This has surely changed the plans for mid to late January around here. We had big ideas for a playoff surge from a radio standpoint, and wanted to make all plans around the Dallas Cowboys and their drive for another Lombardi Trophy, but….
Things change. Things go belly-up, and now I am relegated to Mavericks at Sacramento on a Monday night. Sigh. It just doesn’t seem very important.
Picking up the pieces from another late-season swoon …
For four seasons, Bill Parcells grinded on the Cowboys, and they went 8-11 in December and January.
Here was Wade Phillips, the new coach, with his casual, yet firm approach embraced by players.
But Phillips has the same amount of playoff wins with the Cowboys as Parcells did: zero.
So, if the Cowboys can't win a playoff game with either coach, what gives?
"It's the players understanding what's going on and not melting in those situations," tight end Jason Witten said. "I don't think it was Bill or Wade. I think they did a great job of setting us up. We have to understand it's win or go home, and we have to play our best football. Sometimes that doesn't happen."
Under Phillips, the Cowboys began the season 11-1 but went 2-2 in December. They slumped into the postseason, leading to a 21-17 loss to the Giants in the NFC divisional round Sunday.
Receiver Patrick Crayton said the Cowboys may have gotten a little complacent because they clinched a playoff berth, as well as the top seed in the NFC, so early.
"You try to not let anything in the past become the present next year," Crayton said. "You start paying attention to details."
Inside linebacker Bradie James said he thought some of the stories about the team leading up to Sunday's game were a distraction. He took exception with what he considered negative portrayals of quarterback Tony Romo's two-day trip to Cabo San Lucas with teammates Jason Witten and Bobby Carpenter.
"It's up to you guys to sell papers and do those other things and be negative," James said. "I thought from a media standpoint, we had a lot of local guys who were going against us, and we didn't understand that."
It was an interesting admission from James, considering players rarely comment publicly what they read or watch on the media. James was asked if his teammates failed to block out distractions.
"Yeah, evidently," he said. "We could have done a better job, really. It doesn't really matter what was said before the game. It's about the game and getting out there and performing."
James did not comment when asked if he thought the Cowboys were mentally ready to win a playoff game. They have not won in the playoffs since 1996.
Some players attributed the lack of success late in the season to the Cowboys' youth. Dallas is tied with Green Bay for the third-youngest team in the NFL, with an average age of 26.08 years.
Now What? Todd Archer sorts out the spring …
By March, when free agency begins, the Cowboys are scheduled to be around $10 million under the salary cap. More room could be created through restructuring some contracts or releasing some players.
The Cowboys have several key decisions to make, starting with left tackle Flozell Adams. He has been named to the Pro Bowl four of the last five years, including this season as a starter, but he turns 33 in May and is entering his 11th season.
How much do the Cowboys set aside for him? They have drafted Pat McQuistan, Doug Free and James Marten in the last two years to deal with Adams' potential departure, but are they ready to entrust the most important position on the line to such untested players?
Ken Hamlin signed a one-year deal with the Cowboys last off-season in hopes of cashing in. The safety was named to his first Pro Bowl, had a career-high five interceptions and posted 102 tackles. He did his part. With a defense full of high-priced signing bonuses, and with future deals needed for Terence Newman and DeMarcus Ware, how do the
Cowboys fit Hamlin in?
The Cowboys will have the right to match any offers made to running back Marion Barber and defensive end Chris Canty, both restricted free agents, but the team would like to re-sign them to longer-term deals if possible.
Even after a 13-3 regular season, the Cowboys enter the off-season with plenty of needs:
Add a cornerback: They are set with starters Terence Newman and Anthony Henry, but Jacques Reeves and Nate Jones are unrestricted free agents. The depth remains untested, and the Cowboys need to find help high in the draft to help alleviate short- and long-term concerns.
Add speed at receiver: Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn are 34 and 33 years old, respectively, and both were limping after Sunday's game. Without the ability to stretch the field late in the season, the passing game suffered. It's time to get younger at the
Add a running back: Marion Barber will play in his first Pro Bowl, but there's a need for a second back to share the work in 2008. With several underclassmen declaring for the draft, the Cowboys will have options.
Unrestricted free agents
Players can negotiate with any other team without limitation.
LT Flozell Adams – How high of a price should the Cowboys pay to keep him?
S Ken Hamlin – Earned a big-time deal as quarterback of the secondary.
RB Julius Jones – Wants to be elsewhere in 2008 and will not be back.
S Keith Davis – Would like to be more than just a special teamer.
CB Nate Jones – Would be inexpensive to keep, but upgrades are out there.
CB Jacques Reeves – Might another team make a bigger offer?
Restricted free agents
Players can negotiate with another team. Their current team has seven days to match any offer. If the current team refuses to match an offer, draft picks will be given as compensation.
RB Marion Barber – If he doesn't sign long-term, Cowboys will match any offer.
DE Chris Canty – Developed into a disruptive player against both the run and the pass.
Long snapper L.P. Ladouceur – His consistency helps Mat McBriar and Nick Folk excel.
RB Tyson Thompson – Lost his kick return role but is likely to get a one-year tender.
Exclusive rights free agents
Players must accept what their current club offers or not play in the NFL at all.
OL Joe Berger – Can play guard and center if necessary.
DE Stephen Bowen – Has developed into a nice role as a backup.
OL Cory Procter – Started two games and can play all three inside positions.
CB Evan Oglesby – Waiver pickup from Baltimore had little opportunity.
TE Tony Curtis – All three of his catches went for touchdowns.
Mac Engle looks ahead, too …
Unlike collapses of years gone by -- which there are many -- there is no excuse now. No major injury. No bad calls. No going on the road. The Cowboys had everything a team could obtain for a run to the Super Bowl... and they just blew it.
"I think we clinched [the NFC East title] so early, we got a little complacent," receiver Patrick Crayton said.
Now, how to fix it?
The immediate response is to change... something. There will be a sense to change for the sake of change. Because this is the NFL, where players are nomadic, some players and some coaches will change teams.
"It's two years in a row we've exited stage left in the first game of the playoffs. Changes are going to happen," Canty said. "We're not winning, so something has to improve."
Some suggest that because the Cowboys are one of the NFL's youngest teams, some of the problem will cure itself with another year of experience.
Cornerback Terence Newman said after Sunday's game, the team was flat the entire afternoon. It might be a sign of an immature team, or one that took for granted that something good eventually would come around.
With a full season of starting experience, quarterback Tony Romo -- in theory -- should be better.
The majority of the team's core -- Romo, Marion Barber, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff, Newman, Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware, etc. -- is younger and all under contract for next season. They are either in or entering their primes.
"I think our opportunity is now," coach Wade Phillips said. "I think our cycle is now.... We're in the right cycle for this team."
Which makes this season so utterly frustrating, and disappointing. As much as this season's team might be in the right cycle, a cycle can't be counted on to last very long.
The Cowboys have "it" right now -- all of the necessary parts are on the field to make a run at the Super Bowl. The quarterback. The young defense. The Pro Bowlers. Just as they were there in September, October and November, the components were there in December and January. Only those same components managed to go 2-3 in the last five games.
"We all understand there is only a window of opportunity, a short period of time where you make a run with a team. That's what's tough; you look at this team, you know there's enough in here to get it done," Witten said.
But until they flip it around in December and beyond, that's the only cycle that will matter.
Crayton and Ellis developments …seriously, Ellis again…
Receiver Patrick Crayton, who wouldn't talk after the game, did Monday.
He said complacency might have been the reason for Dallas' demise.
Crayton, who took verbal jabs at the New York Giants last week, dropped a third-down pass late in the third quarter and appeared to slow down on a Tony Romo pass near the end zone on third down in the final drive.
"You could say plays here and there and never say one play loses a game," Crayton said. "I know I had chance to catch a ball on third-and-seven, it was a drop and that could have changed it."
Wade Phillips said Romo could have hooked up with Crayton for the winning touchdown if Crayton had kept running.
"Patrick just slowed down a little bit, and when [Romo] saw him running he threw it where, if Patrick wouldn't have slowed down, it would have been a touchdown."
Linebacker Greg Ellis, coming off a career-high 12.5 sacks and The Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year honors, expects changes on the Cowboys next season and wouldn't be surprised if he was one of them.
Ellis said the Cowboys are going to want to start rookie top pick Anthony Spencer at some point.
Not only does Ellis believe his salary is too high to come off the bench, he has no interest in being a backup.
"Right now in my career, I don't want to be coming off the bench, and I won't be happy coming off the bench," Ellis said. "So, again, does Jerry [Jones] say, 'Greg, you're going to be back, and you're going to be the starter. Anthony, you're still going to be where you are at.' I don't know what Jerry is going to do. But that's an issue."
Speaking of Crayton, this play he quits on route – and in my estimation likely costs the Cowboys playoff glory
Some National Perception of Romo …
What's the big deal, people say.
The big deal is that it became a Big Deal, with all the attendant media focus and cameras and gossip and distraction and Us Magazine details of the trip ("Tony couldn't stop touching Jessica!").
Romo might not care what people think, and the Cowboys might not care what the world thinks of them or their quarterback, but at what point does the attention on this lack of concern become a disturbance in itself?
There's no way to say the Cowboys lost to the Giants on Sunday because of Romo's ill-timed, south-of-the-border adventure, just as there would have been no way to prove that a Dallas victory would have been attributable to the challenge Romo constructed for himself.
But it's also impossible to dismiss Romo's roamings as a non-factor. The media hum about this was loud enough to pierce even the most plugged ears.
Beyond all that, I just don't understand the "why" of the trip.
If Romo didn't know a storm would erupt, then he's incredibly naïve. I don't buy that. Any man who dates Simpson even once knows she attracts a battalion of paparazzi and that there are no quiet getaways. And any quarterback in the NFL knows which player gets the most attention, good or bad, on a football team. The Bears' Rex Grossman can attest to that.
When those two forces meet, the result is the tabloid equivalent of a mushroom cloud.
I've known Cowboys coach Wade Phillips for a long time. I know why his players like him. He treats them like men, not like children or commodities. But he should have put his cowboy boot down on this one.
Where was the benefit of the trip to the resort? What was the greater good?
It's true that the NFL is overcoached and overstructured. The league can make the military look unorganized. Coaches want to control everything, especially the players. But it's also true that few sports are as choreographed as football and as reliant on teamwork. Anything can disrupt the equilibrium. Although Romo might not have been fazed by the furor over his trip with Simpson, perhaps some teammates were. These are creatures of habit. Monday, watch film. Tuesday, rest. Wednesday, get the game plan. Thursday and Friday, work out the kinks in the game plan. Saturday, walk through the plays. Sunday, play the game.
Nowhere in that structured existence does it say, watch as quarterback causes a huge fuss by hanging out with hot girlfriend in Mexico.
History is filled with players who knew how to have a good time on and off the field. Joe Namath. Max McGee. Mickey Mantle.
Michael Jordan might have gambled until the wee hours before games, but he had a body of work on the court that suggested he pretty much could do whatever he wanted on his own time and still score 45 points on company time. A player earns that freedom.
Tony Romo hadn't done enough to do this to his team. The guy became a starter only last season.
If a veteran Jim McMahon had done something like this, the reaction would have been, "That party animal!"
Romo does it and it becomes, "How about winning something first?"
The Cowboys lost 21-17 Sunday, and the perception, fair or not, is that Romo and his teammates were distracted. The perception is that a team went down after being hit by a warm sea breeze.
There was a better way.
The Fake Jessica …
Even a fake Jessica Simpson was good enough to throw off the Dallas Cowboys yesterday, as Big Blue took a Giant step toward the Super Bowl.
The Giants, who notched a stunning 21-17 victory over Dallas in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, had a good-luck charm in the stands - in the form of Simpson lookalike Lynsey Nordstrom.
The real Simpson was the subject of great hand-wringing in Big D all week because of her budding romance with Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and his habit of falling short on the field when gal pals are in attendance.
Simpson - nicknamed "Yoko Romo" by some superstitious Cowboys fans - didn't show up yesterday, but The Post brought Nordstrom, a beautiful, 21-year-old nanny from Bothell, Wash., to Texas Stadium.
We sat her in the third row at the 50-yard line behind Dallas' bench. The stunner's Simpson-esque vibes must have made the difference - Romo's final drive was stopped short of the end zone.
You're welcome, New York!
"I knew we were going to win when I saw her [Nordstrom]. I'm dead serious!" said Giant die-hard Anthony Triglia, 21, of Staten Island who cheered Big Blue in the heart of enemy territory.
"You have to come to Green Bay," Triglia told Nordstrom.
Then, in true Jessica, Chicken-of-the-Sea fashion, Nordstrom candidly responded: "What's Green Bay?"
And, since they beat Tampa Bay and Dallas, It is time for the NY Writers to give them a spot in the Super Bowl …
The Giants are going to take a Lambeau Leap right into the Super Bowl.
They will overcome the ghost of Vince Lombardi, the presence of the legendary Brett Favre, the mystique of Titletown, USA, and the bone-chilling weather that will have them all wanting to head off to Cabo, even without Jessica Simpson.
Out of nowhere, this has become a special Giants team, one with character and heart and pride, a bunch of All-Joes trying to prove you don't have to be All-Pros to get to the Super Bowl. They have an old-school coach who reinvented himself on the run in a public display of self-preservation that transformed him into a players coach, of all things.
What does it mean Sunday for Ice Bowl II?
Giants 20, Packers 17.
It's not hard to sense when a team has all the intangibles working. That's why I picked the Giants to beat the Bucs in the wild-card round after they were so convinced they gained momentum from playing the Patriots tough; and then picked them to beat the Cowboys, who had too many distracting issues and then imploded Sunday with dropped passes and killer penalties.
Now the Giants will take their road-warrior mentality, nine straight road victories and their forefathers' 3-0 record in NFC title games into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers, setting up the ultimate in the great New York-Boston rivalry: Giants vs. Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Uncle Barky gives Terminator a B …
College Kids with Camcorder and Crying Terrell
Michael Cera – Between Two Ferns