Previous 7-7 Starts Marked Turning Points for the Cowboys

The 2013 marks just the fourth time in franchise history that the Cowboys have begun a season at 7-7. The three previous seasons were 1965, 1986, and 1999.

None of those seasons was memorable. However, each was noteworthy in the context of franchise history, as may the 2013 season. Below are some comparisons.

1965 Cowboys

What happened in 1965? Dallas had suffered through five straight losing seasons and began the 1965 season with a 4-7 record. The worst loss was a 34-31 defeat to the Washington Redskins in a game where the Cowboys led 24-6 in the third quarter and 31-20 in the fourth quarter. However, Dallas did not lose another game during the regular season and finished with a non-losing record for the first time in franchise history.

What happened in the seasons that followed? The Cowboys became contenders one year later, going 10-3-1 and facing the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship Game. Dallas would not suffer through a losing season for another 20 years.

Why could the 2013 Cowboys be like the 1965 Cowboys? The 1965 squad featured a strong core of younger players reaching their prime. This group included Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Hayes, Cornell Green, and so forth. The 2013 squad has young talent as well in the form of Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, and so forth. The team suffered through bad losses similar to the defeat to the Redskins in 1965, but the current Cowboys usually display resiliency.

Why might the Cowboys have a different future than the 1965 Cowboys? By 1965, Gil Brandt had begun to set himself apart among other head scouts. The 1964 draft for the Cowboys was one of the very best in franchise history, and the direct result was the team’s immediate improvement. In contrast, the Cowboys have had some mediocre-to-poor drafts during the past several seasons.  Lee and Bruce Carter are frequently injured, and Bryant has not shown much leadership. Moreover, Jason Garrett has not proven he can manage a game effectively as a head coach, which is something Tom Landry started to prove after 1965. Hard to believe this current team would have 20 straight winning seasons.

 The Cowboys technically made their first playoff appearance after the 1965 season, facing the Baltimore Colts in the Playoff Bowl. This game featured the second-place teams from each conference and was known as the Loser Bowl. Dallas lost 35-3.

1986 Cowboys

What happened in 1986? The Cowboys began the 1986 season with a 6-2 record and looked like a playoff team. Then Danny White broke his wrist in a game against the Giants, and the Cowboys could only manage one win over their last eight games. The 7-9 record marked the first losing season for the franchise since 1964.

What happened in the seasons that followed? Two years later, the Cowboys were the worst team in the NFL. Tom Landry was fired in 1989 after the team posted a 3-13 record and Jerry Jones bought the team from Bum Bright.

Why could the 2013 Cowboys be like the 1986 Cowboys? The 1986 Cowboys had star power in the form of Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, Randy White, Danny White, and some other recognizable names. However, the team had drafted poorly for most of the 1980s, and the team simply had no depth at most positions. The current team has likewise suffered from poor drafting. Though the Cowboys have star players, they also lack depth in most key positions. The Cowboys do not have enough talent across the board to suffer losses at key positions. The injuries this year have contributed heavily to the team having the worst defense in franchise history.

Why might the Cowboys have a different future than the 1986 Cowboys? The Cowboys  have more young talent than the 1986 team had. The Cowboys lost receiver Mike Sherrard to serious injuries in 1987 and 1988, and the team had to start over again at the receiver spot. The lone star by 1988 was Walker. The current team has Bryant and Murray along with some other talented skills players. Moreover, the current team operates during the free-agent era, whereas the league did not have Plan B free agency until 1989. The Cowboys could find free agent talent to replace aging or injured stars faster than the team of the late 1980s could.

 My opinion: the best thing to happen to Jerry Jones would be the worst thing to happen to Cowboys’ fans, and that would be a disastrous season (like the 3-13 season of 1988). Why? Because Jerry would have little choice but to accept that the way he has operated the franchise is not going to lead to another Super Bowl appearance in the foreseeable future.

1999 Cowboys

What happened in 1999? The Cowboys jumped out of the gate with a 3-0 start. However, once the Cowboys lost Michael Irvin to a career-ending neck injury, the team struggled. Dallas led in every game of the season but could only manage an 8-8 finish. The team luckily made it into the playoffs but lost to Minnesota in a forgettable game.

What happened in the seasons that followed? The Cowboys suffered through salary-cap hell along with some bad personnel decisions. Head coach Dave Campo saw his team record three consecutive 5-11 seasons between 2000 and 2002.

Why could the 2013 Cowboys be like the 1999 Cowboys? The current team has suffered from being in salary-cap hell and bad personnel decisions. Even dedicated fans would have a difficult time naming the guys playing defense in 2013, and the Cowboys will have limited ability to address weaknesses on defense because of more cap problems in 2014. Falling from 8-8 to 5-11 is not hard to imagine.

Why might the Cowboys have a different future than the 1999 Cowboys? In 1999, Jerry was still hanging on to the idea that the franchise could return to glory with just a few missing pieces, such as a good second receiver or a good defensive end. The cornerstones of the dynasty, though, had little left in the tank, and once they were gone, the team had to start over again. The current squad is not in such a dire position. Tony Romo is playing better now than Troy Aikman was in 1999 and 2000. The team might lose DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, along with some others, over the next couple of years, but it does not appear the team will face such a precipitous drop in talent that the team experienced in 2000 and 2001.

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The Cowboys Miss Marion Barber

Based on a search I ran on Pro-Football-Reference, the Cowboys have a combined record of 223-11 in games where they led by at least 10 points in the fourth quarter. Here is my Facebook post about this search:

Between 2005 and 2010, the Cowboys could and often would turn to running back Marion Barber, who had a knack for making key first downs and allowing the Cowboys to run out the clock.

The Cowboys lost two games during that span in which the team led by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter—a 14-13 loss to the Redskins in 2005 and a 20-13 loss to the Steelers in 2008. Barber did not play in either game, as he was not yet part of the offense in 2005 and was injured in the 2008 game.

The Cowboys struggles against the Steelers in 2008 were similar to those in recent years. Dallas had a 13-3 fourth-quarter lead and attempted to kill the clock. However, the team could only turn to Tashard Choice, who struggled to run the ball. Once the Steelers tied the game at 13, the Cowboys had to rely on Tony Romo to move the team into field goal range.

Romo instead threw an interception returned for a touchdown. The Cowboys did not recover.

Without Barber since 2011, the Cowboys seldom rely on their running game to close out games. DeMarco Murray is not the same type of runner that Barber was, and the Cowboys apparently do not trust him to run the ball unless the defense lines up without their safeties in the box. That apparently explains why Dallas was throwing so much in their loss to the Packers.

The defensive alignment never seemed to matter when the Cowboys had Barber, who found ways to make first downs even when everyone in the stadium knew he would get the ball.

In an old post, I wrote a summary of Barber’s best games as of the end of 2009. Here is that list:

Oct. 30, 2005: Dallas 34, Arizona 13

Filling in for an injured Julius Jones, Barber carried the ball 27 times for 127 yards in a 34-13 win over Arizona. With the Cowboys leading by at least two touchdowns, Barber touched the ball 14 times in the fourth quarter.

Oct. 29, 2006: Dallas 35, Carolina 14

The Cowboys had a 21-14 lead in the fourth quarter when safety Roy Williams picked off a pass in Carolina territory. The Cowboys alternated between Barber and Julius Jones, but it was Barber who found the end zone twice in the final three minutes to put the game away for Dallas.

Nov. 12, 2006: Dallas 38, Arizona 10

Dallas dominated the Cardinals in Arizona, taking a 20-3 lead late in the third quarter. In the final 17 minutes of the game, Barber touched the ball 10 times and scored a short run to increase the lead to 27-3 early in the fourth quarter.

Nov. 23, 2006: Dallas 38, Tampa Bay 10

In another blowout, Dallas held a 35-10 lead in the third quarter. In the final 18:36, Barber ran the ball 11 times and helped to set up the final field goal.

Dec. 16, 2006: Dallas 38, Atlanta 28

The Cowboys had a narrow 31-28 lead at Atlanta when the Falcons punted with 8:58 remaining. Barber took over from there, catching one pass early in the drive and then running six consecutive times. The sixth rush was a three-yard touchdown, securing the Dallas win.

Sept. 9, 2007: Dallas 45, N.Y. Giants 35

In a wild season opener, Dallas took a 45-35 lead late in the game when Tony Romo hit Sam Hurd on a 51-yard touchdown. The Giants punted the ball back to the Cowboys with 2:08 remaining. From there, Barber ran the ball five straight times, helping Dallas to run out the clock.

Sept. 16, 2007: Dallas 37, Miami 20

The Dolphins would not give up in the second week of the 2007 season. After cutting the lead to 30-20 with 3:26 remaining, the Dolphins tried an onside kick. Dallas recovered, and on the next play, Barber raced 40 yards for the final score of the game.

Sept. 23, 2007: Dallas 34, Chicago 10

In another surprising blowout in 2007, Dallas held a 27-10 lead in the fourth quarter and took the ball over with 8:53 remaining. Barber touched the ball eight consecutive times on a 78-yard drive, which Barber capped off with a one-yard touchdown run.

Oct. 21, 2007: Dallas 24, Minnesota 14

The Cowboys took a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. In the final eight minutes of the game, Barber carried the ball 11 times, putting the game away.

Nov. 11, 2007: Dallas 31, N.Y. Giants 20

With Dallas leading 31-20 in the fourth quarter, Barber touched the ball eight times, helping the Cowboys to a key win at the Meadowlands.

Nov. 22, 2007: Dallas 34, N.Y. Jets 3

In a blowout win, Barber touched the ball 11 times in the final 10:47 to help the Cowboys run out the clock in a Thanksgiving Day win.

Nov. 29, 2007: Dallas 37, Green Bay 27

With the Cowboys holding on to a one-touchdown lead with 5:03 left, the Cowboys turned to Barber. He carried the ball seven times for 26 yards to help set up a field goal that iced the game for Dallas.

Dec. 22, 2007: Dallas 20, Carolina 13

The Cowboys’ held a one-touchdown lead with about three minutes remaining. Needing at least a first down, Barber came through with runs of 9 and 11 yards to help secure the win for Dallas.

Sept. 15, 2008: Dallas 41, Philadelphia 37

Barber did not put the game away against the Eagles in the second week of the 2008 season, but his one-yard touchdown run was the game winner in an early season victory.

Oct. 5, 2008: Dallas 31, Cincinnati 22

With the Cowboys barely holding on to a 24-22 lead with 7:39 remaining, the Cowboys turned to Barber, who gained 20 yards on the team’s final scoring drive that put the Bengals away.

Nov. 16, 2008: Dallas 14, Washington 10

The Cowboys were holding on to a 14-10 lead over the Redskins when the Cowboys stopped a Washington drive in Dallas territory. In his greatest effort as a closer so far, Barber touched the ball 11 straight times. His last run on a fourth-and-one play put the game away for the Cowboys.

Nov. 23, 2008: Dallas 35, San Francisco 22

With the Cowboys having trouble putting the 49ers away, Dallas turned to Barber on two fourth quarter drives. He touched the ball eight times, helping the secure the win.

Sept. 13, 2009: Dallas 34, Tampa Bay 21

The Cowboys had trouble putting the Buccaneers away in the opening game of the 2009 season. On a late scoring drive, highlighted by a 44-yard pass play from Romo to Patrick Crayton, Barber ran the ball four times and scored from six yards out, helping the Cowboys to a win.

Nov. 8, 2009: Dallas 20, Philadelphia 16

The Eagles cut the Dallas led to 20-16 with 4:27 remaining in a key NFC East game on Sunday night. With the Cowboys needing first downs, Dallas gave ball to Barber, who gained 23 yards on three consecutive carries. Since the Eagles were out of timeouts, a third down conversion on a pass from Romo to Jason Witten put the game away.

 

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