Expectations were sky-high for the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2010 season. They had made it all the way to the NFC Divisional round in the 2009 playoffs, putting together an impressive win over the Eagles at home on Wild Card weekend before being ripped apart by the Minnesota Vikings, a disappointing end. But optimism reigned in the Big D, and owner Jerry Jones and company hinted at the Cowboys having a chance to be the first team to ever play in a Super Bowl on their home field.
Yet everything came apart horribly for the Cowboys once the 2010 season got under way. They lost on opening night to the Washington Redskins after a game-winning touchdown was called back on a blatant offensive holding. They seemingly always found new ways to lose games, and were heavily penalized, sloppy and undisciplined.
Now the team sits at an abysmal 1-7, with their head coach Wade Phillips recently fired, and their franchise quarterback Tony Romo sitting out with a broken collar bone, not expected back until potentially December, if at all.
It is a lost season for a perennial NFC powerhouse franchise, and for Cowboys fans it is hard to find silver linings in what has been a terrible season. However, there are still positives to take away from this debacle of a year, and here we'll go over ten of the biggest pluses that come with this lost year for Dallas.
The bombastic owner has to shoulder the blame for Dallas' dreadful season. Obviously the players on the field decide the games, but Jones is the sole party responsible for putting those select players on the field. The owner/GM model has been largely disastrous for the Cowboys under Jones, and perhaps his team limping through a terrible year such as what 2010 is shaping up to be will help convince Jones that he shouldn't be the only cook in the kitchen.
No matter how much hubris Jones possesses, he can't ignore the fact that his roster construction just hasn't worked for the Cowboys. He's put together a poor offensive line incapable of sufficiently protecting his franchise quarterback, nor good enough in the running game to get much out of Marion Barber, Felix Jones or Tashard Choice.
His secondary is a mess, and his biggest glut of talent is at wide receiver, the failed Matt Millen model. Maybe, just maybe, this disaster of a season gets Jones to hand over player personnel power to an outside GM or president-type figure, to the benefit of the Dallas roster.
It's hard to know if it will even be enough of a barometer, but Jason Garrett has at the very minimum nine chances to prove what he's capable of as a head coach in the NFL. This could be a huge boost to the Cowboys, as Garrett has been groomed for years as an offensive genius pulling all the playcalling strings with the ball, and their coach-in-waiting ready to take over once Wade Phillips wore out his welcome.
If Garrett thrives and actually gets through to the players that seemed to fall apart under Phillips, he could provide some stability and avoid Jones bringing in a whole new staff and basically starting over with a new system, new offenses and defenses, thus forcing a sea change on Dallas' entire roster. It's largely the same group that was two games from the Super Bowl last year, so it's possible they might benefit more from a new voice and not an entire overhaul.
But this is Garrett's golden chance to show his worth as a head coach, and it's made possible thanks to the awful start Dallas has gone through. But it could end up being a positive come year's end.
Dallas' run defense has been ripped apart in recent weeks, and is ranked 24th in the entire league, allowing almost 124 yards rushing per game.For three straight weeks, Dallas opponents have rushed for over 100 yards, and it's happened five times total on the season.
Their defensive line is mostly in tatters, as Marcus Spears is out for the rest of the year after suffering a calf injury and depth along the line has been dried up, causing Dallas to sign two new linemen mid-week to fill in for injured players.
The poor performance against the run has to usher in new talent along the defensive line, as incumbent starter Spears could have played his last game for Dallas. Igor Olshansky is also on tenuous at best footing along the line, and their poor performance as a whole in stopping the run could warrant some new additions ahead of the 2011 season that might make a positive impact.
The running game was a strength for the Dallas Cowboys a year ago, but it's become non-existent during their struggles of 2010. They have the 31st ranked rushing offense in the league, averaging a measly 75 yards on the ground per game. The two-headed rushing monster of Marion Barber and Felix Jones have averaged a paltry 3.5 yards per carry combined, while each receiving basically the identical number of touches (Barber with 71 carries, Jones with 73).
The Dallas running game needs to be improved, no doubt about it, and their terrible performance in 2010 should be all the wake-up call necessary to get Jerry Jones to find the right balance on the ground. Whether that means saying goodbye to Marion Barber, bringing in a new pair of legs, or increasing the usage of either Felix Jones or forgotten and little-used Tashard Choice, all options need to be explored.
Dallas' offensive line has been a mess all season long, and the culmination of their noticeable struggles had to be Tony Romo's knock out at the hands of Michael Boley of the New York Giants. The line has failed to protect their quarterback all season long, as Romo was often under pressure with his throws rushed while he was under center. And Jon Kitna has similarly been rushed and hit during his time as quarterback.
This is not to even mention the terrible job the line has done in opening up holes for their running backs. Overall, the Dallas offensive line's total failure in 2010 should say loud and clear that the unit needs to be overhauled. It's near impossible for Jerry Jones to ignore the O-line any longer.
Dallas has been a bit of an ambiguous team in recent years. They have had an explosive offense capable of the big play, but they've also leaned on their running game in other contests. They have played in high-scoring shoot outs, but their defense has also controlled games.
The Cowboys badly need an identity, whether it's a wide-open offense that spreads the field and makes big plays, or a team that goes from the ground game out via the play action pass. Are they going to play a reactionary defense that sits back and waits for take-aways or mistakes from their opponents? Or do they become more aggressive and force the issue?
This lost season should make it an imperative for the team to carve out some type of an identity heading into 2011.
Teams that head into the season with Super Bowl-level expectations have so much pressure added onto their shoulders by observers and fans thirsty for championship glory. It's no excuse for a team to fail as miserably as the Cowboys have, but inflated expectations can be a tricky thing for an NFL team.
Players are told from before the season even starts that they're good enough to win it all, and a sense of entitlement is liable to creep in to the players' minds. This mentality is supposed to be eradicated by the head coach, but only so much can be done.
For the Cowboys to go through a terrible season like this one, their fans and outsiders will presumably not pick them to be Super Bowl favorites heading in to 2011. Pre-season favorites rarely pan out in the world of the NFL, and it could very well work in Dallas' favor if they are overlooked heading in to next year.
The NFL Draft is always a quick and affordable way to overhaul a struggling team, and Dallas doesn't even necessarily need a total overhaul. They still boast a ton of talent on their roster, but an opportunity to pick higher up in the draft than usual could help the Cowboys find an immediate fix for one of their glaring holes on either offense or defense.
The draft class could have a lot of talent at the top, particularly among defensive linemen, or even offensive linemen. The two biggest areas in which Dallas needs help are along the lines, and even those these are not the sexiest roles to be filled with high picks, it would do Jerry Jones well to fill in these holes through the draft.
Questions still hound Tony Romo about whether or not he can ever win a Super Bowl in Dallas, and just in general about whether or not he is as good as he's looked when playing at his best. Now that he's out for the majority of the 2010 season with the broken collarbone, he'll have so much more to prove upon his return in 2011. He'll be coming back from an injury and looking to lead the team back from an extremely ugly season in which they've been humiliated at times.
Romo has often thrived with hardship, as he was undrafted and not expected to be a starter in the league, yet has willed himself to a solid career. He'll now be asked to will his franchise back from the depths, and it seems to be a role that suits him well.
If the Jason Garrett experiment doesn't work, the two biggest names on the coaching market are Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher, and it seems like either would be a good fit in Dallas. They are two coaches that have proved their worth across the NFL, with established successes over their coaching careers.
The question of course is whether they would accept a job under the big top circus that is the Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones, and whether they could accept Jones having the final say on their player decisions.
But this lost year has clearly put either Gruden or Cowher in play if deemed necessary, which could be a big plus for the Cowboys' future.