As has now become custom, every year prior to the start of the season, I like to step back and take a more comprehensive look at the Dallas Cowboys. I play around with the idea of what the Season will be truly remembered for once it is over. No, I don't mean a play or a specific event. Nobody can predict those kinds of twists and turns. My purpose is to look at it more holistically. With a little over a week to go, it's that time again. First, a look back:
In 2008, I put forth the idea of Wade Phillips having to deal with the success of the prior season and how it would be his "leadership ability", or lack thereof, which would really be the thing which we would end up looking back on once the season was over. Again, prescience ruled the day as it was, little did we know it, the beginning of the end for Wade as people began to question his overly player-friendly coaching and practice methods. The lack of accountability and discipline on the team pointed straight to the head coach and was a forerunner of things to come. The Sportscenter backstory to all of the team's failures was the implosion of the locker room while Terrell Owens became unhappy (who would have guessed?) and Wade's inability to keep the team from fracturing.
In 2009, I suggested the Offensive Line would be the single biggest key to Dallas' overall fortunes and that no man would have a bigger burden than one, Hudson Houck. I wonder, how many of you still think about the letdown in the Minnesota playoff game and ‘what could have been' if we had advanced to play the Saints? Did our man Houck ultimately make the wrong call by putting Marc Colombo in too soon after injury? What if he had stuck with Free at RT? Truly, the Season of Hud ended on the most sour of notes.
In 2010, I said it would be the Season of Jerry. Truth be told, that was probably the easiest of the bunch. After all, the Super Bowl was being played in his brand new 8th wonder of the world, he was on the hook for signing Wade Phillips to a two-year extension and chose to draft an enigmatic and mercurial wide receiver rather than address the more ballyhooed holes at safety and along the offensive line. He'd built the team and the organization in a way that was uniquely his own, scoffing at traditional wisdom and popular opinion. 2010 was all set to be not just the Cowboys' Year of Jerry, but the NFL's Year of Jerry. It turned out to be just that. And who knew the last game of the season would end in a lawsuit against him from fans who couldn't watch the big game at Cowboys Stadium? Wow, just...wow.
That brings us to today. Not unlike years past, I am forced to weigh my options as I look at how to characterize the 2011 Season once it is done. It's an interesting challenge, almost like coming up with the name of a movie without as much as a script. Not since 2007 have the Cowboys faithful had this much change to mull over in the organization. For any team other than the one who walked off the field with a Lombardi trophy the previous year, change in the NFL is generally seen as good. The new Head Coach isn't exactly NEW to the Dallas Cowboys, having served as player and assistant in support of the Star, but he brings with him a freshness of approach in terms of accountability and respect for team and game. That paradigmatic shift alone is reason for excitement. His "Secretary of Defense" is a bit of a throwback that brings to mind the qualities of Nate Newton (in body), The Dude from the Big Lebowski (in hair) and Joe Avezzano after a blown kick coverage assignment (in demeanor). So, I toyed with the idea that 2011 might be about change, or accountability or Yin and Yang. In the end, none of those things moved me.
There's also reason to think that this could be the year of a breakout player or a monumental performance of some kind. Could it be the Year of Dez? If he were to catch 24 TD's and break Randy Moss' record, it could be all about Bryant. What about Romo's comeback? It could be that he picks this team up on his shoulders and carries them to glory in a year where he wins Comeback Player of the Year, MVP and Super Bowl MVP. What about our old standby, Ware? If he were to break Strahan's record for sacks, would that be enough to make this Cowboys' season HIS season? While all of those things seem wonderful and fanciful all at the same time, none of them resonates enough for me simply because, almost insidiously, something else is going on in the background...and it could be big...really, really big.
A while back, I waxed philosophical about the idea that there were changes afoot in the way Dallas was conducting their business, not just in the locker room, but in the front office as well. The thought of ‘Stephen rising', either by hook or by crook, in terms of position and persuasion is no longer bandied about as though it were a question, but rather one of degree. Undeniably, Stephen is being groomed to take his seat on the throne at some point in the future and we have the luxury of watching him get an Ivy League degree in showmanship and money-making from the NFL's one true expert in the field. Meanwhile, Stephen's influence is readily apparent in that Jerry has already been moved to do things he was heretofore unwilling to do. He dismissed his friend and principal employee in mid-season. He admitted his mistake around the Roy Williams debacle and quickly dispatched him to the colder confines of Illinois. The team locker room was built around the idea of team chemistry rather than on the idea of pure star power at the expense of unity of purpose. As though that wasn't enough, there is little doubt that Stephen's approval was something just short of a requirement for Jerry to hire Jason Garrett as Head Coach. In other words, Stephen has moved Jerry to collaborate more than he has ever been willing to before.
But it's not just Stephen. That's not the whole story here. Dallas, for the first time since Jerry bought the team, selected an Offensive lineman with their first-round draft pick. To make matters worse, it was not your average, everyday first-round draft pick, but a top-10 pick on the heels of a failed Season of Jerry! The only way one could see him doing that is if he really LISTENED to Jason Garrett as Garrett sold the idea of building this team in a way that might significantly differ from years past. When was the last time that happened? Oh wait, now I remember, NEVER! In allowing Jason to jettison Marion Barber (a favorite of JJ's), along with Andre Gurode, Jerry essentially subjugated his personal loyalty to individual players to the needs of the team and to his new Head Coach. Said differently, the "show" took a back seat to the idea of winning football games. When had that happened before??? I'll tell you when. NEVER! Brothers and sisters, the very underpinnings of the Cowboys' organizational infrastructure were undergoing a metamorphosis of great magnitude.
As I step back and examine all of this in aggregate, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that the Dallas Cowboys are no longer ruled by the iron-fisted, iconic, "any one of 500 coaches could have won those Super Bowls" patriarch that we've come to know and...uh, love. No, just as we are seeing social upheaval in the Middle East, we are also seeing the rise of an oligarchy in place of the seemingly endless monarchy here at home at Valley Ranch. The distribution of power is beginning to disperse, even if just a bit, to these two lieutenants and instead of snap decisions and reflex actions, there seems to be considerably more thought going into how the Cowboys operate. It's not Federalism, by any stretch, but at least there are "branches" of Cowboys government now. The ideas of ‘what' and ‘how' are now constructs born out of collaboration instead of what was a lone voice (that would be Jerry's) shouting out into the darkness. For those of us who have long lamented the lack of a "football guy" in the GM's chair, this can only be taken as the next best thing and, as such, reason to believe good things lie ahead of us. The new ‘Trinity' has begun to fill the gaping void in the collective consciousness of Cowboys' fans all over the world that has been around since the day Jimmy Johnson left.
So, as you've probably guessed, I've chosen to pay homage to the cerebral, emotional and visceral changes taking place inside the halls of this great and storied franchise and give credit where credit is due. Once this season is over, we'll see whether the results are worthy of the endeavors collectively taken on by these three men and whether they have righted the Cowboys football operation in a way that has it gaining both momentum and credibility in relation to its peers.
Join me as I raise my glass. To 2011, the Season of the Trinity!