Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Fire Is Out

When I last wrote on a regular basis, the NFL season had not yet begun.

What the hell happened? As a die hard Dallas Cowboys fan, I had tremendous hopes built into this season. Granted, I wasn't a fan of the head coach (I remember rolling my eyes in disgust when I found out Wade Phillips was hired). But they had proven over the end of last season that their goal of being the first host team to go to the Super Bowl wasn't far-fetched.

Of course, there were holes in the lineup that needed addressing - most notably at safety and on the offensive line. But every team, in the age of parity, had some issues that needed to be addressed. And the ones that Dallas had seemed no more daunting that any other.

So again, what happened?

As far as I can tell, after watching these past 13 weeks, the problem(s) were there all along. However, whether it be by luck, smoke and mirrors or some other unnatural source, these problems all came together at once. And when you through in a hyper-meddlesome owner, who really can't help but micromanage, well that is a recipe for disaster.

The holes in the lineup became very obvious from the start. Somehow, someway, the offensive line got very old, very fast. What was a Pro-Bowl laden line, just two short years prior, seemed to completely fall apart all at the same time. In some instances, age took it's toll. In others, injuries deleted their talent. However, that alone doesn't make these players as inept as they've shown. My believe is that, aside from the age and injury factor, these players also began believing their press clippings and started to feel entitled to the championships they were sure to come. This led into motion a piss-poor work ethic that permeated the entire roster.

Of course, no player will consider himself anything less than the best at what he does. Therefore, it is up to the Head Coach to keep these men motivated towards shared glory, and not personal triumphs. Of course, as well all well know, Wade Phillips was never the kind of coach who excelled at that.

I often compare Wade to another undeserving Cowboy Head Coach - Barry Switzer. Sure, Barry was an outstanding college coach. But his style of coaching doesn't really work in the NFL. While Barry was a great motivator, he was not a great "coach." Wade, on the other hand, is a great "coach" but an awful motivator. Certainly, the players loved playing for Wade because he never challenged them to go the extra mile it takes to win at this level. For that reason, he was an exceptional defensive coordinator - where it was his job to teach the defense how to run the plays. But when it came to managing and motivating the squad, he fell woefully short.

But the offense really wasn't the demise of this team. After all, since Jason Garrett took over a few weeks ago, the Cowboys are once again in the upper echelon on offense - even with their quarterback being sidelined for much of the season.

The other side of the coin is the defense - which had become extremely efficient at the end of last season. They were so go, in fact, that they pitched consecutive shutouts (over the last two games) for the first time in franchise history. Now considering that the only real diffence between the defensive roster at the end of last year and this year is the replacement of a starting defensive back, who was widely considered the weak link, how could this unit go from one of the best to one of the worst so quickly?

Well I have a theory. My belief is that the coaching staff refused to adjust for the fact that the rest of the league studied what the team did last year and figured them out. Instead of creating an adjustment, they doubled down and made excuses for the poor play.

In addition, because of the lax atmosphere - which I attribute to both the Head Coach AND the owner - mindless mistakes, costly errors and lack of focus (leading to the team only making 4 interceptions through the first 6 games) ended up costing them the opportunity to win games. In the NFL today, there is not a whole lot that separates the haves from the have-nots. Any little edge can be the difference between 11-5 and 5-11. We saw it early in the season when a much more talented Cowboy team went 1-7.

Bill Parcells used to say "you are what your record says you are." To an extent, if taken literally, I guess that's true. But no one can tell me they believed this year's Dallas Cowboys had 1-7 talent. But then, no one really knew the depths of the lack of heart this team had, or the fragile psyche it carried over.

So when the chips were down, because this team believed they were "entitled" to win (and why? After all, all they had done was win one stupid playoff game in 15 years), they simply gave up. The 45-7 loss to Green Bay, in week 8, was all the owner needed to see before he finally accepted the teams fate. They had not so much given up for Wade Phillips, but they had given up for themselves. They truly deserved the ridicule bestowed upon them by their fans and enemies alike.

So what now?

I would love to say that since under Jason Garrett, the team has shown some life, therefore he should be retained. However, two things come to mind - wasn't he in complete control of the offense when they were 1-7? What has he done that is any different that before Phillips was fired? In reality, he has since tried to change the culture to the point that personal responsibility is now expected. That is a great thing and it has shown in the effort on the field. Perhaps the embarrassment and the realization that no one is safe from losing their jobs will motivate these guys to get working.

My problem is why now? As professional athletes, these guys get paid obscene amounts of money to play a game. If they really were this talented all along, why the hell did they give up so early?

To me, this leads me to this conclusion. It really doesn't matter if Jason Garrett is rehired for next year, or not. As far as I'm concerned, the same brain trust that hired Wade Phillips (and also the previous mentioned Barry Switzer) is still running the show. Unless Jerry Jones hires someone to run the whole show, as he did with Jimmy Johnson, arguably the two most successful coaches in the post-Tom Landry era, nothing at all will change.

Sure, they will continue to compete, because these guys really are a talented group of players. But it takes a whole lot more than talent to win at this level. It takes a commitment that Mr. Jones wants to believe he has, but is truly fooling no one. As long as he continues to treat the head coach as a puppet - with the clear understanding of who really is in charge - and as long as he makes decisions based on marketing strategy, instead of what's best for the team's ultimate success, this team will continue to disappoint and fall way short.

The Dallas Cowboys have been one of the most successful franchises in the history of professional sports. But aside from a 4 year stretch in the early to mid-90's, have never really won championships consistently. Yes, they had 20 consecutive winning seasons. But how many of those teams seemed to lack a killer instinct? They won a Super Bowl in 1971 with a team that should have won 4 or 5 in a row, from 1967-1972. But were always beaten by a hungrier team. When they won again in 1977, they were so much better than all the other teams, there was little doubt they would win it all. But even then, they played a lackluster game on offense (the defence, however, was superb that day).

And then what? With the tremendous talent they had, they lost the next year's game to Pittsburgh and then, after losing in the first round to the Rams the next year, went on the lose in the NFC Championship game three years in a row. The teams that beat them didn't really have the talent that Dallas had. But instead they had the hunger and the drive that Dallas lacked.

That drive was evident once Jimmy Johnson ran the show and he built that hunger into that team - which was one of the best the league ever saw. But once Jimmy was gone, Jerry took over and subsequently sucked the fire out of them. Parcells built it back up and, just when they were about the become the best team in the league, left it in the hands of Jones again. And we know the rest of the story.

So to Jason Garrett, I apologize. I believe you are and will continue to be an outstanding head coach in this league. But as long as the Dallas Cowboys are built in Jerry Jones image, it will ot be with the Dallas Cowboys. For what it's worth, this franchise would be better off gutting this lineup and starting with a whole new staff, and a whole new identity - one that isn't built in Mr. Jones image. But unfortunately, as long as people buy the tickets, Jerry will see no reason to change the personality - his personality - of this team.

And that's my rant.

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