The 2015 NFL regular season has come to a close for 20 NFL teams that left their training camp facilities with assorted levels of optimism about their fortunes in the upcoming campaign.
Some teams knew they were going to be bad. They hadn't been good in ages and this year was going to likely be no different than last year. Those were often breaking in a young QB and knew they would have to pay the toll early on.
The cold water of NFL year-to-year reality hit other teams right between the eyes. Injuries. The ball didn't bounce right. The good times of 2014 did not return. They were in the playoffs and have been escorted out for 2015.
The Colts saw this happen to them and with a young and adored QB in Andrew Luck who was merely a game from the Super Bowl, this is a harsh reality that stunned a franchise. Now they are replacing their coach (possibly a GM) and hoping that QB1 can get healthy soon.
The Lions already fired some coaches and a general manager. They have endured more shakeups in the last few years than they are willing to admit, but the massive steps forward of 2014 were given back before November as the Lions only won one game until November 15th.
The Ravens also made a little noise in the 2014 playoffs, but will not come close to returning. Their 2015 obituary may sound familiar with a number of key players (including Joe Flacco) on injured reserve, a slow start, and many a close game going in the different direction. Of course, this will only be the 2nd year in eight where John Harbaugh won't go to the playoffs, so there is a little built in acceptance on that front.
Which brings us to the home team in these parts. You will have to forgive me if I spend no time whatsoever on the details of a game that had all of the significance of a tree falling in the forest with nobody to hear or see it.
The Cowboys have now been to the playoffs in one of the last six seasons, but the step forward in 2014 was enough to make many believe that they now knew the way to make it all work. It certainly appeared so, as they ran through the NFL for much of the regular season like a hot knife through butter, and then charged into the playoffs as one of the "teams to beat." They fell just short, but with a loaded up offseason, seemed poised to drill a poor division on its way to a follow-up in the playoffs - consecutive playoff berths for the first time since 2006-2007.
This, of course, is a pretty obvious item to focus upon when you are fretting about what could go wrong in a season. But, in the 2015 Cowboys obituary, I believe we need not look much further than the Week 2 snapping of the collarbone of Romo. Yes, there are details beyond that which I will discuss at length over the next 9 months, but let's not bury the lede. The lede of the story has to be that this franchise continues to double down that Romo will stay healthy and play great, and when he does, they look smart.
But, of course, in at least three of the last six seasons ('10, '13, and '15), you could argue that his health cemented the fact that they would be missing that year's postseason (although in 2010, the ship had already sunk to the bottom of the ocean when Gronk's brother missed a blitz pickup that first had Romo's clavicle in the hospital).
That tells me that anyone willing to set sail into 2016 without a massive attempt at covering the future of that position with a premium draft pick aimed at QB is nuts. That goes for the countless people on Twitter, email, or the radio who tell me that you don't waste an asset on QB when you have no plans on him playing, but more-so to the front office that continued to kick the future concerns down the road. You simply cannot ignore "life after Romo" any longer.
Beyond that, the details are stupefying.
The Cowboys have only had 3 seasons in their 56 years of football where they won fewer than 4 games - 1960, 1988, and 1989. Think about that for just a moment. That means this is the 4th worst season in Cowboys' history and all three of the seasons below it are the epitome of "rock bottom". The year the franchise was born, the year Tom Landry was shown the door, and the year Jimmy and Jerry took over and tried to clean everything out and start over. If you are asking how come nobody saw this year coming, that is like asking how come you didn't see that house fire coming when you lived in that house your whole life? Some things are just out of nowhere.
One year after scoring 467 points in the 2014 season (29.2 points per game) and making offense look easy and simple, the team scored only 275 (17.2 ppg). Now, you can say that is all Romo and Dez Bryant, but to give you an idea of just how bad 275 points is in a season, the year Jon Kitna played QB for 9 games and Stephen McGee 1 more, the team scored 394 (24.6 ppg). They could never, ever score this season. It was just too impossible to accomplish actually accumulating points.
The offense gave the ball away 33 times which is something that reminded us of the Quincy Carter/Dave Campo era which was roughly the last time the Cowboys would average 2 giveaways per game for an entire season. If you want to look at one of the main reasons why a team can't score points, look no further than 33 giveaways and a fair amount of those (including on Sunday) occurring right when you are on the verge of gathering points down on the attacking end of the field.
Speaking of Carter/Campo, this year's 3rd down offense was the worst since 2001 and 2002. They converted just 66 of 191 3rd downs (34.6%) which was the worst year the Cowboys have had since those two 5-11 seasons. All of this, of course, the year after the Cowboys appeared to have 3rd downs figured out as well as any team in football when they converted 95 of 201 (47.3%) and were near the top of the league.
Interestingly enough, with a better showing yesterday (don't get me started about that 1st Quarter), the Cowboys 2015 defense could have actually been at about the same exact points allowed number as they were in 2014. This, of course, is an odd number that requires context (such as the opponent often was not compelled to try to score more points when they are in a winning position), but the 2015 defense conceded 374 (23.4 per game) and in 2014 were at 352 (22 per game). This defense hung around in games, however, collapsed in the 4th Quarter repeatedly and if they had given up 8 more points in the final quarter all season, they could have overtaken the Saints and the Giants for the league's very worst 4th Quarter scoring defense. Next year.
And let's not forget this one: IN THE HISTORY OF PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL RECORD KEEPING, NO TEAM HAS EVER HAD FEWER TAKEAWAYS THAN THE 2015 DALLAS COWBOYS. In fairness, the 2013 Houston Texans had just as few (11), but now the Cowboys can imagine how many teams and how many years of football has been played to consider just what that means. Pick any team and pick any year you can think of from the time you were a baby or perhaps even when your father was a baby, and that team in that given year took the ball away more than 11 times. While it may seem impossible to fathom, it is true.
And while it is hard to believe, the -22 turnover margin that the team put up with their large giveaway (33) and small takeaway (11) totals was not historically bad. Sure, it was the worst in the NFL in 2015 and for that the team should be recognized for being 32nd out of 32, but let's take a moment and credit the 2000 San Diego Chargers for setting the bar at -28 and therefore out of the Cowboys reach with a stunning year from the Ryan Leaf-led Chargers. So, from that stand point, history won't fully recognize them.
The details are depressing. As is the 4-12 final record. They will, at the very least, be rewarded with the dubious honor of drafting 4th this April and have a chance to add a very special talent to a roster that already feels like it is young and reasonably talented. The bad news is that in 2015 they depended on Tony Romo's health too much, but the good news is that Tony Romo should be healthy to start 2016.
The takeaway from the fanbase should be that this is the most disappointing season in years. Maybe longer. I was asked yesterday to rank them in my head since I started covering the team in 1998 and I cannot recall any of those seasons having a larger discrepancy between team-declared expectations (the Super Bowl was clearly articulated multiple times by this team in August) and reality (they will be picking 4th). I know 2008 and 2010 were both pretty lousy on that measure as well, but this one has to take the cake.
So, what will the team do about it?
It sure sounds like nothing drastic. The coaching staff appears to be completely safe. The front office - of course - isn't going to make any substantial changes to the balance of power back in the offices (the new ones in Frisco!).
It appears that the 2015 Cowboys are going to chalk all of this season up to the bad luck monsters that grabbed a few of the key pieces of the puzzle. You can definitely see how they can talk themselves into that and the idea that they would be in the playoffs if they had a little "injury luck".
But, that would mean that the rest of the league is wrong. The rest of the league either gets it done or gets replaced. The exceptions of that rule are reserved exclusively for those front offices who have a trophy or two that isn't collecting dust.
This franchise no longer should enjoy that credibility. The 5-years of Garrett as full-time head coach has been one playoff year in five chances. A regular season record of 40-40 with a playoff record of 1-1. During that time, they actually have a home record of 19-21 which clearly plays into the idea that the franchise enjoys no home field advantage whatsoever.
I believe I would welcome major changes. But, I don't believe major changes will be welcomed by those who run this organization. For them, it is on to the next task under the same system that has put them here.
And I am sure by next August, the sunshine of optimism will be back in the sky.