As part of the NRL.com series reviewing each club's 2018 season, Dylan Morris looks back at a disappointing campaign for the Cowboys in Johnathan Thurston's final season.
After last year's unlikely run to the grand final the Cowboys were installed as one of the premiership favourites in 2018, but a horror five-game losing streak early in the season derailed their campaign and they never got it back on track.
Despite a season-ending biceps injury to Michael Morgan the Cowboys did improve, losing by one point to Souths and Melbourne before dodging the wooden spoon by winning three of their last five games.
It's an unfortunate way to send off Johnathan Thurston, the most popular player in the club's history who led the team to their first-ever premiership in 2015. But even in a below-par year for Thurston and his teammates he still produced some terrific numbers.
In his final year in the NRL, Thurston struggled early in the season but quickly bounced back to show why he'll go down as one of the greats.
He finished 2018 with the most try assists and line-break assists in the Telstra Premiership and put on several clinics in the final few rounds, including in the Cowboys' 44-6 demolition of the Eels to dodge the wooden spoon.
Had Scott Bolton not crashed into the goal-post padding while attempting to score a match-winning try against the Broncos, things could have been different.
Perhaps the Cowboys wouldn't have gone down to Melbourne the following week and put in an appallingly bad performance, and instead reach their end-of-season form just a little bit earlier to push for a finals berth.
On Thurston's competitive nature after the Cowboys lost 21-20 to Souths in round 16 teammate Gavin Cooper said the star halfback had always carried the weight of North Queensland's defeats on his shoulders.
"He has for a long time. That's what has made him a great competitor. Every loss this year is hard but we keep finding ways to lose and tonight was no different."
When North Queensland lined up against old rivals Brisbane in round 22 with nothing to play for, there was a question mark as to whether the famous Cowboys v Broncos rivalry could persist.
It did, and in spectacular fashion, with Thurston setting up a spectacular finish to break the Broncos' hearts at the death, 34-30.
Taking on the Storm in Melbourne is never an easy task but in round three when they made their trip south for the grand final rematch the Cowboys were woeful.
They showed a lack of effort to go along with their already poor execution in a week when they should have been desperate to bounce back after a heart-breaking loss to Brisbane the round before.
Johnathan Thurston and Antonio Winterstein have hung up the boots and Lachlan Coote has signed a three-year deal to continue his career with St Helens. Veteran centre Kane Linnett has been released. The Cowboys have signed Broncos centre Tom Opacic, Roosters hooker Kurt Baptiste and South Logan Magpies outside back Dan Russell as well as St George Illawarra winger Nene Macdonald. Their biggest off-season pick-up is signing former Dally M Medal winner Ben Barba, who gained an early release from his deal with St Helens, on a one-year deal.
The late inclusion of Gideon Gela Mosby, Jake Clifford and Enari Tuala breathed life into the Cowboys' team towards the end of the year, and they were helped by the revitalised form of Jordan McLean, Matt Scott and the ever-destructive Jason Taumalolo.
When their full-strength forward pack is firing the Cowboys are hard to stop, and if Michael Morgan can rediscover the magic that carried the Cowboys to a grand final in 2017 and helped win them a title in 2015, there's no reason North Queensland can't become a finals contender in the post-Thurston era.