Dallas Cowboys: What Went Right

What Went Right: DeMarco Murray blows up

January, 13, 2012
This is the fifth installment in ESPN Dallas' five-part series on things that went right for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

No. 1: DeMarco Murray emerges as the No. 1 running back

DeMarco Murray’s season started with two carries for no yards at the New York Jets on Sept. 11, 2011 and ended because of a fractured ankle on his fifth carry of the game on Dec. 11 against the New York Giants.

Murray didn’t rush for 1,000 yards. He ran for only two touchdowns. But he changed the Cowboys’ season in 2011 and gives them a ton of hope for 2012.

The Cowboys chose Murray in the third round out of Oklahoma with the idea that he would split time with Felix Jones, but he arrived at training camp with a hamstring that would force him to miss al but one preseason game

It wasn’t until Jones suffered a high ankle sprain on Oct. 16 at New England that Murray took off. He didn’t start the next game against St. Louis but he finished it with a franchise-record 253 yards on 25 carries. He had a 91-yard touchdown run.

Over the next six weeks he would carry the ball at least 20 times in five times. He posted games of 139 and 135 yards. The Cowboys went on a four-game winning streak with Jason Garrett calling a more balanced game of run and pass.

His season ended with the fractured ankle against the Giants and the Cowboys lost three of their last four without him.

The final numbers are impressive: 164 carries, 897 yards. He also caught 26 passes for 183 yards.

In 2012 Murray will get the chance to prove he is closer to the franchise back he looked like before the injury than the next Julius Jones, who could not turn his rookie year success into long-term success.

The Cowboys are banking on it.

What Went Right: Dan Bailey emerges

January, 12, 2012
This is the fourth installment in ESPN Dallas' five-part series on things that went right for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

2. Emergence of kicker Dan Bailey

The Cowboys had a kicking competition at training camp involving Dan Bailey, David Buehler, Shayne Graham, Kai Forbath and Dave Rayner.

Bailey and Buehler emerged as the two kickers to make the 53-man roster. As it was originally designed, Buehler would handle kickoffs and long field goals while Bailey took care of everything else.

But something happened along the way: Bailey couldn't miss. He eventually became Jason Garrett's primary field goal kicker. Buehler suffered leg injuries that sent him to injured reserve and had owner Jerry Jones questioning his conditioning.

Bailey, meanwhile, made game-winning kicks at San Francisco, at Washington and vs. Miami. He converted 26 consecutive field goals, tied for the second-longest stretch in club history and finished tied for third in the NFL with 32 made field goals. Overall, Bailey was ninth in the NFL with an 86.5 conversion percentage.

That is far better than Buehler, who made just 75 percent of his field goals.

One other item of note: Bailey made 10-12 field goals from 40-49 yards, and Buehler made just 8-11 from the same range in 2010.

Bailey did struggle down the stretch when he missed a game-winner at Arizona and had a potential game-winner against the New York Giants blocked.

Besides these late season issues, the Cowboys aren't concerned about their rookie kicker going forward. The team believes it has finally found the field goal kicker necessary to make clutch field goals down the stretch.

What Went Right: Sean Lee takes over

January, 11, 2012
This is the third installment in ESPN Dallas' five-part series on things that went right for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Zumapress/Icon SMISean Lee replaced Keith Brooking in the starting lineup and wasted no time in making an impact. He led the Cowboys with 132 tackles and tied for the team lead with four interceptions.
No. 3: Sean Lee takes over at inside linebacker

The plan before the lockout ended was for the Cowboys to split the inside linebacker snaps between Bradie James, Keith Brooking and Sean Lee, but Lee’s play quickly changed that plan and developed into one of the NFC’s best inside linebackers.

Lee’s rookie season was muddled in part because of a knee injury at Penn State and assorted leg injuries early in the season but he showed flashes of his skill with a 31-yard interception return at a Peyton Manning pass for a touchdown at Indianapolis.

In 2012, Lee led the Cowboys with 132 tackles, according to the coaches, and his 89 solo stops were more than the total stops made by the team’s second-leading tackler, Gerald Sensabaugh, who had 78. Lee, a second-round pick in 2010, also tied for the team lead with four interceptions with cornerback Terence Newman.

Lee also displayed toughness by playing through a dislocated left wrist suffered Oct. 30 at Philadelphia. He missed one game before returning with a bulky cast for four games and a smaller one for the final four games.

With James and Brooking unlikely to return, Lee will have to step up into a leadership role on defense, which should not be difficult because he is already the one relaying Rob Ryan’s calls to the rest of the defense.
This is the second installment in ESPN Dallas' five-part series on things that went right for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

[+] EnlargeTyron Smith
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireSmith emerged as a force along an offensive line that struggled during the 2010 season. He improved as the season went on, using his long arms and quick feet to hold off pass rushers.
4. Tyron Smith takes over at right tackle

When the Cowboys drafted Tyron Smith, ninth overall, the goal was to make him a right tackle with the potential to move him to left tackle in the future.

There was some concern he could do it, but when the team released veteran Marc Colombo, it forced the Cowboys to view Smith as the starting right tackle. Colombo performed badly in 2009 and the Cowboys needed to upgrade this position.

Smith emerged as a force along an offensive line that struggled during the 2010 season. Yes, Smith was penalized eight times, but he had two stretches of four and five weeks where he didn't get flagged.

He improved as the season went on, especially when defending twists, spin and power moves. Smith used his long arms and quick feet to hold off pass rushers. The Cowboys were not afraid to run off the tackles with DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones, and as the season progressed right guard Kyle Kosier didn't help Smith as much with communication.

The big picture has Smith moving to the left tackle spot over Doug Free, who was inconsistent in 2011. Smith has the athletic ability to play left tackle because he took on elite pass rushers on a regular basis last year.

Hudson Houck, the Cowboys offensive line coach, said Smith improved throughout the season but wouldn't say if the rookie would move to left tackle. But it appears things are headed that way.

With the season over, Smith, after getting some rest, will work out with agent and former offensive line coach Joe Panos on his techniques and gain strength. He doesn't need to pick up weight (307), but if he gets stronger, he has a strong chance to remain a force along the offensive line.

What Went Right: Tony Romo's return

January, 9, 2012
This is the first installment in ESPN Dallas' five-part series on things that went right for the Dallas Cowboys in 2011.

No. 5: Tony Romo returned to form

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Howard Smith/US PresswireTony Romo showed his toughness while arguably having his best season, playing at times with a broken rib, a punctured lung and a badly bruised throwing hand this season. He threw for 4,184 yards and 29 touchdowns and had just nine interceptions.
Tony Romo was limited to five-plus games in 2010 because of a broken collarbone suffered on Oct. 25, 2010 against the New York Giants. Romo had 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions and 1,605 yards passing before getting hurt, but the Cowboys were 1-5 in his six starts.

Romo finished 2011 with 4,184 yards on 346-of-522 passing and 31 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions. His 102.5 passer rating was a career best. His 66.3 completion percentage was the best when he has lasted a full season. After throwing five interceptions in the first four games, he had just five the rest of the season. He had five games with at least three touchdown passes.

Romo showed a leadership and a toughness many thought he lacked entering 2011.

The leadership started during the lockout when he e-mailed his teammates a detailed practice plan for month-long workouts in May. Romo, who helped organize the sessions with fellow veterans, ran the practices almost like a coach.

The toughness came when he returned from a broken rib and punctured lung suffered in the first half at San Francisco and delivered an overtime win and played through the injury for the next six weeks. He played the season finale at the New York Giants with a badly bruised right hand that required a pain-killing injection.

Romo turns 32 in April, but nothing that happened in 2011 show he is nearing the end of the line.