The Dallas Cowboys finished with identical 8-8 records in 2011 and 2012 finishing 3rd in the NFC East and missing the playoffs both years. Although there were many similarities between the last two very frustrating seasons, the paths to mediocrity were different. As we look ahead to the 2013 campaign, is there anything we can learn about this team and predict what we should expect?
The Cowboys opened in New Jersey against the Jets on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11. They built a 24-10 lead before surrendering 17 points in the 4th quarter driven by a Romo fumble, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and a game-winning 50-yard FG left them shell shocked and on the short end of the 27-24 score.
After traveling East, the Cowboys had to travel to the West Coast to play the 49ers. This is the game where Tony Romo broke a rib and suffered a punctured lung but engineered an overtime victory off of a 3-TD game from Miles Austin. The Cowboys got their first win 27-24 and were at 1-1.
The Cowboys returned home for a Monday Night Football match-up with the Redskins. A messy game dominated by multiple embarrassingly bad snaps to Romo from center Phil Costa, the Cowboys score two FGs in the 4th quarter and eke out a tough 18-16 win to go 2-1.
The Detroit Lions came into Cowboys Stadium and quickly fell behind 27-3 before Romo threw 2 second half pick six interceptions and 3 interceptions in total. The Lions scored 31 second half points – 17 in the 4th quarter alone to win 34-30. The Cowboys were 2-2 heading into their week 5 bye but the way they had lost to both Detroit and the Jets made it feel like they were 0-4. They had shown flashes but overall had not played well.
Coming out of the bye week, Dallas had to travel to New England to face the Patriots. The Cowboys played well enough to win, but fell victim to another Tom Brady game-winning drive losing 20-16 and falling to 2-3.
In week 7, the St. Louis Rams came to Cowboys Stadium. This was DeMarco Murray’s coming out party as he started in place of Felix Jones and delivered an electrifying 253 yard, 1 TD effort and has been the starter ever since. The Cowboys finally dominated a game winning 34-7 and getting back to .500 at 3-3.
Week 8 brought a road trip to Philadelphia where again the team looked completely clueless. The Cowboys were never in this game trailing 24-0 at halftime and avoiding the shut out only by scoring a 70-yard touchdown in the 4th quarter. Any hope that the Rams game the week before had snapped this team out of their funk was completely erased as the team lost 34-7 and fell to 3-4.
Thankfully, the month of November came and the team finally got on a bit of a roll. With 3 out of 4 games at home, the Cowboys beat Seattle (23-13), Buffalo Bills (44-7), completed the sweep of the Redskins in Washington (27-24 in OT), and Miami (20-19). Suddenly, Dallas was at 7-4 and starting to be relevant in the NFC East.
But, then came December. The Cowboys lost 4 of the next 5 games including an overtime loss in Arizona (19-13, Cards scored on their first possession in OT Jason Garrett iced his own kicker at the end of regulation), a home loss against the Giants where Romo and Miles Austin came within a foot of putting the game away before the Giants rallied for the win (37-34), and another listless loss at home to the Eagles (20-7). The sole win came against Tampa Bay, a 31-15 road win. That set up the season finale against the Giants where the winner would win the division and earn a playoff spot and the loser would go home. The Cowboys really never made a game of it losing 31-14 finishing at 8-8 and catapulting themselves into the off season. The Giants on the other hand won the division and catapulted into the playoffs and what would ultimately be a run toward another Super Bowl win.
Optimism was high once again for the Cowboys heading into the 2012 season, but they would open once again in New Jersey – but this time against the rival Giants. They had not beaten the G-Men since November of 2010. It was critical for the ‘Boys to get this season off to a positive start and they did with a convincing 24-17 win on the road.
Unfortunately, the inconsistent team from last season showed its head again when the Cowboys traveled once again across the country to Seattle. A much tougher Seahawks team handed them a bad 27-7 loss dropping them to 1-1 and erasing any momentum the season opener might have generated.
Any idea that the Seattle game was just a bad week, was removed the next week against Tampa Bay. The Cowboys won 16-10 at home but it was anything but a convincing win against a team they should have dominated.
Next came a MNF date with the Chicago Bears that was another is a long line of prime time humiliations. The Bears destroyed the Cowboys 34-18 behind Romo’s 5 interceptions – including two for TDs – in what may be the single worst game of his career. Dallas fell to 2-2 and once again headed into an early, week 5 bye week in disarray.
Coming out of the bye week, the Cowboys looked better and put up a valiant fight against the Ravens (ultimate Super Bowl winners) before losing 31-29 and falling under .500 at 2-3.
Next up was a road trip to Carolina where they managed to squeak out a win over a pretty bad football team 19-14. But, that was followed by a home loss to the Giants (29-24) and a road loss to the Falcons (19-13) to drop the ‘Boys to 3-5 at mid season.
But, the Cowboys managed to right the ship and get on a bit of a roll with a road win against the woefully bad Eagles (38-23) and a home OT win over the lowly Browns (23-20). They then got their first look at RGIII at home on Thanksgiving Day and quickly fell behind while he put on a clinic before losing 38-31 and dropping to 5-6.
Then came December where for the first time in a long time, the Cowboys mounted a bit of a run. The month opened by completing the sweep of the Eagles with a win in Cowboys Stadium (38-33), then a hard fought road win in Cincinnati against the Bengals (20-19), and an OT win at home against the hated Steelers (27-24). Suddenly, the Cowboys were becoming relevant again in the NFC East.
But, as we know, they could not beat New Orleans at home losing in OT (34-31) dropping them to 8-7 and setting up another “win or go home” season finale. This time it would be in Washington against the Redskins with the division title and a playoff berth in the balance. Once again, the Cowboys could not meet the challenge and headed into the off season at 8-8.
So, what are we to expect in 2013? With all the changes in the coaching staff, the switch to a 4-3 defense, and the players returning from one of the worst seasons for major injuries in a long time, you can feel the optimism building again.
But, if this team has taught me anything, it is to be very careful about optimism. If success were measured simply by how many times a team raised your hopes and then ripped your heart out of your chest and danced on it, the Cowboys would be world champs by a mile! I’ve chosen to review how the last two seasons unfolded as a gentle reminder of what can happen.
We drew a very favorable schedule overall, but our opening game will be very tough. Eli and the Giants have yet to lose at Cowboys Stadium and they will be looking to exact revenge for beating them last season in their season/home opener. Sixteen teams will lose their first game of the season this year but I’m not sure if a team with the fragile psyche like the Cowboys can afford it. Or, maybe it is our psyche that can’t afford it. If they can somehow get by New York, they have a good chance to get to 4-0 with games against a rebuilding Kansas City, a home game against the Rams, and a winnable road game against the Chargers. Peyton Manning and the Broncos come to Cowboys Stadium in week 5 as do the Redskins in week 6. The Broncos will be a tough out and the RGIII-led Redskins seem to have the Cowboys number. We then have what should be winnable road games against the Eagles and the Lions – but both teams have added weapons. It will be our first game against Kelly’s Eagles and the Lions now have both Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush.
We then get the AP-led Vikings at home and travel to the noisy Superdome for a Sunday Night Football game against the Saints. The SNF games have not been kind to us as we all know. Then comes our late, week 11 bye week which should help give us a rest before heading into another brutal late November/December slate. We travel to New York for the rematch with the Giants before getting the Raiders on Thansgiving (at least our turkey won’t be ruined this year – I hope!). Then comes a road game with the Bears in Soldier Field – always a tough place to play in December, a home date with the Packers, what will no doubt be a critical road game with the Redskins, before finishing at home against the Eagles.
In this age of free agency and league parity, I am no longer able to scan through the schedule and identify what games the Cowboys will likely win and what games will be tough to win. There is just too much change from year to year in both Dallas and the rest of the league. I know that the Cowboys will need to find a way to win 9 or 10 games to have a chance, but I can’t tell you today where those wins are going to come from. This team – as they’ve shown – is very likely to win the opener against the Giants at home and then lose the next two to KC and St. Louis. As I always am at this time of year, I am cautiously optimistic with heavy emphasis on the caution. Go Cowboys!