Monday, December 06, 2010

The Morning After: Cowboys 38, Colts 35

In our further attempts to read meaning into games involving a team that started 1-7 and has a coach who has the "interim" tag before his name, I catch myself spending quite a bit of my time after each game trying to place the big picture in the frame for this franchise.

The fact is, it is very dangerous to over-value small sample sizes that are sometimes subject to emotional highs or just simple anomalies that cannot and will not be repeated.

Are the Cowboys 3-1 (and perhaps a freak play away from 4-0) because Jason Garrett is a genius? Or, are they where they are because the team just needed a change - any change - at the head coaching position to free them from the doldrums of the Wade Phillips era?

These are the questions that we need to answer - even after an unlikely win in Indianapolis that looked like a sure "L" when the schedule came out in April. I remember my esteemed colleague Dale Hansen would do a segment every once in a while on the radio quoting someone who once challenged him to pick 3 sure wins and 3 sure losses every year off the schedule for some ridiculous prize. The point of the exercise was to prove, yet again, that no matter how much you think you know and how much you study, there is no figuring out the National Football League. In the 2 road games under Garrett, the Cowboys were able to win 2 games that seemed less-than-likely for any team in the league - At New York and At Indianapolis.

So how are they doing this trick? And are they achieving under Garrett or overachieving? To know that answer, you would need to know whether they were laying down on Wade Phillips or doing the best they could.

You see, what I cannot get my arms around with this team are the obvious wildcards of heart and effort and will.

Because, just when we think this team has less talent than we thought, then in the last month we see them go toe-to-toe with 3 perceived heavyweights of the league. The Colts are surely not the Colts right now, but I will not cheapen a win on the road against a wounded animal like Indianapolis. And to play them after your showings against the Giants and the Saints show us what we thought we knew all along; that on their day, the Cowboys can play with any team in this league. And without their starting QB (who many of you have now used to make very knee-jerk conclusions about the quality of Tony Romo) they are now playing with passion and effort that was not there before.

So does this tell us that Jason Garrett is a wonderful "leader of men" who can get the 45 guys with Stars on their helmets to dig just a bit deeper when their backs are against the wall? Or does this tell us that Wade Phillips had so lost the team that it seemed like 45-7 at Lambeau was a just result that couldn't have been avoided with this roster and a backup QB?

I suppose the answer is starting to look like "yes" to both.

You are going to lose games like yesterday in this league. What you want, though, is to be confident that the players have a purpose. That they believe that their superior - in this sport that is a perfect metaphor for the military - has a plan that will help us achieve victory. And, Wade Phillips was not that guy. It was obvious at many junctures of his tenure. In 2007, after their horrid crash and burn in the playoffs against the Giants, he told the world that his team had made the "final 8" - whatever that means. In 2008, he presided over one of the biggest locker-room chaos scenes in NFL history and stood idly by hoping it would go away - only to see the team quit in Philadelphia to the tune of 44-6. In 2009, all looked lost for a good portion of the season before the team took off during the holidays to prolong his tenure another year. And in 2010, after a training camp that according to Darryl Johnston had just 3 practices in full pads and full contact, and many preseason games where the Cowboys were dominated at the line of scrimmage, Wade told the media that the Cowboys were simply "not showing anything" and weren't too worried about the obvious issues for all to see.

And the Cowboys players showed us by their actions that they couldn't coach themselves anymore.

Fast forward to December 5, 2010. It is Game 12 for a team that is 3-8. They are playing a team that must get a home win because they trail their division leader (Jacksonville) by a half-game when this contest kicks off. And what I saw from a 3-8 team that has nothing but pride to play for was 3 hours of passion and grit and effort. A team, yes, a Cowboys team, playing hard and with great energy. Guys who look like they are hurt want to limp back out on the field and not let their buddies down. Guys who dig just a bit deeper as the game goes on because they are facing adversity that is going to either make or break them.

There are obvious issues on this team. The defense, in particular, has shown us against these league heavyweights that as a unit they are not the stoppers that we thought they could be in the offseason. They barely irritate the Saints or Colts when those teams need a drive down the field. No real pass rush and no real threat of a stop unless the opponent drop a pass, or as happened yesterday, the legendary QB is so flustered by his season that he forces throws and your men pick them off.

Another very serious issue is that they still seem to have trouble identifying who can play and who cannot. Sean Lee, Wade Phillips assured us, was not a viable candidate to play as a coverage LB (he tried to tell us Jason Williams would handle that - who was then cut). I think we saw yesterday as he dropped back 15 yards with the ease of a safety that he can do whatever you need him to do. And we also saw that Keith Brooking still has a target on his chest for opposing QBs when he attempts to cover players down the field. Lee's performance yesterday makes you happy to see it, but also makes you wonder why a NFL head coach can't see that sooner.

Tashard Choice showed a burst around the edge yesterday that is clearly superior to anything that remotely resembled a burst from Marion Barber. But, it took a calf strain to Barber on Thanksgiving to even get Choice a sniff on the field in a game situation that would allow for a play like that. I have to wonder about a coaching staff and a personnel department that can see those two next to each other and not see which one has that ability, and which one looks like he is pulling a sled in open space.

Miles Austin only got a chance only when Roy Williams was hurt in Denver last year. The kick return job this year was awarded to the 4th round pick rather than the player who clearly has a better return ability (but was undrafted out of SMU). Those offensive linemen in Miami never got a chance here except Corey Proctor in limited duty. I guess we see in the Wade/Jerry era, ties go to the veteran who we are paying a lot of money to or the higher draft pick.

If things are going to get straightened out here, Garrett is going to have to prove that he will play the best 22. Not the 22 who are being paid more. If you want to lose the respect of your team really quickly, then do not have honest competitions in practice and camp. If contracts and tenure decide spots on the field, then your franchise is not doing things properly. And the Cowboys have not been doing things properly for the last several years. Hopefully, they now can put more on the plates of Choice and Lee, and understand that Barber and Brooking are not part of the future.

Those are decisions that can now be looked at, now that the Cowboys are back to battling as they should on Sunday with everyone on board doing what they can for the team.

The will is there. The desire to fight to the finish is there. The heart of the Dallas Cowboys appears to be pumping again.

And whether it was the exit of Wade or the entrance of Garrett, the combination of the two moves have absolutely changed the perception of how we must look at this roster and this franchise moving forward.

Do they need an infusion of talent this offseason? Absolutely. But is it as bad as it appeared on that cold night in Green Bay a month ago? Not even close.

With each passing week, Jason Garrett comes closer to having "interim" taken off his job title.

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