Irrespective of the outcome of yesterday afternoon's game against Minnesota, I think that Jerry Jones should make the prudent call and retain Wade Phillips as his head coach. Until December, that choice wa have failed to do.s more in question than ever; after all, Dallas was only one of three teams in its division that was contending for a playoff seed. But with the bigger picture now clear, I think it's worthy to note why Dallas has become a better team than before, even though it hasn't made the high profile personnel changes during the Phillips era:
Staying the Course
Bill Parcells installed Tony Romo at QB in 2006 after starter Drew Bledsoe was injured. Romo performed that season well enough to guide his team to a wild card appearance, where the Cowboys lost to Seattle. At that point Romo became the main candidate to start the next season as well. Unfortunately, Parcells left Dallas to become president of the Miami Dolphins. At that point, anything could have happened, as many first year quarterback successes have proven flat in their sophomore seasons. This risk was especially great since the offense was changing its coordinators. Jones decided to hire a seasoned coach, San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips as his head coach, and former Cowboys back-up QB and Miami quarterbacks coach Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator. To the surprise of most observers, the offense was not only just as good that season, but Romo and wide out Terrell Owens were a potent, connecting for 15 TDs, the second best mark for Owens in his career. Dallas accomplished a 12-4 season and a division title, better than any result under Parcells.
Adapting with time
The signing of Adam "Pacman" Jones was one of the bigger mistakes of the past few seasons, and it showed in the 2008 season. Also, when Terrell Owens' behavior became a team distraction that same year, Jones knew that the team had to be altered in order not to implode. Fortunately, he made the mature decision that in the past he failed to make, such as in his bizarre firing of two-time Super Bowl winner Jimmy Johnson. He not only retained Phillips, he made a request that he'd also take the wheel as defensive coordinator instead of Brian Stewart. Jones also decided not to keep Owens.
At the beginning of the passing 2009 season, the greatest question was whether Dallas as a team was worth what it had been as a team + TO. I think that in retrospect it's possible to say that it was an improvement. Superstars like Owens can build powerhouses, but they also stifle the development of other talented players. In 2008 the rush offense was a far smaller factor than this year, and Dallas' receivers almost all bloomed this year, from the overnight sensation Miles Austin to the already solid Jason Whitten.
Most important was the behavior that Phillips brought out of his defense. Dallas linebackers are now a punishing unit, thanks to Keith Brooking, DeMarcus Ware, Bradie James etc. No one can dispute that a division title wouldn't have even been a possibility had these pass rushers not kept several games low scoring. As improved as the offense has been, Romo's squad was not the type that would crack 30-40 points in a game.
. . . my troubles seemed so far away
The blemish left from the Metrodome defeat cannot be erased from this team's memory. But neither can it be used a crowbar to dismantle the accomplishments of this season. Dallas competed very well in its division, and moreover has better prospects than many other franchises:
- Pittsburgh revealed itself to be a paper tiger when it lost two key games against Cincinnatti as well as road games against lowly Cleveland, KC and Oakland. In the end the defending Super Bowl champs missed the playoffs by one game, but many media observers agreed that this club's record actually whitewashed its true value for this year. One of the issues was an injury to playmaking safety Troy Polamalu, but such an excuse is empty when considers that the team was portrayed on ESPN and various media outlets as one of the most well-prepared at the season's outset. Well-prepared should also mean depth at key positions. 2010 will present even greater challenges manifested in Baltimore and Cincinnatti, as well as a Browns team that could present better competition than Pittsburgh has faced since the refoundation of that franchise.
- The Patriots were a playoff team that presented throughout the season a picture of decay. What can one say about a perennial Super Bowl contender that posts blowout wins at home against then-pathetic Tennessee and warm weather Jacksonville, but also lays eggs against real contenders like Indianapolis and New Orleans. New England had a spotless home record during the regular season, but only won two road games against Tampa Bay (in London) and the headless Buffalo Bills.
- The Giants are the ultimate example of a team that has enough puzzle pieces, at least on offense, to be a threat, but consistently disappoints. After posting a 5-0 start, the Giants were humbled by the Saints, starting a four game losing streak and relinquishing the division lead to Dallas and Philadelphia. Although they stayed in the hunt for a wild card bid late into the season, New York totally maxed out its credit line by losing their Giants Stadium finale by a pathetic 9-41 to a Carolina Panthers team that very early on seemed to be disintegrating. In their closing game at the Metrodome Eli Manning's team was totally incapacitated by the Vikings 44-7.
I would like to see how the coaching staffs of the above three teams fare in the off season before Wade Phillips' judgment is passed. Jerry Jones must be aware that an environment of stability and improvement is far better than that of blockbuster deal making. An experienced, defensive, low-key coach like Phillips is exactly the type of person that strikes a balance between pampering hot shot players like the Vikings management, and treating them like brainless commodities like Denver coach Josh McDaniels sometimes seems to do. The Minnesota Vikings made a very good decision to acquire Favre, and for that reason Minnesota was still better than Dallas yesterday. But such opportunities are very rare in this league. In my opinion, the Vikings aren't built to be a dynasty without having some sort of assurance that Brett Favre has a worthy replacement. The Patriots feature a team bursting with talent, but also without the proper guidance to defeat an equal opponent on their home turf. The Steelers still have a very physical and spirited roster on both sides of the ball, and Dick LeBeau provides the selfless dedication and infinite knowledge of a thirty year coaching veteran. But Mike Tomlin hasn't covered the other bases, such as sufficiently protecting leads and his quarterback in close games. Those are models of teams that could be in for some hard times next year. I don't think that Phillips has concluded the Dallas season in such a precarious position, rather I think that Minnesota was an extraordinary team yesterday.
Under those circumstances, I recommend that Jerry Jones take his finger off of his coach's ejection seat for this offseason, allow him to augment the team through the draft, and hopefully produce a team that not only will be competitive, but will be a divisional and conference favorite for a change.