Grading the Dallas Cowboys' 2012 season

Posted Sunday, Jan. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Quarterback

DTony Romo passed for a career-high 4,903 yards while engineering five comeback victories in the fourth quarter or overtime. And for a stretch in December, he played the best football of his career. But Romo's final game was remeniscent of his woeful start. He threw three interceptions in the loss at Washington, giving him a career-high-tying 19 for the season. He was leading the league with 13 interceptions when the Cowboys got off to a 3-5 start and ended the season tying for the NFL lead. It wasn't all Romo's fault as he was sacked a career-high-tying 36 times and got no help from the running game. His receivers dropped too many passes.

Running back

FIt's an embarrassment that the Cowboys fashioned the worst running game in team history in terms of yards per game (79.1) and tied for last in attempts (22.2). A franchise with the likes of Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith as alumni can no longer run effectively or even attempt to do so. Part of the blame goes to the absence of running back DeMarco Murray, who missed six games with a sprained foot. Backup Felix Jones came into the season out of shape and wasn't capable of handling the load. Still, the Cowboys couldn't run consistently with Murray, and that goes to the inability of the offensive line to open holes and the team's propensity to fall behind in games, forcing it to abandon the running game.

Receiver

CDez Bryant had a breakout season on and off the field. He went from being a perceived knucklehead to the self-proclaimed X-factor, as well as inspirational performer for playing with a fractured finger. His 92 catches for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns made him one of the NFL's most feared receivers. After Bryant, questions abound. Miles Austin caught 66 passes for 943 yards and six touchdowns, but he proved to be inconsistent and remains injury prone. Kevin Ogletree was a disappointment as the third receiver. Dwayne Harris was a late-season bright spot and showed plenty of upside for the future.

Tight end

AJason Witten had a season for the ages, which he began by playing in the season opener 23 days after suffering a lacerated spleen. He had only eight catches in the first three games and almost as many drops. But Witten caught 13 passes in Game 4 and wound up catching more passes in a season than any tight end in NFL history, 110 for 1,039 yards and three touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl for the eighth time and led the Cowboys in receptions for the sixth consecutive season. The Cowboys didn't get much from backup tight end John Phillips as a run blocker or pass receiver. Rookie James Hanna showed potential as a pass receiver for next season.

Offensive line

FQuarterback Tony Romo was a sacked a career-high-tying 36 times and the only reason it wasn't more was because of his mobility. The Cowboys rushed for the fewest yards per game in team history. Both issues are an indictment of the subpar play along the offensive line, where the Cowboys struggled with penalties and poor blocking at every position. Right tackle Doug Free proved to be the biggest disappointment as the most experienced and highest-paid player. By season's end, he had lost his starting job and played in a rotation with Jermey Parnell. Free is not expected to return next season. Guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, both off-season free-agent signees, failed to live up to expectations. Center proved to be troublesome, with Phil Costa injured and Ryan Cook, acquired in a trade before the season opener, having to carry the load. Left tackle Tyron Smith was solid at best.

Defensive line

DThe unit was decimated by injuries and tragedy, which severely impacted its performance, thus the team's inability to stop the run when it mattered or get pressure on the passer. Former Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff played in only six games and was limited in those. His backup, Josh Brent, missed the final four games after being charged with intoxication manslaughter in the death of teammate Jerry Brown. End Kenyon Coleman was lost for the season with a triceps injury. End Jason Hatcher was the only consistent performer, with career highs in tackles (77), sacks (four) and quarterback pressures (25). End Marcus Spears got a lot of time because of injuries, but made few impact plays. Sean Lissemore showed versatility, when he wasn't injured, by playing end and nose tackle. Rookie Tyrone Crawford showed that he will be a future contributor.

Linebacker

CThis unit opened the season with the potential of being the league's best, thanks to the surprisingly strong play of inside linebacker Bruce Carter. He was lost for the season, however, as was inside linebacker Sean Lee, who was having a Pro Bowl campaign. Their replacements, Ernie Sims and Dan Connor, were willing, but less than capable of anchoring the run defense. Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware started the season with a flourish but ended it as a one-armed man because of shoulder and elbow injuries. Only 2.5 of his 11.5 sacks came in the final eight games. He had a career-low 56 tackles. The saving grace of the unit was Anthony Spencer, who had a career year with a team-leading 106 tackles and a career-high 11 sacks.

Defensive back

CThe Cowboys made a point of upgrading the secondary in the off-season with the additions of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at cornerback. Carr might not ever be worth $50.1 million, but he proved to a huge upgrade at the position. Claiborne was solid as a rookie. Gerald Sensabaugh was solid, though unspectacular, at free safety. The issues were at strong safety, where Barry Church was lost for the season. The revolving door of Danny McCray, Eric Frampton and Charlie Peprah left a lot to be desired. The loss of nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick was a further hindrance, with former starter Mike Jenkins taking awhile to adapt to playing inside.

Special teams

BDan Bailey was automatic as usual, making 29 of 31 field-goal attempts. He was a perfect 26 of 26 under 50 yards. Punter Brian Moorman was inconsistent after replacing Chris Jones, who was injured because of poor blocking. Dwayne Harris was a success after replacing the reckless Dez Bryant on punt returns -- Harris had seven returns of 20 yards or more to tie for the league lead. Felix Jones started the season as a disappointment on kickoff returns. Lance Dunbar wasn't much better. Harris took over late in the season.

Coaching

DGive Jason Garrett credit for never losing the team after the 3-5 start. The players continued to play hard and battled back into contention. Garrett's defining moment was how he led the team in the midst of the death of practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown. In the end, the Cowboys didn't get it done. Too many games started with them getting hit in the mouth first and having to rally. They committed too many penalties and failed when it mattered most. Injuries played a role in the declining play on defense, but the defense failed too often in getting a consistent pass rush.

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