No more whistles, no more playbooks, no more coach’s dirty looks. Sure, not quite as catchy as the iconic “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” but we’re talking football grades here, not math, science and social studies.
The biggest difference in grading pupils and players is expectations. All students are created equal; not so much for a professional football team. Just doesn’t make sense to hold Miles Austin, one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the game and a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Cole Beasley, an undrafted free agent rookie, to the same standard. Ditto for DeMarcus Ware, headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and some dude signed off his couch midseason. Not even Batman.
Without further ado, here are our final grades for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys:
Tony Romo – B
This one is difficult, because for 80-plus percent of the season, 13-of-16 games, Romo played as well as any quarterback in franchise history. Yes, including Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. His numbers for those contests include 303.1 yards per game, 24 touchdown passes, seven picks and a 100.2 rating. Even with the other three games – vs. the Bears and Giants and at the Redskins – Romo had the league’s sixth-highest rating by Football Outsiders, behind only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.
He threw for nearly 5,000 yards, and on many occasions was his own best pass protector in terms of finding an extra second or two. There were times when he was brilliant, and never before has he shown the leadership he did this season. Still, in the end, Romo flunked his final. Again. That’s not easy to write. Romo has been sort of the teacher’s pet these last five years, but there is no excuse for those final two picks at Washington.
Kyle Orton – I
He broke Clint Longley’s 38-year-old mark for highest passer rating (minimum 10 attempts) with a ridiculous 137.1. Played just the one game, though, giving him an incomplete.
DeMarco Murray – C
A disappointing season for the second-year back who was expected to anchor the offensive load. Didn’t rush for 100 yards after Week 1 at the Giants and rarely showed the explosiveness from his rookie season with just five 20-plus carries. Finished tied for 21st in the league with 2.5 yards per attempt after contact. He also picked the worst of times for his first two NFL fumbles. His durability has also become a concern as he has missed nine of the team’s last 19 games with injuries.
Felix Jones – C
Finished with more offensive touches than expected, was much improved in picking up the blitz, caught the ball well, and for the most part, maximized his rushing yards with the gaps provided. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry after entering the year at 5.1 for his career.
Lance Dunbar – B
Was impressed with the free agent rookie from North Texas from the first preseason game through Week 17. Finished with eight special teams tackles, was solid if unspectacular on kick returns and showed a little burst on offense. Should play a bigger role in 2013.
Phillip Tanner – C
Solid on special teams with 10 tackles, although he didn’t show much in limited action carrying the ball.
Lawrence Vickers – C
Showed promise catching passes, that little dump-off was seemingly always available. But his blocking was average and his four penalties in 305 snaps was the highest percentage of any fullback playing 25 percent of his team’s snaps.
Dez Bryant – A-
The breakout season many started thinking would never come, you know, despite just turning 24 this past November. No third-year receiver in the history of the NFL produced the numbers Dez did this year: 92-1,382-12. As in none. Not Jerry Rice. Not Calvin Johnson. Dez is no longer “going to be special.” He is special. Just as long as he’s never, ever allowed to return punts again. Thing is, the ceiling is still a few floors up, as Bryant dropped 11 passes this season.
Miles Austin – C
For what he’s being paid, Austin is a luxury. Kind of like having two yachts and driving a Yugo. This team has cap issues, and Dez is the undisputed No. 1 wideout. Austin was solid this season, flirted with 1,000 yards, battled a few injuries, only dropped six balls, came up with some huge catches and no one has served as a better mentor for Dez. Here’s the thing, though: Since Halloween 2010, Austin has cracked the century mark four times in 35 games.
Kevin Ogletree – D
After the opener, the fourth-year wideout caught 24 balls for 322 yards and two scores in 14 games. For the year, he had three drops and averaged 2.8 yards after the catch, which was tied for 93rd out of the 105 wide receivers to play at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps.
Dwayne Harris – A
Can’t say enough about him. Word is he’s not tall enough, not quick enough, lacks explosive speed and needs a haircut. Not sure about any of that, but do know this: Harris kept making plays, finished second in the NFL in punt return average (16.1) and averaged 13.9 yards per catch. Added four tackles on coverage as well. Think he busts out big-time next year.
Cole Beasley – B
The mystery of the 2012 Cowboys season was why more balls weren’t thrown his way. Dude was open 24/7/365
Andre Holmes – I
Played seven games, made three tackles and caught two balls, finishing the year on the practice squad.
Jason Witten – A
Not going to say this was the future Ring of Honor member’s best season, but without debate, this was top three. Right there with 2007 and 2010. Dramatically improved run blocking from the last two seasons, dropped just two passes after the first two weeks and his courage in taking the field for the opener with the lacerated spleen defines his career. No one cares more deeply in being there for his teammates and the fans. Think his NFL single-season receptions record of 110 catches for a tight end will stand for some time, too. The ultimate class act, Witten would’ve been a Pro Bowl selection in the 1950s, the 1970s and is today.
James Hanna – B
Not sure anyone knows exactly what the future holds for Hanna. As a receiver, he showed some promising glimpses, both in routes and yards after the catch. The talent is there. His blocking, well, let’s say it’s going to be a process.
John Phillips – B-
Thought he’d be a bigger part of the passing game. Solid run blocker and one of the more committed members of the special teams. Should return next season.
Tyron Smith – B-
Really easy to forget the kid is only 22, his birthday coming in early December. This was also his first year at left tackle, including his three years at USC. Think the most important aspect of his season was the improvement throughout, especially after a nightmarish start the first two games. Allowed 37 QB hurries and was flagged for 11 penalties whereas, per Jonathan Bales’ numbers, the average NFL left tackle allowed 18 hurries and drew six flags in 2012.
On the positive side, Smith allowed just three sacks and his run blocking was solid, fourth in the NFL among left tackles according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Doug Free – D-
Of the 43 tackles in the NFL to play 75 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, Free ranked 38th by PFF. And that was with a strong finish the final three games when he was rotating possessions with Jermey Parnell. Free’s 42 QB hurries were the fourth most among tackles while his 15 penalties led the entire league for all positions.
Nate Livings – B
Quietly, not a bad first season in Dallas. He finished as the sixth-highest rated left guard in the league, allowed 14 hurries and was arguably the team’s best run-blocker. The majority of carries ran to the left side behind Smith and Livings. His six sacks allowed were tied for the league high.
Among the 36 guards to play at least 75 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, Bernadeau graded 30th by PFF. He allowed 21 hurries and five sacks. Run blocking was below average, too. He was game, even starting at center when needed, but he struggled for the most part.
Ryan Cook – B
Take away a nightmarish performance in the second game against the Giants, and Cook was solid throughout. Allowed just one sack in 544 passing plays and more than held his own run blocking in the A-gaps. Exceeded expectations.
Jermey Parnell – B
Graded better than any Cowboy up front in pass protection. Could easily be the starting right tackle next season. Was surprisingly solid at left tackle in place of Smith and really played well against Washington in the finale.
Phil Costa – B
There really isn’t much debate for most dominant game this season by a Cowboys offensive lineman. That would be Costa at Baltimore in Week 6. Alas, his season ended the following Sunday. Should be in the mix to start at center entering camp.
Derrick Dockery – C
Likely the last rodeo for the veteran, a real pro’s pro. He was solid in his first start of the season against Cleveland, but struggled a week later against Washington.
Jason Hatcher – A
A career season, more than Pro Bowl worthy and hopefully not remembered for a penalty mostly beyond his control against the Redskins in Week 17. Hatcher was the team’s highest-graded defensive player by PFF, finishing with 29 hurries, eight QB hits and four sacks. Also shattered his previous career high with 51 tackles. The only 3-4 end in the NFL with more tackles and hurries was Houston’s J.J. Watt, who should win Defensive Player of the Year.
Also played 784 snaps, topping his previous career high by 356, unheard of at 30 years old
Marcus Spears – C-
Ended up playing more than anyone anticipated, especially when he wasn’t even assured a roster spot in the preseason. His best game of the year was the finale at Washington, but overall, just five QB hurries, one sack and zero QB hits in 183 pass rushes isn’t ideal for an end.
Sean Lissemore – C
Disappointing year after a breakout campaign in 2011. Injuries were a big part of that as he missed six games in the middle of the season and never found that ability to bust the gaps. Likely a rotation/special teams player rather than a potential starter going forward.
Tyrone Crawford – B
Wasn’t really talked about for whatever reason, but a very impressive, promising rookie campaign for the third-round pick. Lot of pundits thought the Cowboys took him too early. Finished with 16 solo tackles, six hurries, three QB hits and most importantly, showed dramatic improvement from camp to season’s end. Should challenge for a starting gig next season.
Jay Ratliff – C
Somewhat of a lost season with injuries, but worth noting, over a five-game stretch from Weeks 7-11, Ratliff played at an elite level, his usual Pro Bowl-caliber self. He will be 32 by next season’s opener, though, and his run stopping was suspect. Could evolve into a pass-rushing specialist, maybe even an end or a tackle in a 4-3.
Kenyon Coleman – B
Was playing his best football in two seasons with Dallas in a left-end rotation when a midseason triceps injury ended his campaign. As the team’s oldest player at 33, can’t see him returning
Josh Brent – I
Before the tragic accident in December, Brent was playing unquestionably the best football of his three years in Dallas. Had started five games, provided solid gap run support, added four hurries and 1.5 sacks.
Brian Schaefering– I
Brought in late in the season, the veteran was solid against the Saints, but played just 45 snaps overall.
Anthony Spencer – A-
The defensive MVP, hands down. Ridiculous he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl. If not for missing two games, All-Pro would have been in play. Was the only player in the NFL with 90 tackles and 10 sacks, finishing with 95 and 11.0, respectively. PFF graded him the league’s top 3-4 outside linebacker, over Green Bay’s Clay Matthews and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith. Finished with 27 QB hurries and really emerged as a team leader. Would be stunning if he didn’t return in 2013.
DeMarcus Ware – B-
Tough to grade as the future Hall of Famer played through multiple injuries that would’ve sidelined the majority. He probably shouldn’t have even been on the field in the finale against the Redskins, but didn’t want to let his teammates down. The numbers were there, at least for any other outside linebacker, with 31 QB hurries, 13 QB hits and 11.5 sacks, although he drew nine flags. Will be 31 when next season starts.
Sean Lee – A-
Was headed for an All-Pro season when a toe injury ended his campaign in Week 7. At the time, most had him second behind just San Francisco’s Patrick Willis among inside linebackers. His pass coverage was greatly improved from a season ago as well. At this point, all that separates Lee from greatness is sustained health.
Bruce Carter – B
We yelled from the rooftops all spring and summer about how good the 2011 second-round pick was and for the most part, fans were skeptical. Well, no more. Before his own season-ending injury, Carter was a one-man wrecking crew. The prospect of Lee and him together for 16 games is tantalizing.
Alex Albright – B
Offers a ton of versatility, can play inside or outside, and led the team in special teams tackles. Was more than capable in extended playing time over the second half of the year. Definitely a keeper going forward.
Ernie Sims – B-
Off his tractor to calling defensive plays in a span of four weeks. That’s how decimated the Cowboys defense was with injuries. A former first-round pick who is still just 28, Sims played his tail off on special teams and at both inside and outside linebacker, although nowhere near the level of Lee or Carter. The majority think he’ll return for another go-around.
Dan Connor – C
What seemed to be a perplexing signing in the offseason, in terms of position need, proved omniscient when Lee and Carter went down. Connor was as advertised, solid against the run and decent in pass coverage.
Brady Poppinga – I
Probably the most entertaining interview at Valley Ranch in the last decade. Was for the most part overmatched on the field, but Batman is more than welcome to come back for another season. He needs his own radio show.
Orie Lemon – I
Impressive preseason raised hopes, but a hamstring injury led to the injured reserve. He barely played outside of special teams.
Kyle Wilber – I
More or less a redshirt for the fourth-round rookie, having played just 16 defensive snaps and a little special teams.
Brandon Carr – C
Was he a top-5 corner, like many were expecting after his monster free-agent contract? No. Of the 39 corners to play 75 percent of their team’s defensive snaps, he ranked 23rd via PFF. Still, Carr was better than that, often left alone on an island with the opposing team’s best wideout, and for the most part, kept them contained. Balls caught in his direction averaged 12.3 yards and he allowed just three touchdowns. His overtime interception and return singlehandedly defeated the Steelers, too.
Morris Claiborne – B
Compared quite favorably with Arizona’s Patrick Peterson from a season ago, which bodes well considering the latter blossomed into a top-10 corner in his second year. Played 900-plus snaps, which is a whole lot of football for a rookie. His tackling took some criticism, but for a corner, wasn’t bad in the least. He was credited with just seven missed tackles, which was tied for 24th among corners playing at least half their team’s defensive snaps. A promising first season.
Gerald Sensabaugh – C-
Second on the team to Carr in snaps with 981, delivered a handful of jarring hits, several in crucial spots, and directed a bunch of newcomers in the secondary admirably. Still, a free safety has to make plays and Sensabaugh didn’t have an interception, just three passed defensed in fact, and a lone forced fumble. Also missed 10 tackles.
Danny McCray – C-
Perhaps this defense and its injuries can be summed up best in that McCray played 658 snaps at safety. He played a combined 78 the previous two seasons. Still a top special teams performer, there’s definitely a place for him on the roster next year and beyond. Just not as a starting safety. His 12 missed tackles led the team.
Cue the broken record: Scandrick plays at a much higher level than most realize. He just seems to have poor timing in making mistakes, be it missed tackles or penalties. If he can stay healthy, few are better in the slot.
Mike Jenkins – D
Pretty certain this was his final season with the Cowboys. Didn’t hear his name much, which is stunning considering he played 374 snaps. Just 14 tackles and three passes defensed. Of the 36 defensive players this season for Dallas, only Sims graded lower via PFF.
Eric Frampton – B
Arguably the most impressive of the defensive players signed off the street during the season, he played roughly half the snaps at both safety positions the last five weeks. Was also the top tackler on special teams in the second half of the year. Could and should return in 2013.
Charlie Peprah – C
Was ready, willing and able to throw down some hits at both safety positions in Weeks 10-12, playing nearly 120 snaps over that stretch. Wasn’t the same after returning from an injury three weeks later.
Sterling Moore – B
Would be devastated if he doesn’t return next season. Still just 22 years young, Moore has proven these last two years, first with New England, then Dallas, to be a playmaker. A perfect fourth corner, he can play safety in a pinch plus special teams.
Barry Church – I
Seems like a lifetime ago when Church went down for the season in Week 3 against Tampa Bay. Hopes were high for the third-year safety after a stunning offseason and preseason. The job will be his to lose in 2013.
Michael Coe – I
Played 27 snaps and contributed one tackle. After the tackle in question, media, fans, teammates and coaches alike said, “Who?”
Dan Bailey – A
Just completed the best two-year run by a kicker in the 53-year history of the franchise. Enough said.
Brian Moorman – C
Finished decently enough after a brutal game against Cincinnati in Week 14.
Chris Jones – I
Missed the last 13 games when an ACL injury ended his season. Still think he’s the guy in 2013 and beyond.
L.P. Ladouceur – A-
Here’s the best way to gauge how good a long snapper is: How often do we hear his name? In the case of Ladouceur, it’s never. That means he’s one of the best.
Courtesy: Jeff Sullivan
This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.