There are sound reasons to believe the North Queensland Cowboys' 13th-placed finish in 2018 is likely to be an aberration rather than a sign of long-term decline, much like the Sydney Roosters in 2016 when they came second last.
The Roosters bounced back to finish second the next year and the Cowboys plan a revival in a 2019 season they hope will not be ravaged by injuries to key players.
The loss of Jordan McLean, Michael Morgan and Kane Linnett for the majority of the season to injury was a massive dent in the Cowboys' hopes. The brittle middle defence, early season issues defensively on the left and clunky right edge attack can all be partly attributed to that trifecta of absences.
"The injuries, and the timing of the injuries, really hurt as well," coach Paul Green said.
"We lost Kane Linnett in a trial and at the start of the year we conceded way too many tries down that left edge which is where he normally defends.
"If we'd had Kane defending it would have made Johnathan [Thurston] more confident and I don't think we would have conceded as many tries against the Warriors and Broncos and probably wouldn't have lost those games. If we'd scraped wins out it would have given us confidence as a team.
North Queensland Cowboys: 2018 by the numbers
"Kane is not a big star of the game but he's rock solid in defence and has good yardage carry, so I reckon we really missed him."
McLean's value to the side was evident when he returned in round 20 and the Cowboys won four of their last six games on the back of his powerful surges.
Matt Scott also missed a quarter of the season in another blow to the club.
On the bright side, the Cowboys unearthed talents such as half Jake Clifford and centre Enari Tuala who received opportunities earlier than planned.
"Jake Clifford had six games for the year and Enari Tuala 13 games so that experience will be invaluable for them down the track," Green said.
"My plan was to hope that come Origin-time, or when you are travelling a bit better, to give [the youngsters] a taste of first grade when you are not under as much pressure as a team, but they have been through that and they know what it feels like so it won't be such a big deal for them next time."
The Cowboys have added to their strike for next season with the addition of Ben Barba and Nene Macdonald and recently announced a major coup by signing Test lock Josh McGuire.
"Josh can knock out plenty of top minutes, he can play long minutes and he has got good skills as well," Green said.
"At different times [the Broncos] have played him at dummy half which shows his passing ability. I am excited about what he brings for us."
Cowboys' top five tries of 2018
Home and away record
5-7 at home, 3-9 away
The Cowboys' big game players had in the past often come to the fore to provide the clutch play in tight matches but at both home and away in 2018 it was the opposition that prevailed in key tight games.
From round 10 to round 16 the Cowboys won just one of seven games but lost three times by a solitary point and lost three more by eight points or less.
"There was a period there through the middle part of the year where we were playing some decent footy but we couldn't win those close games," Green conceded.
"In years gone past we would have managed to win those."
Leading try scorers
For the third consecutive season winger Kyle Feldt topped the try scoring list for the Cowboys with 14 tries. Feldt's strength and penchant for the freakish finish continued to be a feature of his play while veteran second-rower Gavin Cooper's 13 tries was evidence of the value he still continues provide the club. Cooper scored tries in nine consecutive games to beat Immortal Frank Burge's long-standing record for a forward.
"Coops probably didn't have the best start to the year but he found form coming out of the Origin series and continued that towards the back end of the year where he was really good," Green said.
Cooper's final try of the season against the Titans was scored from a Johnathan Thurston kick. The Thurston/Cooper partnership was one of the best between a half and back-rower in modern times with the rangy back-rower often crashing through from a slick Thurston ball.
The Cowboys were sixth overall in the NRL for post-contact metres with 501m, a figure boosted by the performance of Tongan international Jason Taumalolo who topped the competition with an average of 75.8 post-contact metres from 23 games.
"We had Jordan McLean and Matt Scott out for a long time and they are two of the best go-forward guys at our club, so take those two out and we are not going to show up too good in those stats," Green said.
Try scoring – attacking channels
The Cowboys scored 40% of their tries down the left or centre left channel where Johnathan Thurston was the pivotal creative force and 37% down the right or centre right channel. The right side statistics, on closer analysis, reveal that while the Cowboys scored 23 of their 73 tries (31.5%) in the far right attacking channel, where Feldt was a constant threat, they managed just four tries (5%) in the centre right channel.
"You take Michael Morgan out for most of the season and there is your answer," Green said of the centre-right figures.
Tries conceded – defending channels
The absence of McLean for 14 games and Scott for six exposed what was a leaky middle for the Cowboys with 24, or 29.6%, of 81 tries conceded down the centre channel of the field.
"Those two are both Test props so while we had guys there that were developing, and we are pretty happy with the way they are developing, they were probably relied on a lot more than they normally would have been," Green said.
"That stat – 24 tries through the middle – is not good enough and almost the highest in the league."
Tries conceded from penalties
The Cowboys were the 11th best defensive team in the NRL but showed resilience when defending after giving away penalties. They conceded 28 tries in the set after falling foul of the referee and had the sixth best record in the NRL in that regard.
Metres gained from offloads
The Cowboys made the least number of metres from a ball carry after an offload in the NRL for 2018 with 723.8m at 30.2 per game, well behind the competition's best in that regard, the Bulldogs with 1916.1m. Three of the leading top four clubs in this statistic – the Bulldogs, Tigers and Sea Eagles – did not make the top eight so it is a statistic that is not always a barometer of success. It was perhaps no surprise that Taumalolo made the most metres after receiving an offload for the season with 76.3m and also led the stat that records the metres made after a player offloads, with 80.4m for the season. All of Taumalolo's 23 offloads for the season were effective.
Thurston was the Cowboys' sole goal kicker for 2018 with a goal kicking strike rate of 78%, just shy of his career average of 79.5%. The void the champion halfback will leave in this department will be immense but the club does have options for 2019.
"I thought Lowey (Ethan Lowe) kicked really well when we made the 2017 grand final and there are a couple of other guys we will look at," Green said.
"Kyle Feldt is an option for us and Jake Clifford is a very good goal kicker."
Gavin Cooper ran the most with 8.2 for the Cowboys, who as a club made 50.6 decoy runs per game to be in seventh placing in the NRL.
The Cowboys made 4.6 line breaks per game overall to finish in 11th overall in the competition.
Best of 2018: Cooper's 9-match try streak
Attacking leaderboards – Try assists and line-break assists
His team may have struggled but Thurston left the NRL with a bang on a personal note. He topped the try assists for the Cowboys and NRL with 22 from 24 games, creating more than a quarter of the side's tries. He also led the Cowboys and NRL in line-break assists with 24, one for each game.
Green was quick to defend Thurston from knockers early in the season and said the statistics spoke for themselves.
"He copped criticism for going a year too long but he was certainly contributing, there is no doubt about that," Green said.
Thurston cannot be replaced, but the Cowboys do have several playmakers who will be aiming to fill the breach in the creativity department.
"We've got Michael Morgan, Te Maire Martin, Ben Barba at the back at Jake Clifford when he is in the team. They are the guys that have got to step up," Green said.
Average NRL caps and average NRL age
The Cowboys remained loyal to their 2015 premiership side for several seasons and by 2018 the squad was one of the oldest in the NRL and most experienced. That is not necessarily an issue but the club does have several players in the twilight of their careers. The Cowboys had the second most experienced side in the NRL with an average of 111 caps per player, behind the Sharks on 116. They were also the third oldest with an average age of 26.6.
"We always knew that last season we would have to transition a few guys out," Green said.
"We copped some injuries early too and the positive side is that we gave young guys some experience they might not have got had we been going better or not copped the injuries we had."