Dallas Cowboys 2015 Year in Review: Injuries and Distractions

After a successful 2014, the Cowboys took a step back in 2015. Did anything go right?

Running back Joseph Randle started the 2015 season as the hopeful heir apparent to DeMarco Murray in the backfield for the Dallas Cowboys.

He ended the season as a free agent, released by the Cowboys in November, and is now often in the news for his run-ins with police.

Randle’s steep fall from Week 1 starter is just one of the many dismal story lines from the Cowboys' 2015 season.

After coming within a Dez Bryant contested catch to advance to the NFC Championship Game two seasons ago, the Cowboys entered 2015 with high expectations, but any championship dreams were practically dashed when Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks pummeled Tony Romo into the turf in Week 2.

Romo fractured his left clavicle on the play and missed the following seven games. Over that timeframe, the Cowboys turned to Brandon Weeden and then to Matt Cassel, hoping either could keep them competitive until Romo returned.

The Cowboys preceded to go 0-7 with Weeden and Cassel. 

As the Cowboys floundered without a competent backup quarterback, defensive lineman Greg Hardy brought plenty of unwanted attention for his off-the-field transgressions.

The Cowboys were unable to overcome the combination of the injuries and distractions.

Dallas finished the season 4-12, their worst season since a 1-15 finish in 1989 during Troy Aikman's rookie year.

What Went Right

Um, not much?

Looking for bright spots in an otherwise gloomy 2015, one surprise for the Cowboys was the productivity and reliability of Darren McFadden.

After Randle struggled over the first five games, he was supplanted by McFadden as the starter following the Cowboys' Week 6 bye. From Week 7 on, McFadden notched 202 carries for 960 yards and 2 touchdowns, good enough for a 4.75 yard-per-carry average.

The ostensibly injury-prone McFadden finished the season with 239 carries, a career best. His previous career-high was 223 in 2010. McFadden's 1,089 rushing yards represented the eight-year veteran’s second career 1,000-yard rushing season.

On the season, McFadden finished with a -4.41 Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), eighth-best out of 15 running backs with more than 200 carries.

NEP measures how many points a player adds to his team’s expected scoring total; for more information, check out our glossary.

Overall, the Cowboys' offense was anemic without Romo at the helm.

Dallas finished 29th in opponent-adjusted NEP per play on offense. The run game, however, ranked ninth in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. The 30th-place finish in passing efficiency was too much to overcome.

What Went Wrong

While it was difficult to pinpoint positives in the Cowboys’ 2015 season for the above section, it’d be much easier to fill an entire article with what went wrong in the Cowboys’ season.

The injuries to Romo and Bryant seriously dented the Cowboys’ hope of contending early on in the season. After breaking his foot in the season opener, Bryant missed the next five games. After returning, it was clear Bryant wasn’t close to his normal self. Bryant's Reception NEP per target (0.47) ranked just 58th among 62 receivers with at least 70 targets this year.

But outside of not having a competent backup quarterback, the team had plenty of other issues as well.

Once Romo returned, the Cowboys could still sniff the playoffs in a weak NFC East, but Romo re-fractured his collarbone in Week 12 against the Carolina Panthers, sending the Cowboys back to Cassel and then to Kellen Moore.

The Cowboys entered the season as favorites to contend in the NFC with a running back by committee approach replacing Murray and Hardy putting the Cowboys' defense on par with the elite units in the league.

While the running game remained effective with McFadden, the Hardy signing was arguably the Cowboys’ worst move.

Hardy was regularly a distraction for the Cowboys, whether it be from public pressure that he be released, his tardiness to meetings, or his not-so-great rap video. On the field, Hardy finished second on the team in sacks, behind only Demarcus Lawrence. In 12 games, Hardy registered 6 sacks and 22 tackles.

What’s Next

With a putrid season behind them, the Cowboys have the fourth overall pick in May’s draft. It’s the highest pick the Cowboys have held since 1991, when they selected defensive tackle Russell Maryland.

The Cowboys are in a intriguing position. If they do not find a backup quarterback in free agency, could they select Carson Wentz or Jared Goff fourth overall? Or will they go with a player to help them win now, such as Joey Bosa, Jalen Ramsey or Myles Jack?

Cowboys Executive Vice President Stephen Jones has said the Cowboys believe Romo has at least three more good years left to play.

The Cowboys have a number of unrestricted free agents with Hardy as a primary notable. In February, head coach Jason Garrett said “Greg Hardy is a free agent,” when asked about Hardy’s status with the team. More recently, Jones has said Hardy is a free agent that the Cowboys have not had negotiations with.

The Cowboys are also expected to let cornerback Morris Claiborne walk in free agency. The sixth overall pick in 2012, Claiborne had an injury-prone four-year run in Dallas, failing to live up to his high draft stock. Cowboys have already announced that they would be bringing linebacker Rolando McClain back on a one-year deal.

Unfortunately, the Cowboys' misfortunes from the season have already followed the team into the offseason. It was recently announced that Randy Gregory would be suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Now, Gregory is just one failed test away from a 10-game suspension.

But with a top-four draft pick and their stars healthy to begin the start of the season, perhaps the Cowboys' 2016 season will look closer to their playoff run in 2014.