by Shawn Lealos
When the 2014 NFL season began, no one expected much from the Dallas Cowboys. Many expected them to finish below .500 on the season and some claimed the Cowboys defense could be the worst of all time. With Jason Garrett entering his final year on his contract, coaching changes on both sides of the field and injuries before the season even began, it looked like Garrett was coaching his final season with the Cowboys.
By the end of the season, the Cowboys were one of the NFL’s most surprising teams, making it all the way to the NFC divisional round of the playoffs before losing a heartbreaker to the Green Bay Packers after a controversial official’s call. Tony Romo finished the season as the NFL’s top rated passer, DeMarco Murray finished as the rushing champion and Dez Bryant led the league in touchdown receptions.
DeMarco Murray Breaks Out
Heading into the 2014 NFL season, DeMarco Murray had never completed a season healthy, missing games every year of his career. This even stretched back to college. In 2014, Murray played in every game of the season, which was an achievement in and of itself. However, he did a lot more than just play all the games.
Murray won the NFL’s rushing title and broke the Cowboys’ single season rushing record with 1,845 yards. He also scored 13 touchdowns, which tied Marshawn Lynch for the NFL lead. It was Murray’s running that really changed the Cowboys fortunes. New play caller Scott Linehan called more running plays than any team in the NFL and Murray proved to be the most valuable player on the Cowboys team.
On top of his rushing, Murray also caught 57 receptions in the season for 416 total yards. In the postseason, Murray ran for 198 yards in the Cowboys’ two playoff games with two touchdowns and caught four passes for 27 yards. By the end of 2014, Murray touched the ball 497 times for a combined 2,486 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Tony Romo Enjoyed an MVP Caliber Year
With such a great running game in place, Tony Romo came into the 2014 NFL season with a chance to work his way back from his back surgery. While Romo did miss one game after taking a knee to the back, he played the rest of the games and played better than he ever has at any point in his career. He didn’t put up the yards some fans are used to, but that is not what made this year’s team great.
Romo finished the season with the NFL’s best passer rating, at 113.2 He beat out Aaron Rodgers in the race and was over .010 higher than Peyton Manning and .016 higher than Tom Brady this season. He threw 34 touchdowns passes and only nine interceptions, while averaging a nice 8.52 yards per completion. He also completed an NFL high 69.9 percent of his passes. Finally, Romo was undefeated in the month of December, a source of criticism from his harshest critics.
With Sean Lee falling to a preseason injury and both Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware leaving in free agency, some believed that a defense that was the worst in the NFL in 2013 would be worse in 2014. Thanks to Murray and the running game controlling the clock and great play calling by new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, the defense accomplished more than anyone thought they would.
New Cowboys’ linebacker Rolando McClain was a huge pickup, although he spent the last month of the season injured, sick and eventually taken out with a concussion. Bruce Carter finally developed into the player Dallas hoped he would be when they drafted him. Jeremy Mincey developed into the best defensive lineman on the team.
By the end of the season, the Cowboys defense ranked 19th, which was still low but much better than expected. Even better was that they won the giveaway-takeaway battle with 31 takeaways and only 25 giveaways. The Cowboys defense finished the season with 18 interceptions and 13 fumble recoveries and were one of the NFL’s most opportunistic teams, second to only the Houston Texans.
Dallas won the NFC East in Week 16, after heading into the final week of the season the previous three seasons needing to win or stay home. By this time, the overachieving Cowboys did more than anyone expected and had more to prove. They did it in the first playoff game, a win over the Detroit Lions. While there was a controversial call in that game, the Cowboys dominated the Lions in the second half for the win.
Then, the Cowboys lost in the divisional round on another controversial call. While the call was bad, much like the Lions game, there was much more to the loss than one call. The Cowboys defense struggled tackling in the game. The defense that overachieved all season was finally beat by the end of the season.
The Dallas Cowboys did better than anyone expected. However, the season ended short of the team’s eventual goals and now the future is uncertain. DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant are both free agents and the Cowboys really need to sign both to compete in 2015. With a limited budget under the salary cap, that will be tough.
That makes things more difficult when their defense is concerned. All three starting linebackers – Rolando McClain, Justin Durant and Bruce Carter – are free agents. Defensive linemen Anthony Spencer, Nick Hayden and George Selvie are all free agents. Starting offensive linemen Doug Free and Ronald Leary are both free agents. Kick returner Dwayne Harris and wide receiver Cole Beasley are both free agents.
The Cowboys will likely either re-sign Bryant or franchise him in 2015 and they need to sign Murray. With Sean Lee returning next season and Anthony Hitchens impressing as a rookie, the Cowboys will probably choose one of McClain, Durant or Carter to re-sign and let the other two go. Whatever happens, the Cowboys will lose a lot of starters in the offseason and have to rebuild to compete in 2015.
There is also the coaching staff. Jason Garrett is now a free agent, but the Cowboys should re-sign him soon. After that, it will be important to try to keep Linehan and Marinelli, but there is a chance one of them leaves for a head coaching job somewhere. This was a great season for Cowboys fans, and they should enjoy it because things might look very different in 2015.
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Shawn S. Lealos is a freelance writer who graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2000 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. He writes for a variety of national publications and has over 15 years of sports journalism experience. Follow Shawn on Twitter @sslealos.