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Thursday, December 15, 2011
Updated: December 29, 5:55 PM ET
Cowboys' top 10 storylines from 2011

By Todd Archer
ESPNDallas.com

The Cowboys did not enter the 2011 season with realistic Super Bowl expectations, which was a refreshing change for a team that failed miserably in its attempt to become the first team to play in the big game in its own stadium in 2010.

How to describe the expectations they did have depends on the individual's perspective. To some, this was viewed as a rebuilding year. To others, it was viewed as a transition year. The Cowboys made plenty of changes to their roster and coaching staff, and with just two regular-season games remaining, they are in position to make a run at a playoff spot.

Whatever your view was, the Cowboys did not disappoint in delivering plenty of storylines. Here are the 10 most memorable:

10. Robinson makes his mark. Little was expected when the Cowboys signed wide receiver Laurent Robinson. The Cowboys hoped he would be able to get in the mix in their sub packages on offense once he learned the offense. Then a funny thing happened: He kept getting open and kept scoring touchdowns. While the talk of training camp was who the Cowboys would use as their No. 3 receiver, nobody expected Robinson, who was cut in training camp by San Diego, to fill that role. With Miles Austin missing games because of two separate hamstring injuries, Robinson stepped in and delivered three 100-yard games and eight touchdowns. He had a stretch with at least one touchdown grab in five straight games, the best streak since Jason Witten closed last year with five straight. The Cowboys face a decision on Robinson because he signed only a one-year deal. With the way he has performed in 2011, he might get more money elsewhere.

TBD
Only Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez have caught more passes among tight ends than the Cowboys' Jason Witten.

9. Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware climb the charts. On Nov. 13 versus Buffalo, Witten moved passed Ozzie Newsome on the NFL's all-time receptions list among tight ends. Newsome had 662 catches in his Hall of Fame career for Cleveland, while Witten is approaching 700 as 2011 comes to a close and trails only Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez. Witten has put up at least 60 catches in eight straight seasons, a tight end mark bettered by only Gonzalez. By next year, Witten should pass Michael Irvin as the Cowboys' franchise leader in catches. Irvin had 750 from 1988 to '99 in his Hall of Fame career. Ware, meanwhile, became the Cowboys' all-time leader in sacks in 2011, surpassing Jim Jeffcoat, who had 94.5 from 1983 to '94. Sacks did not become an official stat until 1982, so the NFL does not recognize Harvey Martin's 114. But if Ware continues on his current pace, he should pass that mark as well.

8. Jerry Jones drafts an offensive lineman in the first round for the first time. With the No. 9 overall pick, Jones did something he has never done since taking over the Cowboys in 1989: He used a first-round selection on an offensive lineman, Tyron Smith. And so far Smith has not disappointed. He has started every game at right tackle, displaying an ability to learn quickly and play through pain. Jones had used several second-round picks on offensive linemen in his tenure -- including Flozell Adams and Andre Gurode -- but he never felt the bang for the buck was there in the first round. That was until Smith, 20 years old at the time of the draft, came on the scene. Offensive line coach Hudson Houck compared him favorably to some of the Hall of Fame linemen he had coached in his career. That was enough for Jones to pass up on a trade with Jacksonville that would have netted the Cowboys first- and second-round picks.

7 . Drew Pearson, Charles Haley, Larry Allen enter Ring of Honor. Jerry Jones has followed Tex Schramm's letter of the law when it comes to the Ring of Honor: Make it exclusive. In the first two years of Cowboys Stadium, he did not add a player to the Ring of Honor. But at halftime of the Nov. 6 game against Seattle, he added Drew Pearson, Charles Haley and Larry Allen. Pearson's inclusion made the Tom Landry-era Cowboys happy. Pearson was Roger Staubach's favorite receiver, and the Hall of Fame quarterback lobbied hard for Pearson's inclusion. Haley is viewed as the missing piece of the 1990s Cowboys Super Bowl run. Jones and many others have commented that without Haley, the Cowboys would not have won three Lombardi Trophies. Allen was the most dominant offensive lineman of his era and will be up for induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013. Only Bob Lilly (11) played in more Pro Bowls than Allen as a Cowboy (10).

6. Dez Bryant's financial woes. The Cowboys wide receiver is a talented player on the field, but off it has been another story. He was briefly banned from a high-end mall for disorderly conduct. (One of his friends wore his pants too low and Bryant protested when mall security got involved.) He was sued by a Colleyville, Texas, jeweler for more than $600,000 for unpaid jewelry and sporting tickets. A New York jeweler also sued Bryant for not paying for jewelry costing more than $240,000. Bryant settled both cases out of court. There were concerns that Bryant was broke. When the lockout ended, Bryant received a $1 million roster bonus from the Cowboys. As Bryant recovered from a fractured ankle, he played basketball at a local fitness facility, causing fans to worry that he wasn't cleared to play and might get reinjured. Bryant said he was fine and had no limitations once training camp started.

5. Rob Ryan named defensive coordinator. If Cowboys fans were asked which opposing coach angered them the most over the years, many would say Buddy Ryan. Thus, the Cowboys' hiring of Buddy's son, Rob, to be the team's defensive coordinator was hard for some to swallow. But Ryan was put in charge of turning around a defense that allowed a franchise-record 436 points. Ryan talked big when he took over, saying the Cowboys would have the best defense in the league and that he has more talent in Dallas than he has ever had in his previous stops as a coordinator in Oakland and Cleveland. Things have improved under Ryan, but only slightly. The pass defense cratered in the second half of the season, highlighted by Eli Manning's 400-yard effort and four receivers having more than 100 yards in as many games. While some players have performed well -- DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff, to name a few -- the sum of the unit has not delivered when it mattered most. Ryan might still be a future head coach, but the late-season troubles have not helped his cause.

DeMarco Murray
DeMarco Murray racked up 897 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his rookie season.

4. Say hello to DeMarco Murray. Murray's rookie season was puttering along without much notice until Oct. 23. The third-round pick out of Oklahoma missed most of training camp because of a hamstring injury and did not have more than 11 carries or 34 yards in his first five games. With Felix Jones out because of a high left ankle sprain, the Cowboys started Tashard Choice at tailback at St. Louis in Week 6, but in the first quarter of that game, Murray ran for a 91-yard touchdown. Only Tony Dorsett's 99-yard run against Minnesota on Jan. 3, 1983, was longer in franchise history. Murray, however, was able to do something Dorsett and Emmitt Smith never did: rush for 253 yards in the game. Murray immediately changed the complexion of the Cowboys' offense. He added 139- and 135-yard games against Seattle and Buffalo, respectively, as the team won four in a row. Yet for as good as it was going, it all came crashing down Dec. 11 against the Giants when he suffered a fractured right ankle and high ankle sprain. He had surgery the next day and was placed on injured reserve.

3. Second-half collapses. If the Cowboys don't make the playoffs, they can look back at a number of games that they let get away, starting with the season opener versus the Jets. They saw a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead evaporate thanks to two Romo turnovers. They also let a 27-3 third-quarter lead slip away to Detroit, with two of Romo's three picks returned for touchdowns. On Dec. 11, they let a 12-point lead evaporate against the New York Giants because of a porous defense. While they did win some games they should not have won (San Francisco, two versus Washington), the defeats leave the Cowboys in a vulnerable position when it comes to a playoff slot. This list does not include the timeout fiasco at Arizona. After getting to the Arizona 31-yard line after a 15-yard catch by Dez Bryant, Jason Garrett elected not to use one of his two timeouts in order to try to get closer for a field goal attempt. Romo spiked the ball with seven seconds to play. Dan Bailey's first 49-yard try was wiped out by a Garrett timeout because he felt the play clock was running down, and Bailey's second attempt was wide left and short. A week later against the Giants, Bailey's first 47-yard try with six seconds to play was wiped out by a New York timeout. His second try was blocked.

2. Tony Romo returns. Romo missed the final 10 games of 2010 because of a broken collarbone, but the Cowboys quarterback has bounced back in 2011, posting numbers that rival the best of his career. Perhaps more importantly, Romo became one of the team's unquestioned leaders in the offseason by organizing workouts at Southlake's Dragon Stadium during the lockout. He became more demanding in practices and games, and also took the brunt of the criticism in losses to the New York Jets and Detroit Lions that came about because of his turnovers. He won over teammates, opponents and critics with his ability to play hurt. He returned from a fractured rib and punctured lung at San Francisco to deliver an overtime win at Candlestick Park and did not miss a game. He required a protective jacket and pain-killing injections to get through games, but was still able to direct the Cowboys to a four-game winning streak in November.

1. Jason Garrett is named the Cowboys head coach. Garrett was named the Cowboys' interim coach after Wade Phillips directed the club to a 1-7 start in 2010, and on Jan. 5, 2011, he was given the job outright (without the interim tag). Sans Romo, the Cowboys went 5-3 to close the 2010 season, prompting owner and general manager Jerry Jones to stick with Garrett, who became the first former Cowboy to become the team's head coach. Garrett took over a job he seemed to be groomed for when he arrived in 2007 to be the team's offensive coordinator. He passed up chances to become a head coach in Atlanta, Baltimore and St. Louis in his first three years with the idea that he eventually would succeed Phillips. While his first full season has not been entirely smooth, especially in December, Garrett seems to have the support of Jones and his players.