The Dallas Cowboys began the 2015 season openly talking about making a run to the Super Bowl for the first time in 20 years.
But those dreams quickly turned to nightmares as the Cowboys ended the season in failure of historic proportions.
Yes, the Cowboys have gone from first to worst before.
Yes, the Cowboys have twice in the past decade failed to make the playoffs after winning double-digit games and a division title the year before.
But never in the history of the franchise have the Cowboys suffered a decline of eight or more games from the previous year.
From 12-4 to 4-12 and the worst record since the Cowboys finished 1-15 in 1989 in owner Jerry Jones’ first season.
Suffice it to say, the Cowboys didn’t see this coming.
“This was never anticipated,” said Jones, who added, “This would rival the most frustrating” season he’s had as owner.
Injuries to the team’s two best players — quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant — are the biggest reasons for the collapse.
Romo played in four games, missing 12 after twice fracturing his clavicle. The Cowboys were 3-1 with Romo and 1-11 without him. Bryant played in nine games because of foot and ankle injuries that required off-season surgery.
Still, failure was not expected nor acceptable.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett admitted the team took a huge step back in his fifth season as coach.
The numbers say the running game was strong. Darren McFadden, who had only 128 yards after five games and didn’t get his first start until Week 8, finished with 1,089 yards on a career-high 239 carries. He finished fourth in the league in rushing, while averaging 4.6 yards per carry. The Cowboys ranked ninth in rushing yards per game and fifth in rushing yards per attempt. They averaged 4.6 yards a carry, just like last season. But numbers lie. They ranked last in third-and-1 conversions and 29th in red zone offense. The run game wasn’t good enough when it mattered most.
They ranked 27th in the league in passing yards per game and 29th in passing touchdowns. The passing game didn’t work with or without Romo, who had five touchdowns and seven interceptions in four games because of injuries. All told, the Cowboys used four quarterbacks — all to some degree of failure. It didn’t help that standout Bryant only played in nine games because of injuries and that no one else stepped up to fill the void.
The Cowboys didn’t hold up against the run and often they got worn down late. They ranked 22nd in rushing yards per game and 19th in rushing yards per attempt. Teams averaged 120.9 yards per game against them. The Cowboys were soft up the middle because of a lack of depth and ability at tackle. They lost contain at end and didn’t always set the edge. Weakside linebacker Sean Lee had a strong season with 155 tackles and 11 tackles for loss.
The Cowboys seemingly held up strong against the pass on paper. They ranked fifth in the league, giving up 227.2 yards per game. But again, numbers lie. The Cowboys ranked 23rd in passing yards per play. They gave up too many big plays. Teams didn’t throw that much against them because they had so much success on the ground. The Cowboys were 29th in the league in interceptions and 25th in sacks. Those are not the numbers of a strong pass defense. None of the starting cornerbacks registered an interception. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence was a bright spot with eight sacks. Greg Hardy had just six sacks.
Kicker Dan Bailey stood out again, making 30 of 32 field goals and earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. Chris Jones was third in the league in punting with a net average of 42.5 yards. L.P. Ladouceur was perfect on snaps. He and Bailey are as good at what they do as anyone on the team. The Cowboys gave up a touchdown on a kickoff return that cost them a game. And they never found a consistent returner. Cole Beasley was a disappointment on punt returns early. Lucky Whitehead showed promise late, but he also was fumble prone.
Jason Garrett remains safe as the head coach. He is one year into a five-year contract extension and is still owed $24 million. But there is no question the Cowboys took an obvious step back with their 4-12 record. He is essentially a .500 coach with a 40-40 record over five full seasons. Injuries played a role in the team’s failures, but they should have won more than four games.