IRVING, Texas –The Cowboys rolled down the stretch of the season, cruising from 3-5 to 8-6 with their playoff chances once again coming down to Week 17. Instead of reversing their fate of 2011, they followed suit by falling in the last two games of the season.
With the season-ending loss to the Redskins still in recent memory, the DallasCowboys.com staff looked back through the highs and lows of yet another 8-8 season that left owner Jerry Jones promising change for the future.
Nick Eatman, Rowan Kavner and Bryan Broaddus looked through the best and worst of the 2012 season, as displayed below. The "Special Teams MVP" and "Best Rookie" categories were left out, as those would have unanimously gone to Dan Bailey and Morris Claiborne, respectively, without much consideration.
Nick:This is a season-long award, not just one game for the last game. With that, it has to be Tony Romo. The way this team is structured, the Cowboys cannot win if he plays poorly. They nearly had three 1,000-yard receivers, they had no running game and a struggling offensive line, Romo was the reason they even had a chance to win those eight games. It's Romo for me and not even close. * *
Bryan:I honestly was caught between Romo and Bryant but I will go with Romo despite what happened in that Washington game. He gave this team a chance to win the division title in the last week of the season. He was able to make plays behind an offensive line that had their struggles plus no running game for the majority of the season. But a tip of the cap to Bryant as well.
Rowan:Dez Bryant, if for no other reason than he deserves some consideration on this list. Take any starting quarterback off the majority of teams, and the team would struggle mightily. Tony Romo is no exception, and the Cowboys wouldn't be in position to do what they've done without him, but Bryant needs to be recognized for what he provided. He became an elite touchdown machine.* *
Nick:With injuries to Ware and Lee, I think it comes down to two players, but I'm going to lean towards Brandon Carr. I know Spencer was great, too. But Carr had his clutch moments with huge interceptions late in the year. His versatility to take bigger receivers or play some safety proved to be valuable as well. Overall, what a great addition to the team.
Bryan:Anthony Spencer was the most consistent player that the Cowboys had on defense all season. There were plenty of questions whether he should have received the franchise tag but he proved he was worth every penny than was spent on him. Unless he is tagged again, will be playing for another club in 2013 and the Cowboys can't afford that.
Rowan:When DeMarcus Ware couldn't use his right arm late in the year, Anthony Spencer became the one player to trust for pressure. He kept everything going on defense through all the injuries, setting the edge on the run, recording a career-high in sacks and even communicating the defensive signals when Sean Lee and Bruce Carter went down.* *
Most Significant Injury:
Nick: I'm going with DeMarco Murray. We saw the play-calling change when he wasn't in the game. All of a sudden, third-and-1 was a huge problem for this team and they wouldn't have thought of running. Murray gives the team some much-needed beef in the backfield.
Bryan:Losing Murray for six games was critical, not having Ratliff for the majority of the season was bad, Lee and Carter were bad but losing Barry Church in Week 3 really hurt this team because of the physical presences that he brought to this defense. How many times did we see where safety play hurt this defense whether it was range plays in coverage or in the middle of the field but how many times did we see plays break at the line because of missed tackles? All the injuries were bad but replacing Church proved difficult.
Rowan:With a lot to choose from, I'm going to select the defensive leader who would have been setting up the defense and putting the team in position to stop Alfred Morris had he been healthy for either Redskins game. Sean Lee's loss was the most significant, and his absence wasn't made easier after Bruce Carter went down and DeMarcus Ware got hurt. His presence against running backs late in the season would have changed things.* *
Top Offseason Need:
Nick: Like I've said before, anything that ends with "fensive line" is good for me. Offensive or defensive. If his weight starts with the number 3, that's a good start. This team got manhandled up front at times this year. A guard/center would be great, and a defensive end would work, too.
Bryan:I am going to try and fix this defense line. I have said it before and will say it all through the draft. There is too much age and players breaking down at these positions plus you now take Josh Brent out of the mix and you have serious problems. I know the offensive line has been talked about and I get that but take a good look at who is on this defensive line now.
Rowan:The second half of the season shouldn't distract from what everyone realized early on in the year – that the offensive line was the weakest part of the team. Every week was a twisting and weaving act for Tony Romo, and the running game was nonexistent many weeks. Romo had more time late in the year, but the offensive line play was suspect all season.* *
Nick:This category is usually for something negative, but I'm going with Dez Bryant here. I really didn't think this kid could shrug off the off-field issues he had and then produce like he did down the stretch. He grew up in front of our eyes. I knew he had talent, but turn into a beast – and do it consistently - was a huge surprise for me.
Bryan:My biggest surprise was how well Dwayne Harris played because going into camp, he was really an afterthought to me. Every week, he got a little bit better and when he was asked to deliver, he was able to step up and make that happen. His toughness and skill is something going forward has to give these offensive coaches some confidence.
Rowan:The defense's ability to stay in games despite playing new free agent signings seemingly every week. The backups played well enough that some fans questioned whether some deserve playing time next year, as well. Ernie Sims, Eric Frampton and Sterling Moore became weekly contributors, and some might have earned a spot next year.
Nick: Honestly, it's the fact we're writing this right now and not looking at Russell Wilson's stats. I really thought this year would turn out different. So the fact the Cowboys had the ball with a chance to tie or win, and Romo threw that last pick, was disappointing for this team. It was there for the taking.
Bryan:I really believed that Doug Free was going to be better at right tackle and for the majority of the season he was not. It really was only when he started splitting reps that things improved for him. I thought the move to the right side would refocus him technique wise and potentially expose him less but there were still many of the same problems. This team is going to have to make a decision on him going forward.* *
Rowan:The lack of defensive starters who could stay on the field. A handful of young defensive stars flashed moments of greatness before getting lost for the year to injury. The losses of Lee, Bruce Carter, Jay Ratliff and Josh Brent were too great to overcome, and DeMarcus Ware was never himself late. One can only wonder what would have happened had they stayed on the field.* *
Nick: I think an obvious answer here could be Dwayne Harris, but the player who really came on at the perfect time was center Ryan Cook. For him to come over in a trade, and then be ready to play nearly every snap in the opener was amazing. Turned out they needed him all season long.
Bryan:There is no question in my mind that Dan Bailey is the unsung hero of this team. Mickey Spagnola said it well about Bailey, this team can't win a game if he misses field goals and with the exception of the Baltimore game, he was absolutely right. Bailey never wavered during pressure and was as automatic as they came. It is a great comfort to a team to have a guy like Bailey in the position that he is in.
Rowan:Sometimes people forget about the kind of talent Bailey is, but I'm going with Dwayne Harris. Nobody would've believed more big plays in the return game would come after Dez Bryant was taken off the unit. Harris might not be the fastest guy on the field, but his quickness and big play ability could rival anyone's, and he became a reliable target for Romo.* *