|Dallas CB Terence Newman struggled mightily in man coverage, routinely drawing the ire of Cowboys fans.|
With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: Simmer down. Fort Worth isn't going cosmo like Dallas. The Rangers still haven't gotten that last out. Gary Hogeboom isn't coming back. And the Cowboys weren't that bad.
Yes, the team was 8-8. But does any team absorb criticism like this one? Funny thing is, the lambasting of the Cowboys is always pointed in the wrong direction. While Tony Romo catches much of the heat, the real problem for this organization is a lack of accountability and a defense that lets receivers run absolutely wild.
Watching the Giants win it all must have been difficult for the Cowboys. This team was likely one play away from the NFC East title. Still, this squad has only itself to blame for going from the driver's seat to third place in the NFC East. The season was lost on ill-timed, and ill-fated, mistakes.
What Went Right: Leave the anti-Romo stuff at the door. Yes, he had some late-game miscues. He also balled out most of the season.
"How many teams have a quarterback that threw over 30 touchdowns (31), 10 interceptions, and had well over a 100 passer rating (102.5), and his team went 8-8? And we kill Romo around here," NFL Network colleague Michael Lombardi said to me incredulously a couple of weeks ago.
Here's the answer to Michael's query: none. No guy has ever posted a rating that high, with that many touchdowns, while not throwing more than 10 interceptions, and gone 8-8 (or worse). That says something about the rest of the team. While Romo's late picks against the Jets and Lions hurt the Cowboys, his brilliant play against Detroit gave Dallas a lead in the first place. He consistently put the team in a position to win, before special teams let Dallas down against the Cardinals and Giants. He also delivered clutch wins against the Dolphins, Redskins and 49ers -- the latter with three broken ribs and a punctured lung.
Romo had a helpful surprise in DeMarco Murray, who gained 897 yards despite starting only seven games. Another surprise was Laurent Robinson -- a guy nobody wanted -- who put up 858 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Defensively, DeMarcus Ware was continually let down by the rest of his unit, despite having another monster season. Ware came a half-sack away from posting his second 20-sack season. Incredible. The only other guy on coordinator Rob Ryan's unit who had close to the same impact was inside linebacker Sean Lee, who was solid against the run and tied for the team lead in interceptions.
What Went Not So Right: Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins being left in single coverage by Ryan's blitz schemes didn't work. The safeties weren't any better. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer is still far too inconsistent to adequately complement Ware on the other side. The defensive ends have trouble getting to the quarterback on their own. I could go on.
Too often the Cowboys relinquished big plays at the most inopportune times. The secondary allowed 57 pass plays of 20-plus yards (25th in the NFL). Ryan definitely improved the unit's performance from 2010, as Dallas allowed almost six points per game less than the previous season. But the Cowboys were flat-out embarrassed defensively in New York and Philadelphia. They couldn't have stopped Ron Jaworski or Koy Detmer that Sunday night in Philly.
Numerous injuries sustained by key skill players put even more pressure on Romo. Murray was lost for the season in Week 14. His backup Felix Jones got hurt multiple times. Miles Austin missed time twice with a bum hamstring, and when he came back, he wasn't 100 percent.
Offseason Crystal Ball: Coach Jason Garrett must make players more accountable in his own way. Neither he nor Romo gets in guys' faces much. The key players set to hit the free agent market are Spencer (starter), guard Montrae Holland (10-game starter), linebacker Bradie James (starter), safety Abram Elam (starter), punter Mat McBriar (foot concerns) and Robinson (massively productive). Most will likely be gone. McBriar's situation hinges on his recuperation, while the Cowboys would like to bring Robinson back, provided he doesn't get a huge offer elsewhere.
Outside of those issues, the Cowboys must find a way to close games out. One potential solution would be to run the ball more by fortifying the interior of the offensive line. With Jones and Murray, Dallas should not have finished 24th in rush attempts, especially considering the club averaged 4.4 yards per carry.
Team Needs and Draft: Besides O-line, the Cowboys need secondary help in the worst way. Fans want a corner to replace Newman, but Alan Ball is a real liability in nickel coverage. Safety has been a major need since Darren Woodson retired after the 2004 season. Drafting an inside linebacker to replace James would be a smart move, as would upgrading at defensive end. Lastly, with Jon Kitna retired, expect the Cowboys to look for quarterback depth this offseason.
Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL