The Dallas Cowboys are heading into the fourth quarter of their season and currently sit with a 6-6 record. As of right now, they are still in the playoff hunt and mathematically alive and well after beating the Eagles, 38-33. When you consider the fact that Dallas had opportunities to win games against Baltimore, Atlanta and the Giants for a second time, it certainly adds to the frustration of watching an inconsistent team that is simply capable of more.
The Cowboys have had their share of injuries, missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds that have contributed to the perpetual mediocrity of this franchise, but at what point does all of this turn the corner for good? Not only is that a difficult issue to address, but the Cowboys still have many unanswered questions with four games to play.
Does this really resemble a playoff-bound team despite coming off a win against Philadelphia? A team playing without a slew of starters and basically relying on a rookie quarterback and running back? The Cowboys are the same team that plays poorly at home, gets off to horrific starts and has to consistently come from behind just to be competitive.
In the NFL you take wins any way you can get them, whether they are stylish or not. At this stage of the season, it's pointless to look back at "what if" scenarios and second guessing, but it's realistic to start being real about the season as a whole and what lies ahead for this team.
With games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Washington, the Cowboys could've easily won their last game already. Then again, they might surprise us or they could simply fall somewhere in the middle.
Regardless of what lies ahead for this team and what happened through week 13, the Cowboys can still take some positives out of this season as they forge ahead into 2013. Yeah, it might be premature to even broach the subject, but it's a necessity in the game of football. Planning is necessary, and this is particularly true when you're a franchise looking to get back to its rightful place among football's elite.
Let's take a look at some of the positives and lessons this team can build upon and carry into 2013.
When the Cowboys selected Dez Bryant in the 2010 draft, this had Jerry Jones' fingerprints all over it. Looking to avenge the missed opportunity of drafting Randy Moss in favor of Greg Ellis, Jones was not going to let history repeat itself, but the hype that accompanied Bryant to Dallas was too big for him to handle initially and so was his immaturity.
From the dropped passes, to running incorrect routes, to the mental lapses and the Houdini acts in the second half of games, there were even rumblings that the Cowboys should think about moving on from the talented receiver. And that doesn't even include some of the off-field drama that surrounded Bryant like unpaid jewelry tabs and assault.
But what a difference a little time and patience makes. Bryant has not only arrived in a huge way, but his maturation process and ability to finally harness his talent probably gives this team their most positive glimpse into the future.
Bryant has been an absolute beast over the course of the last month and currently has compiled 71 catches, 978 yards and eight touchdowns.
What's more astounding is that he has been delivering at the most critical times and displaying his playmaking abilities that we've all been waiting for. He has simply been dominant, and the sky is the limit for this kid.
Sometimes a talent like Bryant's comes with a few headaches, but in this case, having some patience is already paying huge dividends for this franchise.
Right now it's hard to envision how great Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are going to be while both players sit on injured reserve, but this duo has the potential to be the best in the NFL next year.
We all know what the Cowboys had in Lee coming into this season, but Carter was still a major question mark. But after dealing with the loss of Lee, Carter stepped up and actually looked better than Lee at times before getting injured himself.
He is a freak athletically, highly skilled and has blazing speed as evidenced in the Atlanta game. The Cowboys hit another home run on a second-round linebacker pick, and these two players will anchor this defense for years to come.
I know it's easy to look at the five-interception game against the Giants and get frustrated or the fact that his interception total is at the top of the league, but Tony Romo is not the problem with this team. Period.
He continues to endure big hits, he plays behind an inconsistent offensive line and he's been the catalyst for numerous comebacks.
He currently has over 3.600 yards, 19 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, but he's completing nearly 68 percent of his passes, and he simply keeps this team in games. I still see a good player for years to come, and right now the Cowboys need to lock him up for at least four years.
I don't think the Cowboys should be adverse to looking at a quarterback in the next few upcoming drafts, but Romo has a lot of football left.
It's almost as though the debate will always hover around Romo like a black cloud in terms of whether he can or can't lead this team to bigger things, but he is the best fit for this team. Many would like for Dallas to blow up the current plan at quarterback, but the question is what would be the backup plan?
Matt Barkley? Tyler Bray? Logan Thomas or Mike Glennon? What about if they just gave Romo proper protection, continue to benefit from an emerging Dez Bryant along with the current weapons and maybe add one more?
I like that plan better, and it centers around Romo.
Player evaluation has never been more paramount in the NFL than it is today. The Cowboys are never short on star power, but it's also time that they start to develop more younger talent and depth for this roster.
The problem is being able to get these young players significant and meaningful game reps to evaluate them properly. One way to achieve this is by dealing with injuries, and that's what the Cowboys have done.
A few examples of this development are Josh Brent, Danny McCray, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley.
Brent has probably grown the most out of this group simply because of the missed time by Jay Ratliff due to multiple injuries. He has shown some nice ability against the run and providing pressure. McCray has struggled at times and he needs to take better angles, but he could be counted on in the future by gaining valuable experience in the base defense.
Harris has established himself as a valuable punt returner and is seeing more time in wide receiver sets along with Beasley. The bottom line is that in this current landscape of NFL salary cap, establishing and developing young players is the key to sustaining solid depth while managing your cap.
The Cowboys need to do more of this, but it looks like they may have found some contributors.
When you look at Morris Claiborne's impact after being selected sixth overall in April's draft, it's hard not to make the comparison to Janoris Jenkins' bigger impact.
But putting that horrific first matchup against Philadelphia aside, we are seeing a more complete and consistent player every week. I'm starting to see the signs needed when envisioning the future at the cornerback position.
Claiborne's pure athletic ability is undeniable, and like even the best cornerbacks, he will get beat on occasion. But the Cowboys have found a cornerstone of their franchise, and he will only get better.
Once the Cowboys add some much-needed pieces to their pass rush, it will only benefit Claiborne even more. In a pass-happy league you can never have enough cornerbacks, and the Cowboys happen to have an emerging star on their hands.