IRVING, Texas - 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 campaign that left them on the outside of the playoffs for the second straight year.
Staff writers Josh Ellis, Nick Eatman and Rob Phillips picked their best and worst of the 2011 season, displayed in a two-part series.
Today, we'll look at more of the individual awards, with the MVPs of the offense, defense and special teams, along with the best rookie. We'll also pick the most significant injury and the team's most pressing need heading into the 2012 offseason. *
Nick: Despite having his share of forgettable moments at the end of the Jets and Lions games, Tony Romo was the most consistent offensive player on the team and enjoyed the best season of his career, at least statistically. With the highest QB rating of his career, and a 21 touchdown-interception ratio, Romo wasn't the reason this team missed the playoffs.
Josh: It's Romo, hands down. Jerry Jones is absolutely right in saying that the biggest disappointment of the season is the effort the Cowboys got from Romo, yet they couldn't do anything more with it.
Rob: Where would the Cowboys be without Tony Romo? Certainly not 8-8. This was Romo's best season with a career-high 102.5 passer rating and 31-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He helped cost the Cowboys two wins against the Jets and Lions, but otherwise he's never been more efficient. And he played about half the year with a fractured rib.
Josh: The entire defense is built around DeMarcus Ware, moving him around to come at the quarterback from weird angles, which in turn can create matchup advantages for his teammates in the front seven. It's something that wasn't done under Wade Phillips, but disguising Ware was one of Rob Ryan's efforts. As the year went along, you saw the impact of that start to fade, though.
Nick: Hard to ignore a guy that gets 19.5 sacks, but I'm going with Sean Lee was the most valuable defensive player on the squad. From the middle, Lee gives the team a presence it hasn't had in a while - a playmaking linebacker. He not only finished the year as the leading tackler but tied for the team lead with four picks. DeMarcus Ware was outstanding at times, but Lee was more consistent to me.
Rob: Once again, it's the guy providing the most pressure on the quarterback: DeMarcus Ware. He badly needs help in that area. Jay Ratliff did play at a Pro Bowl level and Sean Lee is a young cornerstone, but nobody means more to the defense right now than Ware.
Rob: Rookie kicker Dan Bailey kicked four game-winning field goals. Enough said. He also took over kickoff duties when David Buehler injured his groin in the middle of the season. The Cowboys are highly optimistic they've found a long-term answer at kicker. Finally.
Josh: In the first couple weeks of training camp, you could tell Dan Bailey just had this kind of nails quality to him, a little ice running through his veins. After getting very few opportunities in the preseason, the Cowboys decided to trust him, and for the vast majority of the season, he was just as automatic as he had been in San Antonio.
Nick:The guy won four games for them this year and it wasn't even enough. The Cowboys needed him to win six games to make the playoffs. Still, rookie Dan Bailey was not just the best special teams player for this year, but likely in recent seasons, too. His memorable moment occurred in San Francisco, but don't forget Bailey hit two game-winners to beat Washington and Miami just five days apart.
Nick: Maybe it's a good sign that this category is hard to answer. With three legitimate contenders here, I'm going with RB DeMarco Murray. While Bailey and Tyron Smith were more consistent in production, Murray was spectacular at times, and not just by breaking Emmitt Smith's single-game rushing record. His bruising style of running helped them win against the Redskins and Dolphins in a fashion that was just as breathtaking as his 253-yard game against the Rams.
Rob: Bailey and DeMarco Murray are worthy candidates, but I'll take the guy with the most pressure on him from Day 1: offensive tackle Tyron Smith. He had trouble with certain rushers, but overall he measured up to his top-10 status - so much so, in fact, that many seem to assume he'll be this team's left tackle next year. Not Doug Free.
Josh: Obviously Murray's star shined the brightest, albeit for less than half the season, while Bailey and Smith were more consistent over a 16-game stretch. I'll give the honor to Tyron Smith because he seemed to improve the most as the season went along, which is exactly what you would want to see in a rookie.
Josh: The easy answer is usually the most correct one. DeMarco Murray became a star in his seven-week run as the Cowboys' lead back, but when he went down against the Giants it was a wind-out-of-the-sails moment. Nevermind what it meant for the season as a whole, the Cowboys probably would've had a much better chance to beat New York that night, possibly making Week 17 irrelevant.
Nick: I'm going with a tie here. Since I wrote all that about Murray being the best rookie, it's hard not to think Murray's fractured ankle didn't play a big role in the Cowboys losing three of the last four games. But don't forget about Gerald Sensabaugh having the concussion against the Lions in Week 4. Remember, Sensabaugh is an extraordinary leaper and was supposed to cover Calvin Johnson on those jump balls - the very play that killed the Cowboys in the fourth quarter when he was in the locker room.
Rob: Had DeMarco Murray stayed healthy for the final month of the season, the Cowboys might have had enough juice at running back between Murray and Felix Jones to wear down defenses and keep their own defense off the field longer. Jones ran well when healthy, but his hamstring bothered him down the stretch and the offense relied too much on Tony Romo's right arm.
Rob: Lots of choices here, but cornerback depth could be a big issue if the team were to part ways with Terence Newman, Alan Ball and Frank Walker. They would have two starting corners, Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins, but nothing else. And in this league, you better have three high-quality CBs, if not four. I think it'll be a high draft priority.
Josh: Well, there's a ton of them, of course, but I like the idea of getting a real pass rusher, if they can. This is a passing league now, and the only way to stop guys like Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees is to beat them up. They make even the best cornerbacks look average at times. If they're not asked to cover for so long, average corners can look better. That said, the cornerback position needs an upgrade, too.
Nick:Since this team needs so much, it's OK to be vague. The top need is a playmaking defensive stud. If you're on the draft board at No. 14, give me the guy who can simply make plays on defense. He's a cornerback? That's fine, take him. Safety? Yeah, that'd be a nice change - get him. If he's an outside linebacker? Oh wow, even better. Or even if he's a defensive end with size, get him, too. If he's on defense and he makes plays - select!