Season Review: Looking Back At The Ups & Downs Of A Disappointing 2015

IRVING, Texas – At long last, a disappointing Cowboys season is in the books. The Cowboys staggered to a 4-12 record largely thanks to injuries and inconsistent play – as everyone is well aware.

The conversation will turn toward the offseason soon enough, but while this campaign is still fresh, the staff of DallasCowboys.com decided to take a look back and examine the highs and lows of 2015. 

These are the standouts moments, both good and bad, of the season – as determined by staff writers Nick Eatman, Rob Phillips, David Helman and Bryan Broaddus.

 

Best win

Nick:Give me the Eagles win in Week 2. Obviously, all of these are hollow because of how it turned out. But the fact they went into Philly and completely dominated that offense was impressive. DeMarco Murray was completely owned that day by Sean Lee, who might have played his best game of his career. Despite Romo's injury, the offense found a way to finish the game and the defense had three turnovers.

David:I have a hard time coming up with any answer other than the 27-26 win against the Giants in Week 1. The Cowboys played a sloppy game all night, but they rallied just in time to force a New York field goal, and Tony Romo did the rest. It's surreal to think now that Romo moved the Cowboys into position by throwing the ball to Lance Dunbar – both players finished the season on IR. It was a six-play, 72-yard drive that showcased Romo and the Cowboys offense at their very best. Yes, the loss of Dez Bryant put a damper on the night, but it was a win that created boundless optimism for the season to come. Of course, it turned out to be misplaced optimism, but we didn't know that yet.

Rob: The season opener against the Giants, if for no other reason than remembering what a healthy football team looked like – at least until Dez Bryant broke his foot in the fourth quarter. And because it turned out to be the Cowboys' only victory at AT&T Stadium. The final 1:54 of that game contained the types of big stops and plays in crunch time that the team lacked so often for the remainder of the season: the defense holding the Giants to a field goal after 1st-and-goal from the 4, then Romo and the offense delivering a 72-yard touchdown drive for a 27-26 victory. In many respects, the 2015 season peaked right there on Sept. 13.

Bryan:Week 11 against the Miami Dolphins. It was the most complete game of the season. The defense held Ryan Tannehill in check the entire day while the offense welcomed Tony Romo back. On the day, Romo was outstanding spreading the ball around while Darren McFadden smashed the ball at the Dolphins in the closing minutes playing a game of keep away in order to secure the victory.  

Worst lossRob:No defeat was more deflating or more significant than Thanksgiving Day against Carolina. It's really not close. Not so much because the Cowboys lost by 19, their third-largest margin of the season, but who they lost four days after his triumphant return. Tony Romo was supposed to fix everything, so many thought. He was supposed to knock off all his rust the previous weekend against the Dolphins. But he clearly wasn't himself on three days' rest against arguably the league's best defense. He threw three interceptions that directly led to 17 of the Panthers' 23 points in the first half. And when his left shoulder slammed into the AT&T Stadium turf in the third quarter, the Cowboys stumbled into the same nightmare they had lived for seven games already: no No. 9 the rest of the season.

Nick:Lots of good choices here. But I'll take the Panthers game on Thanksgiving. It always seems worse when you lose on Thanksgiving Day, but the way the Cowboys were smashed from the start was demoralizing. We thought Romo might save the day and instead, he was knocked out for the rest of the season.

Bryan:Week 10 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Matt Cassel could not lead the offense on one touchdown drive the entire game and mistake after mistake led to the Cowboys seventh straight loss.

David:No shortage of candidates for this one. I'm going to pick the Seattle game, because it was so awful for such a wide variety of reasons. The Cowboys rushed for 130 total yards against the stout Seattle defense, and their defense played an inspired effort. And yet, Matt Cassel couldn't even manage 100 passing yards, and the offense converted on just 28 percent of its third downs. The Cowboys couldn't even find the end zone when Greg Hardy set them up on the Seahawks' 16-yard line after an impressive interception. To cap it all off, the Cowboys kicked a field goal to take a 12-10 lead, and the defense – which had been so good – promptly gave up a 17-play, 79-yard drive to lose the game. It was a failure across the board, ruining what could have been a strong win against a Super Bowl contender.

Best playBryan:Dan Bailey's 54 yard field goal to beat the Redskins on Monday Night Football.

Nick:Not many great ones this year but the game-winner against the Giants in Week 1 tops my list. The fact Romo had masterfully drove the offense down the field with no timeouts was good enough. But then grabbing the ball off the turf on a low snap, picking it up and firing it to Witten has to be the top moment. Then again, when a Week 1 play was the best, it says how bad the year really was.

David:I think there's one play that really typifies the star-crossed Cowboys in 2015. One week after he returned from a broken foot, Dez Bryant played the best game of his season against Philadelphia. He caught five balls for 104 yards, and none was more impressive than his 18-yard touchdown catch on 3rd-and-4 from the Philly 18-yard line. Bryant skied over multiple defenders and came down with an improbable touchdown catch to tie the game, 21-21. Of course, during the course of the play, Bryant would sustain multiple injuries that would hamper him for the rest of the year – and the Cowboys would go on to lose in overtime. Just par for the course this season.

Rob:I've already covered Romo being Romo on that final touchdown drive in the season opener. Based on sheer excitement and grace under pressure, his touchdown throw to Jason Witten was the best play of 2015. But the play that helped save the season, at least temporarily, was J.J. Wilcox's forced fumble and Chris Jones' recovery in the fourth quarter at Washington Dec. 7 after DeSean Jackson decided to field a punt at his own 16-yard line, then backtracked to his own 2, then lost the ball running back up field. Darren McFadden scored the team's only touchdown of the game two plays later and the Cowboys wound up hanging on in overtime, 19-16. In a season defined in part by an insufficient takeaway total, that play gave backup quarterback Matt Cassel a rare short field to work with.

Worst playDavid:How about the worst interception I've ever seen in several decades of watching football? It was Week 15 against the Jets, and Matt Cassel was facing a 2nd-and-17 from the 50-yard line. He looked to throw a screen to Cole Beasley, but Buster Skrine covered it perfectly. Cassel bailed out of the play and tried to scramble, but he stumbled and tried to throw it away. He failed in that endeavor, and the ball fluttered into the arms of Darrelle Revis – who was literally all by himself near the Dallas sideline. It was a truly horrendous play that demonstrates the caliber of the Cowboys' quarterbacking without Romo.

Nick:You'd like to think something from Tampa would apply here, but I'll take the Dwayne Harris kickoff return for a touchdown against the Giants. Not only was that the game-winner for New York, but it was just salt on the wound, knowing they let him go in favor of Cole Beasley, who fumbled a punt in the final minute.

Bryan:Tony Romo's screen pass to Jason Witten in the Philadelphia game which broke his collar bone. Romo checked to the play and he if he would have just gone through the original call – Jordan Hicks would have not been in position to fall on him after he double clutched the pass.

Rob:Matt Cassel's first quarter interception Dec. 19 against the Jets – faking a pass to left, stumbling to his right, and facing pressure in the pocket, throwing the ball right to Darrelle Revis – signaled the end of the veteran's time as Tony Romo's primary injury replacement. He lasted two more scoreless series before Kellen Moore took over for the rest of the game (the Cowboys' final week in playoff contention) and ultimately the season. Cassel didn't have the benefit of an offseason to learn the offense, but the team only won one of his seven starts. 

Offensive MVP

Nick:There is no real MVP other than Romo. His value was evident more than ever. But if we're going to make this a top offensive player, I'll go with Darren McFadden. When he started games, he was one of the more productive runners in the entire league.

Rob:Darren McFadden deserves credit for the year he's had. He got all of 37 carries in the first five games, and when the Cowboys turned to him Oct. 25 against the Giants in desperate need of stability at the position, he wound up delivering a 1,089-yard season mostly over those final 11 weeks. The offensive line gets a lot of credit here, obviously, and the entire running game operation wasn't perfect with some short-yardage issues at times throughout the year. But considering the stacked fronts he faced without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant on the field together most weeks, McFadden gave the offense a steady presence in the backfield. Quietly he also had 40 catches, fourth most on the team. Many assume the Cowboys will strongly consider drafting a running back to pair with McFadden, but regardless, the eight-year veteran has earned his spot in the rotation.

Bryan:Darren McFadden. Rock solid once he was put in the lineup full time. Proved that he was more than tough enough to take the high number of carries and thrive.

David:Darren McFadden was an afterthought for this team through the first five weeks of the season. He had 129 total rushing yards after five games. In Week 6, when he took over the starting role, he eclipsed that with 152 in just his first start. McFadden averaged 4.6 yards per carry and tallied up 1,089 yards on the season – and again, that's in just 11 starts. If you average those numbers out over 16 starts, McFadden had a shot at a 1,400-yard season. Given the amount of concern about his durability when he signed in Dallas, McFadden made quite a statement in his first season with the team.

Defensive MVPBryan:Sean Lee. The defense was different without him in the lineup. He was in the top three in tackles every week he played.

Nick:The MVP of the defense might go to a player that never took a snap. Orlando Scandrick's value was apparent from start to finish. But the best player on defense this year was Sean Lee. He still had some injury issues but for the most part, he was the best defender on the field.

David:We talked a lot about how productive Sean Lee might be if given the opportunity to play a full season, and the move to weak side linebacker did just that. Yes, he did miss two games, but his injury problems this year were nothing compared to years past. Given 14 healthy games, Lee racked up a whopping 156 tackles, as well as 2.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and a crucial interception against Philadelphia. It's a shame he wasn't named to the Pro Bowl, and I'm still holding out hope he'll be nominated as an alternate.

Rob:Go back and watch the tone Sean Lee set for his teammates in Week 16 at Buffalo in miserable conditions, with a season-high tying 17 tackles and a half-sack. That's leadership in a lost season. He bounced back from last year's ACL injury to appear in 14 games and tallied a team-high team-credited 156 tackles and 2.5 sacks, the first of his career. Really solid, consistent season. The weak side "Will" linebacker position is a good fit for him because he's able to make sideline-to-sideline plays.

Special Teams MVPDavid:Chris Jones had a great year, but I don't know how you can pick against Dan Bailey. The fifth-year kicker had a career season on his way to his first-ever Pro Bowl, and that's saying something. Bailey connected on 30-of-32 kicks this season, setting a career high for his best percentage at 93.8 percent. He was perfect from 40 yards and closer, and he was 5-of-6 on kicks of 50 yards or more. In a season where the Dallas offense sputtered frequently, it's not hard to argue that Bailey was the Cowboys' top scoring threat.

Nick:Once again, it's easy. Dan Bailey was the most consistent player on the Cowboys' team, not just on special teams. He had a game-winner against the Redskins but had clutch kicks against the Eagles, Seahawks and Jets that aren't easily remembered because the Cowboys' defense couldn't hang on.

Rob:Dan Bailey accounted for 115 of the Cowboys' 275 points. He kicked the game winner at Washington. He's the league's all-time most accurate kicker (90.1 percent). He made his first Pro Bowl. He's my pick.

Bryan:Chris Jones. There were plenty times this season where the offense did absolutely moving the ball. If Jones has been poor, this defense would have not been able to hold opponents the way they did.

Most surprising rookie

Nick:In a negative way, I was most surprised by Randy Gregory failing to record a sack all year. I really thought he would be a difference-maker. He did suffer a tough ankle injury but he still played enough games to make more of an impact than just 11 tackles and no sacks.

Bryan:La'el Collins. I had questions about his learning curve for the position, but he came in and hit the ground running as a starter. By the season's end, he looked like a five year starter.

Rob:Maybe "Most Surprising" shouldn't go to a first-round pick. It's not that Byron Jones simply played well; it's that he did a lot of good things at so many different positions: outside corner, slot corner, free safety, nickel package, dime package. Was it perfect? No. Jones gave up some big plays, and he finished his rookie season without a takeaway. But the Cowboys feel great about his future in the secondary and would like to let him develop at one position.

David:Maybe this is a bit mean, but I'd have to say Randy Gregory – but not the good kind of surprise. The young pass rusher looked dangerous in training camp and the preseason. If you'll remember, Gregory posted a sack in each of his first three preseason games. He looked poised to be a viable part of the pass rush – and then he sprained his ankle just halfway through the season opener. The injury forced Gregory to sit out for five weeks, and it never seemed like he fully bounced back. He didn't record a sack in his rookie season, and he finished No. 22 on the team with just 11 tackles. He did record 16 quarterback pressures, but that was only fourth among defensive linemen.

Unsung HeroRob:The offensive line rarely gets noticed unless something goes wrong. Center Travis Frederick had two penalties all season directing communication at the line of scrimmage with four different quarterbacks. He definitely earned his second Pro Bowl selection.

Bryan:Byron Jones. The coaches started playing him at different positions in OTAs and he never flinched. Had a couple of rough moments along the way but never missed a beat.

David:Since I gave Dan Bailey the Special Teams MVP, I'll use this opportunity to shout out Chris Jones. How's this for a stat: his average punt was just 45.2 yards, which is only good enough for 20th in the league. But his net average was 42.5 – which is third-best in the league. Literally no one returned punts on Jones this year. He downed 27 punts inside the 20-yard line, and his directional punting was outstanding when it came to limiting guys like Darren Sproles, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Lockett and others. He was solid all season long, but it's a performance that's easy to forget because special teams are forgotten in losses.

Nick:We expect the kicker and deep snapper to be elite on special teams, but the punter was right there this year. Chris Jones was pretty consistent all season and even made a game-changing play when he recovered a fumble in Washington. His directional punts were even better in 2015 and found a way to eliminate some of the top punt returners the Cowboys faced this year.

Biggest Disappointment

Nick:For all the issues this team had, I think the biggest disappointment was not getting a 100 percent Dez Bryant all year. He didn't play a full game at full strength and considering how dynamic and dominant he was in 2014, not getting to see that at all was disappointing.

David:Again, it'd be easy to just say "it was disappointing that Tony Romo got hurt." But I'll specify a little bit. I'll never forget how exhilarating the NFC East division race was in 2014. The Eagles dominated Dallas on Thanksgiving, and then the Cowboys responded by tearing off four-straight wins – highlighted by a shellacking of Philadelphia up at Lincoln Financial Field. The entire month of December was a rush just to be around. It's disappointing that – largely thanks to injuries – the Cowboys and their fans were robbed of that fun this season. Mathematically, the Cowboys were alive as late as Week 15, but it just didn't feel the same – and that's an understatement, which is disappointing in its own right.

Rob:Could also classify this as the "Most Inexplicable" aspect of the season. The Cowboys' takeaway total dropped from 31 in 2014 (ranked second) to 11 in 2015, tying the league's all-time season low since expanding to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Why such a dip in production? Maybe opposing offenses took fewer chances because the Cowboys trailed in a lot more games this year and their offense didn't pose enough of a scoring threat for the other team. Whatever the reason, it's easily the biggest factor in the team's 4-12 finish besides Tony Romo's collarbone injury – and it's simply hard to fathom given how much Rod Marinelli's group values forcing turnovers.

* *

Bryan:I thought Orlando Scandrick's injury was significant for the defense but in the big picture, the season was lost when Tony Romo went down. It shouldn't have been that way but without a suitable backup, there was no chance.

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