- Todd Archer, ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter
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IRVING, Texas -- Coming off three straight 8-8 seasons, there was little reason to be excited about the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.
Owner and general manager Jerry Jones tamped down the expectations at the team’s kickoff luncheon, acknowledging it would be an uphill battle. Coach Jason Garrett promised only that his team would fight.
Four months later, the Cowboys have won the NFC East and are in the playoffs for the first time since 2009. Jones should be a candidate for Executive of the Year. Garrett should be in the Coach of the Year debate. Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray should be in the Most Valuable Player conversation.
Whether this team can sustain success remains to be seen because it still has holes to fill defensively and Romo will be 35 next year.
But enjoy the ride while you can.
With the way they are built and the formula they have used to win games, the Cowboys could carry on this success into the postseason.
5. Drafting Zack Martin: This took on a life of its own because Jones kept talking about how much he loved Johnny Manziel. At the time of the draft, he said there was no discussion about taking Manziel in the first round. Every time he talked after that, it was clear Jones was the only person pining for Manziel. Where would the Cowboys be without Martin? He might have been the best rookie in the NFL, but because of the position he plays, he has little chance of winning the Rookie of the Year award. He was a Day 1 starter and played like a veteran the entire season. Along with Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, Martin gives the Cowboys another cornerstone starter on the offensive line. And all three were named to the Pro Bowl.
4. Not sleepless in Seattle: Nobody goes into CenturyLink Field and beats the Seahawks. The Cowboys won 30-23, but they were much more dominant than the final score indicated. If not for some special-teams gaffes, this game would not have been that close. They were able to handle the crowd noise. They were able to handle the Seahawks' defense. They were able to hem in the Seahawks' offense. This was their fifth straight win in what turned out to be a six-game winning streak, but it was the first time the Cowboys made people take notice of what they could do.
3. Topping the record books: With a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten in the third quarter of the 42-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Romo surpassed Troy Aikman as the Cowboys’ all-time leader in passing yards. It was fitting that Romo broke the record on a throw to Witten, his teammate for 12 years and best friend. It also might have been Romo’s best pass of the day, leading Witten down the seam with a strike just over the defender’s head. The Cowboys clinched their first playoff spot and NFC East title since 2009 with the victory, which was more important to Romo than any record. A week later against the Washington Redskins, Murray broke Emmitt Smith's franchise record for rushing yards in a season with 1,845 yards and Dez Bryant set the team mark for touchdown catches in a season with 16, one more than Terrell Owens had in 2007.
2. Let’s go streaking: Murray became the first player in NFL history to open a season with eight straight games of at least 100 yards rushing. Jim Brown did it in six straight games in 1958. Along the way, Murray shed the label that he can’t be a bell-cow running back. The Cowboys handed him the ball at least 22 times in seven of the first eight games. He broke off big runs and he picked up the dirty yards. By the end of the season, he displayed a toughness that had teammates and coaches in awe, playing six days after undergoing surgery to repair a broken hand.
1. Answering the bell: The Philadelphia Eagles lit up the Cowboys on Thanksgiving 33-10. On Dec. 14, the Eagles stormed back to erase a 21-0 Cowboys lead and take a three-point advantage. On the next drive, the Cowboys answered with an eight-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by Murray. The Cowboys showed everybody they were not the same old team on that drive, answering the call at the most critical time. Had they lost that game, the Cowboys’ playoff chances would have taken a massive hit. Instead of wilting, the Cowboys stood tall.
5. Captain out for the year: Already looking at an uphill battle defensively, the loss of linebacker Sean Lee for the season with a knee injury in a May minicamp was a crushing blow. Lee is not only the most talented defender the Cowboys have, he is also their heart and brains. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament in practice, continuing his bad luck of injuries. He missed games in his first four seasons because of hamstring, wrist, toe and neck injuries. Now, he has missed a full season. The Cowboys and Lee believe he will come back at 100 percent in 2015, but it might be as a weakside linebacker instead of a middle linebacker. The other injuries of note included losing Morris Claiborne, whom the Cowboys traded up to get with the sixth pick in 2012 and have yet to see any payoff, and Justin Durant, who was named a captain at the start of the season. But Lee’s injury hurt the most.
4. Saying goodbye: DeMarcus Ware is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in sacks with 119. He was named to the Pro Bowl seven times. But age and price forced the Cowboys to cut Ware. They talked about working out a new deal at a lower price, but never officially made him an offer. The Denver Broncos swooped in and gave him $20 million guaranteed in the hopes he would be their missing piece on defense. The Cowboys have struggled to rush the passer and there is some who wonder if they should have done more to keep Ware, who has 10 sacks with Denver. Who knows, maybe they will get a chance to meet in the Super Bowl?
3. What home-field edge? There is no stadium in the world like AT&T Stadium. Just ask Jones. Just ask the visiting fans. So loud were the fans of the San Francisco 49ers, New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans, the Cowboys had to go to a silent snap count on offense to deal with the crowd noise. It was almost embarrassing. But it wasn’t just the crowd noise at home. The Cowboys could not generate a home edge, losing three straight home games. They needed the victory over the Colts to finish .500 at home for the season.
2. That hurts: Romo’s surgically-repaired back was a huge topic the entire offseason and season. It took another turn when he suffered two transverse process fractures in the Oct. 27 meeting against the Washington Redskins. He took a knee to the back from blitzing linebacker Keenan Robinson in the second half. While he was able to return to the game, he was ineffective. Brandon Weeden had to start the following game, a 28-17 loss to Arizona, with Romo needing the week to rest. He was able to endure a nine-hour flight to London for the Nov. 9 game against Jacksonville and deliver a win.
1. Holiday nightmare: In order to have the best moment of the season at Philadelphia, the Cowboys needed their worst moment on Thanksgiving. They had no answer for the Eagles in the 33-10 loss. Romo was not the same quarterback, playing on short rest. The defense was overmatched. The Cowboys played a Sunday night game at the New York Giants before the Thursday meeting and did not have their legs as an entire team. The result was the worst showing of the season. But again, that moment did lead to the best moment.
Whether this team can sustain this unexpected success remains to be seen, but enjoy the ride while you can.