Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys’ final grades: Almost all A’s on one side of the ball

Dez Bryant (88) was the leader, but Terrance Williams, right, and Cole Beasley became playmakers, too, at wide receiver.
Dez Bryant (88) was the leader, but Terrance Williams, right, and Cole Beasley became playmakers, too, at wide receiver. Star-Telegram

The Dallas Cowboys opened the 2014 season with even owner Jerry Jones saying they were going to be challenged to win and with their backs against the wall because of questions about the roster.

The Cowboys felt good about their offense, although they truly didn’t know whether 34-year-old quarterback Tony Romo and his surgically repaired back would hold up for an entire season.

They had obvious concerns about a defense that was devoid of any proven talent in the front seven. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware, the all-time sack leader in club history, was released; Pro Bowl tackle Jason Hatcher was allowed to leave in free agency; and middle linebacker Sean Lee was lost to a season-ending knee injury during minicamp in May.

Romo came through with a career year after being released from the burden of carrying the offense with the emergence of DeMarco Murray as the NFL’s leading rusher and the league’s best offensive line.

The defense performed much better than its talent indicated, allowing the Cowboys to maximize their potential and surpass expectations like no team in recent memory.

“We don’t go compare teams very much,” coach Jason Garrett said. “But I think at different times the group of guys we had really maximized their potential, and that’s one of the things we’re most proud of as a coaching staff is to be able to do that. That’s what we strive to do more than anything else. I certainly think this team maximized itself.

“I went back and grabbed my notes from April 21, 2014, at the start of the off-season program. A lot of those notes had to do with fight, mental toughness, trying to share a story with them, what this team is all about, what we’re aspiring to do. ... Did we accomplish our ultimate goal? We did not. I get that. But we accomplished all these things we talked about.”

Here’s a unit-by-unit analysis:

Quarterbacks

A Starter: Tony Romo. Backups: Brandon Weeden, Dustin Vaughan.

When Tony Romo promised before the season that he would be the best version of himself, skepticism greeted the pronouncement of a 34-year-old quarterback coming off back surgery. Romo got the last laugh in an image-altering 2014 campaign when he threw 34 touchdown passes with just nine interceptions while leading the league in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt. It was the perfect example of less is more as Romo took advantage of the team’s shift from a pass-happy offense to a run-oriented unit. It put less of a burden on him, and he thrived with his best and most efficient season of his career. Weeden struggled in his only start, a 28-17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Vaughan did not play.

Running backs

A Starters: RB DeMarco Murray, FB Tyler Clutts. Backups: Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar.

DeMarco Murray shocked the Cowboys and the NFL with a career-best season that saw him take down a couple of Hall of Famers along the way. His NFL-leading 1,845 yards rushing topped Emmitt Smith’s single-season team record of 1,773 yards in 1995. He opened the season with eight consecutive 100-yard games, breaking Jim Brown’s NFL record. But more important, Murray gave the Cowboys their identity on offense with his physical, tough running style. The Cowboys didn’t want to take him off the field. Joseph Randle provided a spark and nice change of pace when he got his turn, rushing for 343 yards on 51 carries, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Dunbar wasn’t as big a factor because of Murray’s dominance, rushing 29 times for 99 yards and catching 18 passes for 217 yards.

Tight ends

B Starter: Jason Witten. Backups: James Hanna, Gavin Escobar.

Jason Witten’s numbers weren’t what they were in the past because of the focus on the running game and the need to get the ball to Dez Bryant. But he showed leadership in sacrificing his production for the good of the team. He caught 64 passes for 703 yards and five touchdowns and was an important factor down the stretch and in the playoffs. The Cowboys continue to struggle in finding a role for Escobar. Of his nine receptions, four went for touchdowns. But he had just two catches in the final nine games of the season. Hanna remained a reliable blocker.

Wide receivers

A Starters: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams. Backups: Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Devin Street.

The Cowboys made a point to make Dez Bryant the primary target of the passing game, and he came through with 88 catches for 1,320 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdowns. Double coverage, single coverage — none of it mattered as Bryant was a factor throughout and made his second consecutive Pro Bowl. Terrance Williams played a nice Robin to Bryant’s Batman with 37 catches for 621 yards and eight touchdowns. Beasley emerged as the important third receiver with 37 catches for 420 yards and four touchdowns, displaying a knack for getting open in the slot.

Offensive line

A Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Ronald Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free. Backups: T Jermey Parnell, T Tony Hills, T Donald Hawkins, G Mackenzy Bernadeau.

There was much debate about whether Tony Romo or DeMarco Murray should be in the running for NFL MVP. The team MVP was the offensive line, led by Pro Bowlers in tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin. The unit paved the way for Murray to lead the league in rushing and provided time for Romo to be the most accurate and efficient quarterback in the league. Leary was solid at left guard, as was Free at right tackle. Parnell showed he could be the starter at right tackle next season. He replaced the injured Free for the final two games of the regular season and the two playoffs games, and the line didn’t miss a beat.

Defensive line

C Starters: DE George Selvie, DT Tyrone Crawford, NT Nick Hayden, DE Jeremy Mincey. Backups: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DE Anthony Spencer, DE Kenneth Boatright, DT Terrell McClain, DT Josh Brent. Injured reserve: DT Henry Melton.

The Cowboys didn’t make a lot of plays up front, but they played hard. The Cowboys hoped Henry Melton would have a huge impact, but he never truly recovered from 2013 knee surgery and ended the season on injured reserve. Tyrone Crawford emerged as a starter at tackle and could be a long-term answer at the position. Anthony Spencer returned from microfracture surgery and proved to be an impact player late in the season. The best and most consistent player throughout was Jeremy Mincey, who led the team with six sacks and epitomized the hard-working, overachieving nature of the unit.

Linebackers

C Starters: OLB Anthony Hitchens, MLB Rolando McClain, OLB Bruce Carter. Backups: OLB Kyle Wilber, OLB Keith Smith, MLB Cameron Lawrence, OLB Dekoda Watson, OLB James Anderson.

Rolando McClain was a godsend at middle linebacker after the loss of Sean Lee in minicamp. The Cowboys talked the former Oakland Raiders bust of out retirement, and he brought a physicality not seen in years. He finished second on the team in tackles and was the league’s second-best inside linebacker against the run, according to Pro Football Focus. Bruce Carter might have found a home at strongside linebacker and led the team with five interceptions. Hitchens was a huge get in the fourth round, playing all three linebacker positions because of injuries as a rookie and finishing third on the team in tackles.

Defensive backs

C Starters: LCB Brandon Carr, RCB Orlando Scandrick, SS Barry Church, FS J.J. Wilcox. Backups: CB Tyler Patmon, CB Sterling Moore, S Jeff Heath, S Jakar Hamilton. Injured reserve: CB Morris Claiborne.

The best thing the Cowboys did in the secondary was limit big plays. Nobody played better in the secondary, possibly on the entire defense, than cornerback Orlando Scandrick, whose chippy edge proved to be the unit’s personality. According to Pro Football Focus, Scandrick did not allow a touchdown in primary coverage all season and graded as the eighth-best cover cornerback in the league. Carr struggled at times and still hasn’t had a interception since Week 1 of 2013, but he played his best football at the end of the season. Barry Church led the team with 110 tackles and grew to be a solid and reliable safety. J.J. Wilcox still has trouble with missed tackles and over-aggressive play.

Special teams

B K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, LS L.P. Ladouceur, KR/PR Dwayne Harris

Dan Bailey became the career most accurate kicker in NFL history during the regular season when he made 25 of 29 field-goal attempts and missed just two kicks under 50 yards. But his two misses in the playoffs tainted an otherwise brilliant season. Chris Jones averaged 39.8 yards per attempt and downed 21 punts inside the 20. Dwayne Harris was not the difference-maker on returns as he has been in the past, though he did lead the team with 18 tackles on special teams.

Coaching

A Jason Garrett led this team. Players recited his words. They believed in his program and followed him to the hilt. This was his team. Offensive play-caller Scott Linehan gets credit for maximizing the talents of Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray, turning them into the new big three. Nobody did a better job than defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who took a bunch of lemons and made the proverbial lemonade with a talent-deficient unit that played hard and fundamentally sound.

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