hits that big play to Austin, it's probably a touchdown and it gives the Cowboys the win and the division title – plus a 400-yard, 5-TD game for Romo, and probably his fourth Pro Bowl berth.
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