Dallas Cowboys season report card

The last time the Dallas Cowboys entered a season with such low expectations was 2003, the rookie years of Jason Witten and Tony Romo. The Cowboys hired Bill Parcells, but this was a team that had gone 5-11 in each of the three previous seasons.

Like the 2003 team, however, these Cowboys overachieved, despite the loss to Green Bay in the playoffs. Nobody predicted a 12-4 regular season and NFC East championship, but DeMarco Murray set the franchise’s single-season rushing record with 1,845 yards, Dez Bryant had a single-season franchise record 16 touchdown catches, the offensive line, bolstered by three first-round picks, became one of the NFL’s best, and Romo rebounded from two back surgeries in less than a year.

Team MVP: Murray had a terrific season. Anytime you can put your name ahead of Emmitt Smith in a record book, you have done something tremendously well. But Romo was more valuable. Coming back from a discectomy, it took Romo and the Cowboys some time before they found a practice schedule that worked. Sitting out Wednesday practices in full weeks from the second game of the season on, Romo had a year that was for the ages. He threw 34 touchdown passes and led the NFL in passer rating and completion percentage. No longer burdened to make every play because of the support of Murray and the running game, Romo made the key plays at key moments.

Best moment: After seeing a 21-point lead vanish at Philadelphia, the Cowboys offense answered with an eight-play, 78-yard drive that ended in a 2-yard touchdown run by Murray to give the Cowboys the lead for good in a 38-27 win. With the season on the line and everybody screaming, "Same old Cowboys," the offense responded. In other years they might have wilted, but this year they fought back, finding the strength in Jason Garrett’s season-long message. That win showcased that this team was different than the previous three that lost Week 17 finales to miss the playoffs and needed to be taken seriously in the postseason. On that drive, Romo hit Bryant for two gains of 22 yards, and Murray had a run of 21 yards. They were so efficient they did not get to third down on that drive. They silenced the crowd and, more importantly, silenced their critics.

Worst moment: It could have been the knee of Washington linebacker Keenan Robinson to Romo’s back that broke two transverse processes on Oct. 27 or the 33-10 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Eagles. But after Bryant’s catch was reversed by replay and ruled incomplete on a fourth-and-2 throw at Green Bay, how do you not call that the worst moment? Had it not been overturned, it likely would have been the best moment of the season. Romo had the guts to go long to Bryant, who made an acrobatic catch (yes, catch) only to see it done in by a rule that could change in the offseason. By the interpretation of the rule, referee Gene Steratore might have gotten it right, but the Cowboys’ season all but ended on that play.

2015 outlook: The Cowboys have a lot of difficult decisions to make. Bryant and Murray are set to be free agents, but the team will use the franchise tag on the receiver if they can’t reach a long-term deal. There will be only so much money to go around, and the Cowboys might not be able to match the price Murray gets on the open market. Garrett is also out of a contract, as are playcallers Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli and offensive line coach Bill Callahan. Will all four be back? The Cowboys have built their offensive line through the draft and now must do the same for the defensive line. How many more years does Romo have? Was this an aberration or the beginning of a second window of opportunity on the back nine of Romo’s career? They have drafted better recently and have been more fiscally sound. The process, as Garrett says, has worked. At the very least, the Cowboys will be a playoff contender.