With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
On Nov. 6 of last year, the Cowboys kicked off a four-game win streak by downing the Seattle Seahawks. One week later, the Giants stumbled in San Francisco, lifting the lid on a four-game losing streak.
All signs pointed to Dallas pulling away in a very mediocre NFC East and returning to the playoffs after missing out in 2010.
That all changed in Week 13, though. Despite a lethargic effort on the road at Arizona, Dallas was in position to pull out its fifth straight victory. But at the end of regulation, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett inexplicably iced his own kicker prior to a potential game-winning field goal. Dan Bailey then missed the 49-yarder, Arizona went on to win in overtime, and the Cowboys lost four of their final five games -- including a 31-14 shellacking in the Meadowlands in Week 17, which gave the Giants the division crown.
Dallas looks like a favorite in the NFC East again. As owner Jerry Jones said just a few weeks ago, however, the window might be closing on the Cowboys' aging core.
2011 Record: 8-8 (third place, NFC East)
Key Additions: CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne, LB Dan Connor, DE Tyrone Crawford, G Nate Livings, QB Kyle Orton, S Brodney Pool, FB Lawrence Vickers
Key Subtractions: TE Martellus Bennett, S Abram Elam, CB Terence Newman, WR Laurent Robinson
Team Strengths: QB, RB, WR, CB, OLB
Team Weaknesses: OL, DE
Three Things to Watch:
1. Has the interior of the offensive line been fixed?: During the 2010 season, the Cowboys lined up Andre Gurode at center with Leonard Davis at right guard and Kyle Kosier on the left. Last season, Dallas featured a Montrae Holland-Phil Costa-Kosier interior for the majority of its games.
The drop-off was severe.
Costa struggled mightily in the middle and ranked as the 30th-best center in the league among guys who played at least 25 percent of his team's snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Kosier wasn't much better after flipping to right guard, though Holland provided a bright spot after being re-signed in October following a September release.
No matter how you cut it, though, Dallas must get better blocking up front, both in the run and pass games. In hopes of making that happen, the Cowboys signed guard Nate Livings, who started every game in 2010 and '11 for Cincinnati, as well as ex-Panther Mackenzy Bernadeau.
Will those additions be enough to turn things around? We may not know until late in training camp, since Bernadeau is out for several weeks with a hip injury. Tyron Smith, a 2011 first-round pick, provides top-notch protection at left tackle. Dallas just needs to find some help alongside him.
2. How much will Dallas miss Laurent Robinson?: Aside from Alex Smith's success in San Francisco, there may not have been a more surprising story than Robinson during the 2011 NFL season. After spending four disappointing years between St. Louis and Atlanta, Robinson came out of nowhere to become Tony Romo's favorite target with Dez Bryant hobbled by hamstring issues all season and Miles Austin forced to miss six games due to injury.
Robinson wound up catching 58 passes for 858 yards and a team-high 11 touchdowns. His 15.9 yards-per-catch average was second on the team to only the sparingly used Jesse Holley, who put up a 24.1 clip on seven grabs.
Robinson bailed in the offseason to sign a lucrative deal in Jacksonville. And now Dallas has to find a new safety net behind Bryant and Austin. Kevin Ogletree remains an option, though he's yet to turn the corner through three seasons. But the sleeper for the job is fifth-round pick Danny Coale out of Virginia Tech, who ought to get every opportunity to win some playing time.
3. Rookies' impact on the defense: Rather than sit around and hope an impact player fell to them at No. 14 overall, the Cowboys rolled the dice at the draft and traded up for the No. 5 pick, which they used on dynamic LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
He will be asked to step into the starting lineup immediately, with free-agent pickup Brandon Carr manning the other spot -- Dallas released Terence Newman, a 14-game starter at CB in 2011, and has reportedly been looking to deal Mike Jenkins, who started a dozen games.
There's no question that Claiborne is extremely talented, but how will he hold up in a division featuring players like Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and DeSean Jackson? If he pulls his weight and Carr is as effective as he was in Kansas City, the Cowboys could have one of the league's top 1-2 punches at cornerback.
Don't overlook third-round pick Tyrone Crawford, either. The Cowboys badly need better production out of their defensive ends so, after handing off their second-round pick in that move up for Claiborne, they snatched up the ex-Boise State star. Don't be surprised if he winds up starting early in the season.
Outlook: Few teams in the league boast the raw star power of the Cowboys. Be it Bryant and Austin out wide, an underrated Tony Romo at QB, DeMarcus Ware at linebacker or, now, Claiborne, you can find elite talent all over the field in Dallas.
So why is this team 14-18 over the past two seasons? For whatever reasons, this group has made a habit of imploding at exactly the wrong time, from the coaching staff on down -- with that Arizona game and the Week 17 face plant vs. the Giants being perfect examples. Dallas did well this offseason to address its needs, especially at cornerback and (the Cowboys hope) along the offensive line. Another playoff miss might lead to huge changes in Big D. The NFC is loaded, so a postseason spot is far from a given, but the Cowboys should be right there all year and may even be the team to beat in the East.