To my mind, Sunday's convincing win against the Bills stands not only as a strategic victory but as a philosophical one. On numerous occasions during the game, I was struck by the fact that Jason Garrett's emphasis on process and focusing on the day-to-day finally seemed to bear edible, ripe fruit. If we look closely, we can see that the breakthroughs we see as keys to the victory have been the result of slow, steady development. Indeed, when several aspects of the team develop and improve together, they can manifest themselves in a the collective result that we saw against the Bills. As a matter of fact, Tony Romo called the victory "just a byproduct of the team coming together."
Lets take a look at some of these areas of progress:
Offensive line play: We've talked about these young'uns a lot, and have probably been too quick to condemn them. As with all young things, they're a work in progress. Yes, they've experienced growing pains, most notably against New England. But since then, the interior of the line has increasingly become much more solid. On yesterday's broadcast, one comment in particular caught my ear: the announcers were talking about how some of the young linemen were getting stronger working in Mike Woicik's strength and conditioning program. When we think about Woicik and his program, it's natural to assume that the bulk of progress will be made in the offseason (and that, without an offseason, Dallas would have to wait until February 2012 to reap the rewards of the Woicik hiring). But this isn't the case; one of the places where Woicik has historically made his mark is in getting athletes to perform over the course of the long season. Indeed, his Cowboys and Patriots' teams' records in December are a testament to this. While the whole team is likely getting stronger and more flexible--a slow, steady process--on Sunday, it was most apparent on the O-line: Doug Free and Phil Costa in particular looked quicker and stronger than they have all season.
More wild, unfounded speculations after the jump...
Number Nine: On Sunday Romo had his best game of the season, and arguably the best of his career. He erased poor Danny White from the Cowboys' record books, taking both his single game completion percentage and his mark for games with 3 or more TD passes, with 21 (in 70 career starts). Is it any coincidence that this was his first game without the flak jacket he's been wearing since week 3? If we score out his trajectory since that inauspicious contest against the hated 'Skins, we can see a guy gutting it out while his health and the team around him gets better. He was pretty awful against Washington, got steadily better and more accurate, showed some flashes against Seattle, and then exploded yesterday. While he waited for Romo to heal, Garrett could open up only part of his playbook. With his QB at peak health, he was able to open up the entire package.
Player acquisition: In the past two offseasons, the Cowboys have done an extraordinary job identifying castoff types who fit their player profiles and fit their system. Think about some of the Cowboys' most pressing offseason questions: who would be the third WR? Would Chapas be the solution to their long search for a Moose Johnston-style FB? Who would provide depth at cornerback (accompanied by hand-wringing over Alan Ball)? Which veteran kicker would they find to replace David Buehler? Every last one of these questions has been answered--and all with guys they picked up after the final cutdown. Wade Phillips liked to set his roster and sit, content. For Garrett, its a never-ending process--one which has yielded Laurent Robinson, Tony Fiammetta, Frank Walker and Dan Bailey. I shudder to think where they'd be without these guys.
Garrett's message has become numbingly familiar, so much so that local radio stations have ceased broadcasting his press conferences. Good radio, he ain't. But his message has begun to affect the entire organization. In early 2009, after 2008's embarrassing collapse, Tony Romo began preaching a new message: I have to get better each and every day. Then I heard Witten began to echo this message. When Garrett ascended to the Dallas throne, it became clear where his best offensive players had picked up what they had recently been espousing. In the year and change that the RHG has been head coach, they have, I assume, served as his disciples, preaching his message.
One guy I never expected that message to reach was the Cowboys owner, who has always been prone to wild mood swings after good wins, bad losses, and good or bad seasons. In the aftermath of the Eagles debacle it was, therefore, strange to find Jones to be the voice of reason. He declared to the assembled media that games such as that happen and that not too much should be made of it. For one of the world's greatest over-reactors, this was a stunning change of tune.
But Jones has always been a philosophical copycat. For decades now, he has proclaimed that he would be "aggressive" and that he was a "risk-taker." While he certainly made his fortune from high-risk ventures, I have always felt that his emphasis on aggressiveness was something picked up from Jimmy Johnson, who was a singularly decisive and aggressive decision-maker. After Johnson left, Jones ran the organization using Jimmy's philosophy until hiring Bill Parcells; when the old grumbletonian was at the helm, Jerry began to parrot his views (although only partially; two more diametrically opposed personalities would be hard to find). Now, he's reflecting Garrett's viewpoint; in the post-game locker-room confab, Jones said that this was a case where "if you practice well, and play well, then it goes well." In other words, he saw the final score as the end result of a process.
I find this to be a most welcome philosophical about-face. I think being aggressive and taking risks is all well and good, as long as they are based on good information. Johnson's risks were always calculated, as were (I assume) Jerry's in the Arkansas oilfields. But risk taking for its own sake is a fool's errand; too often in the past, Jones' aggressiveness seemed ill-informed and impulsive, a performance of aggression rather than acting upon a coherent philosophy. If Jones is indeed becoming an adherent of process--especially if it displaces his faithfulness to aggressiveness--then he will make sounder, less impulsive decisions.
If the Cowboys develop a winning culture, therefore, it can be because of Jones rather than in spite of him. And that, too, would be a most welcome development.