This week, 12 teams prepare for their playoffs that will occur either this weekend or the next one, while the other 20 teams discuss what went wrong and how they intend to do better next year.
Any Cowboys' enthusiast knows which end of that stick the local team falls on, and it is interesting to see the fallout (or lack thereof) locally. It appears that there will not be any sort of penalty distributed from on high for the massive disappointment, as the circumstances revolving around 2015 are mostly understandable and, frankly, unavoidable.
Because of poor QB play for most of the year, the Cowboys had a lost season. This starts with Tony Romo's collarbone and its ability to sustain major impacts, but then leaks into the idea that the team had nobody ready to confidently run the offense and capable of doing so.
The result was 4-12. That is a heavy price to pay. But, it is interesting how we justify the season, even to ourselves. I write about this team on a daily basis for hours at a time and even though I study the franchise closely, I find that my memory and initial thoughts about where the blame lies is not always accurate.
For instance, one of the real issues in my head is that the defense constantly collapsed and gave out in the 4th quarter. But, a close examination of the facts are that the Cowboys defense allowed nearly exactly the same point totals it allowed in 2014. In fact, we wrote about this somewhat back on Monday:
I wrote that 3 days ago. They "collapsed in the 4th Quarter repeatedly." I believe it to be true. So in researching today's writeup about those collapses, I was shocked to see that the 2014 defense gave up roughly the same damage. Did you know in 2015, the Cowboys defense that was collapsing so much allowed 132 4th Quarter points? They did. That ranked 28th in the NFL and just 8 points from the bottom of the league. Here are the teams below them in this ranking: The Lions, Raiders, Saints, and Giants. Not a playoff team to be found amongst them. Horrible, right?
What if I told you the 2014 defense ranked 27th in this same category, allowing 123 points? I couldn't believe it, but yes, in 2014 they were equally awful. Now, again, all points require context (such as in 2014 you could argue a large amount of those points were in garbage time as the opponent scored against a Cowboys team that was protecting a big lead), but nobody would believe the 4th Quarter defense was almost just as bad in 2014 as it was in 2015.
No, once again, as we look for answers in 2015, all signs point to an inept offense. The defense was nearly the same as it ever was in just about all the categories. But, like in everything else (did you know they scored 56 touchdowns in 2014 and 26 in 2015??? Staggering), the offense's 4th Quarter production is your real target. After ranking 5th in the NFL in 2014, they fell to 25th with just 94 points. That caused a point differential in the 4th Quarter of "-38", which will lose a ton of games for you. There were 4 teams in the NFL with a worse 4th Quarter point differential than Dallas: The Raiders, Titans, Rams, and Browns. Again, find the playoff team amongst them. You can't.
The Giants recently decided it had enough of the Tom Coughlin era, and if you point to one thing that made them quickly forget 2 Lombardi trophies, it would be their frustrations in close games. The NFL defines close games as "games decided by 7 points or less." I find this definition a bit frustrating because it includes games that weren't close until garbage time and excludes games that were close until garbage time, but I realize they have to try to keep it simple.
Regardless, the Giants were very poor in close games in 2015 (3-8) and frankly, very poor since the last Super Bowl to end 2011 (9-18). The Cowboys, meanwhile, over that stretch have been near the top of the division until this Romo-less season. The division rankings since 2012 in close games by the NFL definition go like this: Philadelphia 15-11, Dallas 18-17, Washington 14-16, and New York 9-18. That will also tell you that Dallas has played in easily the most close games during that stretch and before this year, were 16-11 from 2012-2014.
But, this year, the Cowboys were 2-6 in "close games". I broaden the definition because, like I said, I don't think the NFL's definition is airtight. I came up with this:
2-8 - Even worse than the Giants snake-bit season! I think that is a remarkably futile run and we should focus on that.
By my count, the Cowboys had 2 clear wins - At Philadelphia and At Miami and 3 clear losses - New England, Carolina, and Washington (all home games).
Then, they won 2 close games - home against the Giants in Week 1 (which they should have lost) and at Washington in Week 12.
So, lets look at those other 9 lost games briefly to see how 2015 might have been different with just a play here or there:
WEEK 3 - ATLANTA - Cowboys lead 28-25 entering the 4th Q
This game was pretty famous for the way Joseph Randle and the Cowboys could not be stopped early. Randle had 3 touchdowns and McFadden ran for a 4th as the Cowboys took a 28-17 halftime lead. Then the Falcons went in a decided that they should focus on the run and make Brandon Weeden try to beat them. Great idea, because the Cowboys never scored again and despite leading entering the 4th Quarter, lost by double digits 39-28. Dallas had just 52 yards, 3 first downs, and 0 points in the 2nd half.
WEEK 4 - NEW ORLEANS - Cowboys tied game at 20-20 with 1:52 left
This was the game that got the 4th Quarter defensive collapse theory working. Because after Weeden hit Terrance Williams for a touchdown, the Cowboys never touched the ball again at the end of regulation (when the Saints missed a FG) or in overtime (when the Cowboys did not cover the RB). The defense conceded basically 2 80-yard drives to end the game and sink the ship. And the Cowboys had lost 2 in a row.
WEEK 6 - At NEW YORK - Cowboys tied game at 20-20 with 7:14 to go
This was Matt Cassel's debut and the offense looked much better - aside from the interceptions. Somehow, they got the game tied when Cassel hit Devin Street on a 25 yard touchdown pass (he has made a play in Dallas!). But, that was short lived as the ensuing kickoff was returned for a touchdown by old friend Dwayne Harris to give the Giants back the 7-point lead within 13 seconds. From there, an odd decision to throw it to James Hanna on 4th and long and a Cole Beasley muffed fumble ended the chances. Not much can be placed on the defense for this game.
WEEK 7 - SEATTLE - Cowboys led Seahawks 12-10 with less than 2 minutes to go.
The Seattle game was incredibly odd in that the Cowboys technically led the game until very late, but the Seahawks had all of the possession in the 4th Quarter and it really did feel like a matter of time. David Irving blocked a field goal in the 4th Quarter and tried to save the game for the Cowboys, but they were terrified to try any risky plays and therefore punted it right back to Seattle who marched down the field and hit a chippy with about 1 minute to play. The last-gasp drive from Cassel and the boys was sadly comical and the team went to 2-5.
WEEK 8 - PHILADELPHIA - Game Tied at 27-27 at end of Regulation
Yet another occasion where the play-calling for the Cowboys was ultra conservative (even though it called for just the opposite given the odds) and the team played for field goals in the 4th Quarter which ended up costing them. Dan Bailey did his part, but if on any of those drives against the Eagles in the 4th Quarter, Linehan and Garrett showed ambition, they might have been able to steal this one (and Seattle). Instead, they played it close to the vest and locked the game up at 27-27 - only to have the defense give up a touchdown on the opening drive of Overtime to send the team to 2-6 as they lost another close game.
WEEK 9 - At TAMPA BAY - Cowboys led the game 6-3 with 1:00 to Play
Of course, it sounds silly to feel you should have won a 6-3 game, but Dallas was in a perfect spot to win this one in Tampa Bay with the slightest bit of anything in the 4th Quarter. Instead, Dez Bryant drops an easy 3rd down conversion and then, of course, his odd attempt at trying to track down a Hail Mary on the final drive leads everyone to believe he hurt himself on the circus catch in the end zone the week before against the Eagles. Winston scores with 0:59 to play, and the record is now 2-7.
WEEK 13 - At GREEN BAY - Cowboys trailed just 14-7 with 5 minutes to play
This one doesn't really apply to the close game stat, but they were down just 7 with 55 minutes played and had thrown an interception in the end zone. As bad as the Packers have played, it should be remembered how competitive the Cowboys were, even with a very hapless offense all day long. The signs were there that Green Bay wasn't very good and the Cowboys couldn't do anything about it. They caved in for 2 late running TDs to make the final score 28-7.
WEEK 14 - NEW YORK JETS - Game Tied 16-16 Late Inside 2 minutes to Go
Once again, it seemed all year that Garrett was pretty sure settling for the field goal to tie games was the play, when in reality, he had to know by now that unless you are taking the lead, you are in big trouble. Bailey tied the game at 16-16 inside 2 minutes, but the defense conceded the big pass down the right sideline to set up the Jets almost immediately thereafter and they had their own chippy to put the home record to 1-6 and the overall record to 4-10.
WEEK 15 - AT BUFFALO - Bills Led 9-6 with under 3 minutes to play
This game is not counted by the league as a close game, but it felt close late until the Cowboys caved in an allowed a long touchdown run that the Bills weren't even really trying to get. That was capped off by Lucky Whitehead fumbling the kickoff right back and the Cowboys not even touching the ball again. Special teams clearly played a role in a few of these disasters, no doubt.
So, I realize the Green Bay game shouldn't technically being included, so let's leave it out.
Still, 2-8 in close games and one of the two was mighty fortunate. Perhaps the year would have been easier to swallow if there were more blowout losses. You could then surmise they were just awful. But, this team spent most every week right in every game for 95% of the day.
But then, even though it was a different part of the team each time - offense one week, defense the next, special teams, and I think coaching, too - this team found new and creative ways to lose.
That is what I will always remember about 2015. They were just very poor with the game asking to be won.