Cowboys take major step forward

A blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles a year ago prompted soul searching and wholesale changes within the Cowboys organization.

The 44-6 loss that kept Dallas out of the playoffs in 2008 was the final straw in what was the most embarrassing and underachieving season in Cowboys history.

What a difference a year makes.

Rather than despair, there was feeling of hope in the Valley Ranch training headquarters following Dallas' 34-3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional playoffs to end the Cowboys' 2009 season.

So much hope and optimism that the message in Dallas is one of continuity and building on their success rather than one of change.

The Cowboys' stability for 2010 starts with coach Wade Phillips, who is being given a tho-year contract extension.

The Cowboys had a club option for 2010 on Phillips, whose original three-year deal expired in 2009. But following his second NFC East title and leading the Cowboys to their first playoff win since 1996, Phillips earned some long-term security.

Phillips is already the winningest coach in Cowboys history and now he will be in charge of trying to get the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl.

They took the first step in 2009 by beating the Eagles in the wild-card playoffs, their first playoff win in 13 years.

The Cowboys moved forward in 2009 because quarterback Tony Romo cut down on his mistakes and became a more efficient quarterback. The Cowboys got another Pro Bowl season from tight end Jason Witten, who again led the team in catches.

But the player who made the biggest difference was breakout star receiver Miles Austin, who went from an unknown third receiver to the Pro Bowl in 2009. Austin made up for disappointing play from $9 million receiver Roy Williams and became the big play go-to receiver to replace the departed Terrell Owens.

The Cowboys also used a three-headed running back attack of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice to total more yards than any offensive unit in team history.

By season's end, however, it was clear that Jones was the team's best and most dangerous running back. Look for the Cowboys to feature him more next season.

Defensively, it took awhile for the Cowboys to jell with five new starters, but by the end they were playing as well as any unit in the league, ending the season with back-to-back shutouts. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff and linebacker DeMarcus Ware led the way with all-pro seasons.

But the Cowboys were also fortified by breakout seasons from cornerback Mike Jenkins and linebacker Anthony Spencer.

The Cowboys were undone in the end because poor field goal kicking, Roy Williams' disappointing play and breakdowns on the offense line.

Kicker Nick Folk, who was a Pro Bowler as a rookie two years ago, went into a slump and became a liability. He was replaced by Shaun Suisham, who ultimately was just as error prone.

The Cowboys must make a decision on tackles Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo. Both likely will not return. And Roy Williams must be dealt with.

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