Cowboys' December Collapses Have a Simple Explanation
Dallas hasn't had a winning record in December since 1996 (think Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin). And every Cowboys fan knows it, because the start of December ensures that there will be stories detailing the collapse like this, this, this and this.
And get ready to see it again. But not because the Cowboys are chokers.
Dallas may be sitting at 8-4, but their upcoming schedule would make it very easy to see the Cowboys go through another December debacle. Of the 24 teams who are still officially in the playoff hunt, the Cowboys have the second-toughest remaining schedule. The Cowboys still have to face the red-hot Chargers (9-3), undefeated Saints (12-0) and the Eagles (8-4). The only "easy" game left on the schedule is the Redskins (3-9), but even that game isn't as easy as it looked a couple of weeks ago before the Redskins took the Cowboys, Eagles and Saints down to the wire in back-to-back-to-back games.
Dallas could win three or four of those games and prove it's a worthy Super Bowl contender. It could also go 1-3 in those four games without really underachieving. But assuredly a 1-4 December would go down as another in a series of Cowboys' collapses.
Looking back at Dallas' recent schedules, it's fair to ask if the team's tradition of December slumps is as much a product in recent years of the NFL's scheduling as it is any faults of Tony Romo, Wade Phillips or Jerry Jones. Over the past four seasons, Dallas is 7-11 after Dec. 1. But 13 of those 18 games have come against teams with records of .500 or better--the Cowboys' December opponents over that stretch finished 142-113 (.557). (I only went back four years because Dallas had only one winning record in the previous five seasons-a 5-11 team doesn't collapse, they're just not any good.)
Last year seemed to be the year that wrapped up Dallas' title as December chokers. Needing two wins to make the playoffs the Cowboys went 1-3 which left them a half game short of the playoffs. But Dallas' three losses that month came against the Super Bowl champion Steelers, the Ravens (who made the AFC Championship game) and the Eagles (who made the NFC Championship game). In hindsight, none of those three losses can be considered anything more than the Cowboys getting beaten by better teams. In 2007, Dallas went 2-2 in December which was a bad month considered they entered the month at 11-1. But Dallas' losses came to an 8-8 Eagles team and a 9-7 Redskins team. Neither loss is especially egregious.
The only season in the past five where there could be an sense of a true collapse was in 2006. Dallas' went 2-3 after Dec. 1 to finish 9-7. Dallas beat an 8-8 Giants' team and a 7-9 Falcons' team while losing to the 10-6 Saints and the 10-6 Eagles. The only inexplicable loss came in the final game of the regular season--Dallas lost to the 3-13 Lions. That game can fairly be called a complete choke-job, but it's the only example I could find.
In 2005 when Dallas went 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Dallas went 2-3 from Dec. 1 on. But again, it's hard to say that the Cowboys crumbled down the stretch. Four of the five teams Dallas faced finished with 10 or more wins. Dallas went 2-2 against those four teams. Dallas did lose the season finale to the 6-10 Rams, but by then they had already been eliminated from playoff contention.
If Dallas fails to make the playoffs this year, you'll hear a lot about how quarterback Tony Romo's too distracted or how coach Wade Phillips can't finish the job. But the reality is that Dallas just keeps losing to better teams.