- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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Final Power Ranking: 13
Preseason Power Ranking: 14
Biggest surprise: Laurent Robinson. Signed as an afterthought by a team that didn't have a No. 3 wide receiver and wasn't sure it needed one, Robinson became a star in the passing game for quarterback Tony Romo. He caught 54 passes for 858 yards and tied for fourth in the league with 11 touchdown catches. With Miles Austin hurt for much of the season and second-year wideout Dez Bryant still developing amid a slew of off-field issues, Robinson was a big reason the Cowboys found themselves in the division race at all.
Biggest disappointment: The 1-4 finish. Even after crushing early-season losses to the Jets, Lions and Patriots -- each a game the Cowboys should have won -- Dallas stood at 7-4 and in position to take control of the NFC East with the Giants going through a second-half fade. But they gave away the game against Arizona with poor late clock management and a bizarre sequence on which head coach Jason Garrett iced his own rookie kicker, and from there it was a mess. Two losses to the Giants in the final four games sealed the Cowboys' fate, and the only game they won in their final five was against a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team that had quit on its coach. The defense collapsed late in the season and must be addressed, and the offensive line had a hard time protecting Romo. This was a system failure, and there are multiple personnel issues that have to be handled in advance of next season if they want to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Biggest need: The Cowboys need to get better in the secondary, which is weird because they addressed that last year by signing two free-agent safeties. But they knew Terence Newman wasn't going to be good enough at cornerback, which is why they tried to sign Nnamdi Asomugha, and they were right. Mike Jenkins played well but can't stay healthy. And while they signed Orlando Scandrick in the hope that he could take over for Newman as a starter next year, he doesn't necessarily look ready for a role like that. Cornerback, then, is a major need, and it wouldn't hurt if they did something about the pass rush. Anthony Spencer is a free agent at the outside linebacker spot opposite DeMarcus Ware, and Spencer does not appear to be the long-term answer.
Team MVP: DeMarco Murray. Yes, Romo had a great year and put up huge numbers. But he was also directly responsible for at least two of the early-season losses. And when you lose the division by one game, that has to matter. The Cowboys were at their very best when they were running the ball with Murray, their powerful rookie running back who ran for 897 yards in spite of not getting the starter's job until Oct. 23 and suffering a season-ending injury on Dec. 11. The Cowboys went 5-2 in the games that Murray both started and finished, and that's why I'm putting him here ahead of both Romo and Ware, each of whom had great years but vanished a bit when it counted.
Better, right? The trend arrow points up because the Cowboys won two more games in 2011 than they did in 2010. But the season left a bitter taste in the mouths of many fans and a lot of questions about the future. Is Garrett as talented a coach as Jerry Jones says he believes him to be, and will he get better and correct his mistakes as he gains more experience? Did Rob Ryan as coordinator really improve the defense, and can it take the next step if he gets a few more pieces in place before next year? Did Romo really learn from his early-season mistakes? He threw only three interceptions in the team's final nine games and may have taken a big step in his own career in spite of the fact that the defense and the offensive line crumbled around him. Will he continue to be a responsible and effective leader in 2012? The Cowboys appear to be in better shape than they were at this time last year, but it's hard to really see it through the disappointment of the final month.