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Phillips: Revisiting 2 Camp Questions That Shaped Unpredictable Season

IRVING, Texas – This holiday season, I'm thinking fondly of a place way out west. A summer wonderland, if you will.

Ocean views.

High of 75 degrees.

Super Bowl hopes.

Oxnard, California. That was the place. Those were the days.

Training camp feels like years ago, not months.

I pondered this inside an empty press box overlooking AT&T Stadium the week before Christmas, after the Cowboys were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. And again on the ride back from Buffalo following loss No. 11 – the 10th game out of 15 decided in the fourth quarter or overtime.

I thought back five months earlier, recalling the overarching theme during the Cowboys' 30-day stay in Oxnard:

Can't think about last year's 12-4 record, division title and divisional round appearance. New season. Must start over.

In six days, the 2015 season will end. How ironic that this year, the Cowboys will have no trouble turning the page.

For the first time since 2010, they're out of the playoff picture before the final weekend. It's the first losing season in the Jason Garrett era, not counting the 2010 season in which they won five of their last eight with Garrett as interim coach to finish 6-10.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, has gone their way this season. Not health, not bounces, not late-game execution. The 2014 Cowboys were 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. The 2015 Cowboys are 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less – and 1-10 in games without Tony Romo.

Consider some of the biggest questions about 2015 back in July, and how much has changed since:

Which position will first-round pick Byron Jones play -- cornerback or safety? Remember all the consternation about where and how much Jones would see the field as a rookie? Out of necessity – namely, injuries to Orlando Scandrick and Mo Claiborne – Jones has played essentially everywhere in the secondary, and played well.

*Who will take over as the starting running back? *Darren McFadden, almost by default. The three-man preseason committee of Joseph Randle, McFadden and Lance Dunbar got trimmed to one, McFadden, by late October. Dunbar to injured reserve, Randle released. Another bright spot has been McFadden's resurgence in a starting role – three yards short of 1,000 yards behind an offensive line that will send three more to the Pro Bowl.

What's the next step in Dez Bryant's career after his $70 million extension? Bryant is still among the league's elite pass catchers when healthy and able to practice fully and consistently. But when you think about it, he has been playing catch-up since July. He missed the offseason program during his contract talks, he missed most of preseason with a hamstring injury, and he's been sidelined or limited by foot and ankle injuries this season.

When you're 4-11, everything gets questioned by the masses. Play-calling, chemistry, leadership. The frustration is completely understandable.

But if you really take a rational look, a deep dive into what has ailed the 2015 Dallas Cowboys, you circle back to these two training camp questions:

*Can Tony Romo outdo last year's NFL-best 113.2 passer rating after a full, healthier offseason with his back? *We never found out. We got a glimpse – his last-minute touchdown drive in the season-opening victory over the Giants on Sept. 13. He played only 10 quarters the rest of the season due to two collarbone injuries.

With Romo sidelined for all or part of 13 games (and Bryant out for all or part of six games), the Cowboys simply haven't gotten enough from the backup quarterback position. They've averaged 15.1 points in 11 games with three different fill-in starters. It's an area Jerry Jones has vowed to address this offseason.

Can the defense jump from much-improved to dominant? This is a tricky one. The defense, in many respects, has been the team's calling card. Opposing offenses have scored fewer than 20 points in eight of the last 10 games. In today's league, that high-level effort should pile up wins. Instead, the Cowboys went 2-6 in those eight games with only seven offensive touchdowns.

Yet, all year, the defense has pointed to two areas that have haunted their own unit: takeaways and finishing games.

Takeaways have dropped from 31 in 2014 (ranked second) to 11 in 2015 (ranked last). By comparison, the teams with the league's two best records have the two highest takeaway totals: Carolina with 36 and Arizona with 33.

Really, the offensive and defensive challenges go hand in hand. You can argue opposing offenses aren't risking turnovers because they haven't had to score many points against the Cowboys in order to win. You can argue the offense's struggles sustaining drives have left the defense fatigued by the fourth quarter, contributing to some of the late breakdowns in a half-dozen losses.

And, you can argue the Cowboys' backup quarterbacks have stared 80 yards in front of them too many times without takeaways providing short fields.

Just shows you how fragile a season can be, how tough winning games can be. The one-loss Panthers have won six of their 14 games by a touchdown or less. The Cowboys have won two of eight games decided by a touchdown or less.

There are many reasons why. But those two camp questions have provided the best explanation in an unpredictable season.

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