The Dallas Cowboys have a lengthy history of dominant individual performances. You don’t win five Super Bowls, appear in another three, and send 13 players to the Pro Football Hall of Fame without having some elite performances in between.
The problem for the Cowboys is that for all of the top tier players they’ve had over the last 20+ years (Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarcus Ware, Terrell Owens, etc.), it has resulted in approximately zero Super Bowl appearances. Teams and players are judged, in most instances, by the amount of gaudy jewelry wrapped around their fingers.
Because of this standard, some really great individual seasons by Cowboys players since 1996 have gone underappreciated. Some have, and will be, forgotten by NFL history.
Today I want to tip my cap to the performances that should be remembered by Cowboys fans and NFL fans as a whole. They may not have resulted in a Super Bowl title, but these players gave everything they could in pursuit of unrealized championship glory. It’s also the topic of today’s CowboysCast episode, which you can jump to the bottom of the page and listen to.
Before we jump into the top 10, here are a few honorable mentions.
Emmitt Smith, 1999
Smith found the fountain of youth in 1999, rushing for 1,397 yards and 11 touchdowns in his age 30 season. At the time, Smith was just the second running back 30 years or older to average 90 rushing yards per game and score at least 10 touchdowns. Walter Payton was the other.
Greg Ellis, 2007
2007 produced a number of impressive seasons for the Cowboys, and Ellis’ should not be forgotten. Ellis got a late start in the season due to an injury, but made up for lost time when he finally got on the field. Ellis collected 12.5 sacks in just 13 games, which was a more prolific rate than DeMarcus Ware on the other side. Ellis is the only Cowboy in the last 30 years not named Ware or Haley to produce 12.5 sacks in a season.
Jay Ratliff, 2008
Things ended poorly in Dallas for Ratliff, but 2008 was his breakout season that led to the first of four straight Pro Bowl selections. Ratliff finished fifth on the team in tackles, batted down five passes, and his 7.5 sacks were the most ever for a 3-4 NT at the time.
Jason Witten, 2009
Witten has produced at one of the steadiest rates in NFL history, and you could argue 2007 or 2012 were better seasons. But 2009, for my money, is where Witten most demonstrated his elite play. Witten had 94 receptions and 1030 receiving yards. Only 17 times an NFL tight end has caught 90+ passes in a season, and Witten’s 75.8% catch percentage is the most efficient of a list that includes Rob Gronkowski, Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, and many others.
DeMarcus Ware, 2009
Ware had more prolific seasons in terms of sacks, but his presence was arguably most effective in 2009. Ware finished with 11.0 sacks (the second lowest total of his five year career) but led the NFL with 20 hurries, forced five fumbles, and tied his career-high with six passes defended. His presence in the opposing backfield helped Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman to Pro Bowl seasons in the secondary. The Cowboys were the no. 2 defense in 2009, and Ware was the best of them all.
Zack Martin, 2014
Martin’s 2014 performance was impressive on its own, but it’s even more remarkable when you take into account that he was only a rookie. Martin was called for just one hold and one false start the entire season, and Pro Football Focus tracked him at 10 pressures and zero sacks allowed.
Dez Bryant, 2014
People may object to having Bryant’s ridiculous 2014 campaign outside of the top 10, but I promise he was no. 11. Bryant caught 88 passes for 1,320 yards, and set a franchise record with 16 receiving touchdowns. Bryant led the NFL in 2014 with a touchdown reception in 11 different games.
Sean Lee, 2016
Lee actually struggled a bit for the first few games of the 2016 season, taking some poor angles in the first three weeks, and finishing with just two solo tackles against the Bears on September 25th. Lee found his stride, however, and played the best football of his career, leading all NFL outside linebackers with 145 combined tackles. Lee had nine games with at least 10 tackles, and was the first traditional Cowboys linebacker to be named a first-team All-Pro since Chuck Howley in 1970.
Eight fantastic seasons that Cowboys fans shouldn’t forget, even if they were outside of the top 10.
Now let’s look at the 10 most dominant individual seasons in the post-Super Bowl Cowboys era.
10. Miles Austin, 2009
In the final years of Austin’s Dallas tenure, many fans irrationally believed he was still the receiver that fans saw in 2009. While his last three seasons in Dallas left much to be desired, and his 2010 was a significant step down in production, there’s no denying how dominant Miles Austin was in 2009. Austin burst onto the scene in week 5 of the 2009 season with a 10 catch, 250 yard, two touchdown performance in an overtime victory on the road against the Chiefs. He followed that up with six catches, 171 yards, and two more touchdowns at home against Atlanta. For the year, Austin had 81 receptions, 1,320 yards, and 11 touchdowns. Most of that production (76-1239-10) came in the final 12 games of the season. Austin is the only receiver in NFL history to produce a season with 80+ receptions, 1,300+ yards, and 10+ touchdowns while starting fewer than 10 games.
9. Tyron Smith, 2015
The NFL Top 100 just named Smith the best offensive lineman in the league following his 2016 campaign, but I’m going to point to 2015 season as Smith’s best. While 2015 is a year most fans would like to forget, Smith was dominant from start to finish. While playing all 1,029 of Dallas’ offensive snaps, Smith allowed just five sacks and 22 pressures on the year. Darren McFadden, who experience a rebirth with the Cowboys in 2015, averaged 6.6 yards per carry when running outside Smith. Pro Football Focus ranked Smith as the no. 1 run blocking tackle in football, and ranked only future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas ahead of him as a pass blocker.
8. Travis Frederick, 2016
Frederick has consistently been one of the better centers in football since he entered the NFL in 2013. Last season marked Frederick’s ascension to NFL preeminence, and was easily the best of his career. Frederick didn’t allow a single sack on the season, and Pro Football Focus rated him as the no. 1 run blocker in the NFL; not just among centers, but among all offensive linemen. For his efforts, Frederick was named a first-team All-Pro, and his peers voted him the no. 7 overall offensive lineman and no. 1 center heading into the 2017 season.
7. Deion Sanders, 1996
Sanders was a very good corner for the Cowboys from 1995-1999, but the last three years of his Cowboys tenure wasn’t peak Prime Time, and 1996 was the last time we’d see Sanders at a Hall of Fame level. Sanders blanketed opposing receivers, finishing 1996 without allowing a 100 yard receiver, and averaging just 34 receiving yards allowed per game. Sanders intercepted two passes, forced two fumbles, and allowed just one touchdown for the entire year. While the defensive performance alone might be worthy of a top 10 ranking, Sanders’ 1996 season secured a spot on the list because he did all of it while simultaneously serving as Dallas’ no. 1 receiver for the first five weeks of the season. Michael Irvin was suspended until October 13th, and it fell on Sanders to pick up the slack. Sanders caught 18 passes for 227 yards in Irvin’s absence, including a nine-catch, 87-yard performance on opening weekend vs. the Bears. Sanders, who was named a first-team All-Pro, finished 1996 fifth on the team in receptions, third in receiving touchdowns, and second in receiving yards.
6. Ezekiel Elliott, 2016
Elliott was great in 2016, but I’m not sure fans understand how great and rare his performance was. Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in 15 games. His rushing yards are third most by a rookie in NFL history, and his 108.7 yards per game is the second highest average for a rookie behind only Eric Dickerson in 1983. 18 rookies in NFL history have carried the ball 300+ times, and Elliott’s 5.07 yards per carry is the highest of all-time, with Ottis Anderson’s 4.85 yards per carry coming in a distant second. Further, 223 running backs (not just rookies) have carried the ball at least 300 times in a season, and Elliott’s 5.07 average is good for the 22nd best performance in NFL history. Following Elliott’s dominant 2016 season, NFL players voted him the best running back in the league, and the no. 7 player overall. Elliott’s appearance in the NFL Top 100’s top 10 was a first for a player coming off of their rookie season. Elliott enters the 2017 season two games shy of breaking Marcus Allen’s record for the most consecutive games with 80+ yards rushing.
5. DeMarco Murray, 2014
As great as Elliott’s 2016 season was, Murray’s 2014 season comes in just one spot ahead. Murray opened the 2014 season with eight consecutive 100-yard performances, breaking Hall of Famer Jim Brown’s record of six consecutive games to open a season. Murray’s 1,845 yards rushing broke Emmitt Smith’s franchise record by a full 72 yards. Murray’s streak of five consecutive games with at least 115 rushing yards is tied for the third-longest streak in NFL history. There are a couple of factors that push Murray’s performance over Elliott’s for me. First, Elliott wasn’t shouldered with the same workload, as Murray carried the ball 70 more times, caught 25 more passes, and played 70 more snaps during the regular season. Second, while Elliott is a good blocker with room to be great, Murray was arguably the best blocking running back in the NFL in 2014. Two great performances, but Murray’s registers slightly higher on this list.
4. DeMarcus Ware, 2008
2008 is another dark year for Cowboys fans. Dallas was loaded with talent, and many were picking them to win the Super Bowl at the beginning of the year. The Cowboys went 9-7, missed the playoffs, and suffered an embarrassing loss to Baltimore in the final game at Texas Stadium. Ware was one of the few individuals who lived up to and surpassed their pre-season hype. Ware led the NFL with 20 sacks, setting the Cowboys franchise record by six sacks in the process. Ware tied a career-high in 2008 with 84 tackles, and he led the NFC with six forced fumbles. Ware led the league with at least three sacks in three different games, which also ranked as the most such games by a Cowboy in one season. At the time, Ware was just the seventh player in NFL history to register 20 sacks in a season.
3. Larry Allen, 1998
We could probably just list Allen’s final 10 seasons with the Cowboys from 1996-2005 at all 10 spots and I’d feel OK. That would kill the spirit of this list though, so I’ll pick 1998 as his standout performance. Allen played right tackle for the Cowboys in 1994 following Erik Williams’ car accident, but had become the best right guard in the NFL from 1995-1997. Allen was asked to switch sides and play tackle for the 1998 season after the Cowboys parted ways with the struggling George Hegamin. Playing tackle for the first time in four years, and on the left side for the first time in his career, Allen earned All-Pro honors and had the best season of his career. Allen went toe-to-toe all season with big name pass rushers like Simeon Rice, Neil Smith, Michael Strahan, Kevin Greene, John Randle, and Derrick Thomas. All but three of Dallas’ opponents in 1998 featured a pass rusher that would finish the season with at least 10 sacks. Even in the face of elite opponents, and the task of playing a new position, Allen’s performance helped ensure the lowest sack rate of Troy Aikman’s career, with a sack occurring just once every 36 times Aikman dropped back to pass.
2. Terrell Owens, 2007
A number of Cowboys experience career years in 2007, as evidenced by the 14 Pro Bowl selections, but no one on the roster was as dominant as Terrell Owens. Owens caught 81 passes for 1,355 yards and 15 touchdowns in 15 games. It was the most receiving touchdowns in franchise history, and his 1,355 receiving yards was more than any Cowboy in history other than Irvin. During a particularly dominant six game stretch from late October through November, Owens averaged seven receptions, 132 yards, and two touchdowns per game, highlighted by an eight-catch, 174-yard, four-touchdown performance against the Redskins at home. Owens’ five games of at least 125 yards receiving that year is still a franchise record. As a final testament to how dominant Owens’ 2007 season was, he remains one of only two receivers in NFL history (Jerry Rice and Calvin Johnson) to put up a season of 80 receptions, 16.5 yards per reception, and 15 touchdowns.
1. Tony Romo, 2014
This is a no-brainer for me. Quarterback is the most important position on either side of the ball, and Romo’s statistical performance was the best in the NFL in 2014, remains the greatest in franchise history, and is one of the greatest in league history. Romo threw 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, but you have to break the numbers down a bit to see how dominant he was. Romo led the league in completion percentage (69.9) touchdown percentage (7.8) yards per attempt (8.5) passer rating (113.2) and QBR (81.5), all of which were career highs. Romo’s passer rating was fifth highest in NFL history at the time, and it still stands today as sixth-best following Matt Ryan’s 2016. Of the six passers in NFL history who have achieved a 113.0 passer rating in a season, Romo’s 2014 completion percentage is the highest, surpassing Ryan, Peyton Manning (2x), Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers. The final six games of Romo’s 2014 season (including playoffs) was arguably the most prolific stretch in Cowboys history, as Romo completed 72.6% of his passes, averaged over nine yard per attempt, limited his interceptions to one, threw 16 touchdowns, and boasted a 131.2 passer rating. Those numbers extrapolated over a 16 game schedule would amount to 4,000 yards, 42 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Any way that you want to look at it, Romo’s dominant 2014 season stands as the greatest individual season by a Cowboy since 1996.
So how would you rank the performances over the last 21 years? Is there one that this list egregiously neglected? Drop us a comment below, or email us your thoughts.
COWBOYSCAST DOWNLOAD LINK >> The Top 10 Most Dominant Individual Cowboys Seasons Since 1996