As the dog days of Summer come to a close, we stand again on the precipice of what promises to be another unpredictable, harrowing and exhilarating season for the Dallas Cowboys. In keeping with tradition, I've spent a good deal of time trying to put my finger on what it is, or will be, about this iteration of the Cowboys that we will all look back on and say was the defining theme or storyline for the year.
In 2008, I suggested that it was Wade Phillips having to deal with the success of the prior season and the test of his "leadership ability" which we would end up looking back on as the principal storyline once the season was over. Funny how things turn out, and little did we know it, but 2008 was the beginning of the end for Wade as people began to question his overly player-friendly coaching and practice methods. The sheer lack of leadership in the coaching ranks, on the roster along with the head coach's inability to overcome the lack of discipline on the team was a very bad omen for a very good man. The impact of a certain disgruntled, mercurial receiver, and Wade's inability establish a top-down leadership paradigm when the team needed it, ultimately led to the creation of an emotional fissure in the locker room that spilled out onto the field. The Season of Wade ended in a way very few football pundits expected and one Cowboys fans prefer to forget.
In 2009, it seemed obvious that the Offensive Line was the real question mark in determining Dallas' overall fortunes and that no man would have a bigger influence on that unit's play than Hudson Houck. In the most critical of moments during that season, it was Houck who played the key role in determining it's ending. I often wonder about the decision he made to insert Marc Colombo at Right Tackle against the Vikings in place of Doug Free, who at the time, was playing the position at a very high level. I'll bet many of you still think about that letdown and wonder about ‘what could have been' if we had advanced to play the Saints. Truly, the Season of Hud ended on the most sour of notes.
2010 was the Season of Jerry. Okay, I admit that was a gimme. The Super Bowl was being played at Chez Jerry, he was on the hook for signing Wade Phillips to a two-year extension AND he chose to draft an immensely talented yet enigmatic wide receiver rather than address gaping holes at safety and along the offensive line. He'd built the Cowboys in his own image, thumbing his nose at the "football men" who said he was going about it the wrong way. 2010 was all set to be not just the Cowboys' Year of Jerry, but the NFL's Year of Jerry. And what a year it was. Jones, ever accountable for his actions, uncharacteristically fired Wade Phillips in mid-season and made Jason Garrett the interim coach. As if that wasn't enough, the last football game of the NFL's season ended in a lawsuit against him from fans who purchased tickets yet couldn't watch the big game at Cowboys Stadium in their seats.
In 2011, it was clear that something deep within the Cowboys CPU was changing. The dynamics within the organization were going from caterpillar to butterfly in a single offseason. On the heels of the Year of Jerry, it's very possible that Jones awoke one morning only to find himself staring out at a future that included no more Blings unless he made a radical paradigm shift. The monolithic ‘because I said so' leadership maxim that Jones had built a fortune off of in the business world was suddenly not applicable to his work in professional football. The dispersal of a significant portion of decision-making authority from Jerry to both Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett had set the stage for an oligarchy to replace a once proud, but now decaying monarchy. The 2nd American Revolution, with Valley Ranch replacing Valley Forge, saw a tide turning rapidly in favor of this new ideology. Indeed, the Season of the Trinity manifested itself in a purge of non-believers from both the roster as well as the coaching ranks and the installation of a new approach toward how to build a winner for the long term. Things like competition for spots on the roster and an end to player entitlement were the new heartbeat of the Dallas Cowboys. To the large majority of fans, the new slogans reflected their own beliefs about what was wrong with the Cowboys.
And that brings us to today.
Unlike most years, deep down, I knew where I was going to arrive when I first began this psychological journey after the NFL draft. I knew, all at once, what bothered AND excited me about this team. I knew what made me feel secure and where I harbored doubt. There was no real vacillation on my part because the end of 2011 set the stage for 2012. Still, I tried to step back and see if there was something I missed. After all, it would be imprudent to ignore the myriad of storylines surrounding the 2012 season and not consider them as options.
Rob Ryan - for a brief moment, I thought maybe this was the season of Rob and I just wasn't seeing it. Eventually, I concluded that we've dug deep enough and, love him or hate him, we know what we have with our Defensive Coordinator. In Ryan, we have a guy whose chances at a Head Coaching job rest with both the fortunes of the Cowboys defense, which he can control, and however his brother fares in New York, which he cannot control. He's a seasoned, imaginative, passionate man who would just as likely be the captain of a boat on TV's Deadliest Catch instead of the hard-charging football man who has an overhauled secondary and a ton of expectations on his shoulders. Ryan is that kind of coach who stands up for his players and takes the heat when things go wrong. He's a team-first guy who players gravitate to. In the end, most people aren't picking Dallas to have a stifling, shutdown defense but it is one that should improve from 2011. While that's a good thing, it's not THE thing.
Tony Romo - in some ways, every year is the year of the franchise QB. But again, having played pretty well last year, he was not the story. Romo had another outstanding statistical season that did not translate into team wins, especially down the stretch, but he showed great character in overcoming some early season mistakes and had the team in position to win several games had it not been for mental breakdowns that ranged from the sideline to the field. Wherever you place yourself, or are placed by others, on the Romosexual-to-Romo-hater continuum, Tony is generally a known quantity and Cowboys fans can sleep easier at night knowing we should get good (if not great) play out of him again this season. In other words, nothing new there.
Bill Callahan - the hiring of Callahan is exciting primarily because of how the O-line might improve in terms of consistency. Still, the popular opinion among the pundits, and many fans, is that Dallas is a couple of players away from the O-line becoming an offensive force like, say the Niners have. There's also the added intrigue surrounding the role Callahan might have in the area of play-calling and game plan design. Since some of that is still unclear, we'll all just have to wait and see. As a result, his first year probably won't be a fair test of his abilities nor a good measure of his impact on the team. It won't be the Year of Bill.
DeMarco Murray - if you've read my posts, comments or mind, you know this guy is a personal favorite. I like how he plays and I really like how he carries himself. If he can stay healthy and show what he showed during flashes in 2011, we've got a good one in the fold and won't see a lot of tears shed if and when Felix Jones leaves in Free Agency next year. Still, in a league where passing is king, it would be difficult, if not impossible for a running back to steal the show. Or...would it?
No, none of those makes the grade.
Clearly, the Cowboys are a different team now than they were a season-and-a-half ago when Jason Garrett took over and the Trinity emerged together, shoulder-to-shoulder, and stood squarely in the spotlight. The philosophical foundations of the Cowboys' house were torn down to the studs and rebuilt on themes like professionalism, internal competition, accountability and a new ideal around what is and isn't a Right Kind of Guy (RKG). The organization (aka Jerry) chose a more democratic decision-making process.
But how did that translate into results?
In his first half-season as head coach, Garrett began to inject an air of enthusiasm through those very ideals. The team, even without Romo, seemed to play a more confident, disciplined brand of football. The Cowboys played hard, but their slow start and talent deficiencies were too much to overcome.
In the following year, the Trinity drafted an offensive lineman with a top-10 draft choice, further eroding the old guard mindset. The roster saw more cleansing of the ‘Wrong Kind of Guy' element and new assistant coaches, whose thought processes aligned with the new leadership, supplanted the cronies of yesteryear. But still, the reviews were mixed as Dallas, again, suffered from mental errors and faltered down the stretch, going 1-4 over their last 5 games and missing the playoffs for the second year in a row.
This past offseason has netted a bevy of new faces that will undoubtedly influence the team's fortunes. Free agents, draftees and undrafted free agents jostling with veterans for a chance to prove they fit in and can make a difference. Garrett, from day one, has sold us on his almost religious convictions about the Right Kind of Guy (which to me has become interpreted in so many different ways that it has almost become meaningless) and now, Dez Bryant craziness aside, it's time to...prove to the world that this foundational line of thinking will manifest itself in a better brand of football. And therein lies the key.
If Dallas goes 9-7 or 8-8 and misses the playoffs again, one has to wonder how the uber-impatient Jerry Jones might react. He's invested a great deal in this new venture. He's taken a huge risk in no longer having his thumbprint on every decision that's made on his property. As the owner, he's expecting results. Positive results. He's looking for something, ANYTHING, to help reassure him that the path that he has chosen to go down with Stephen and Jason and Rob and Tyron and Morris and suits and ties on RKG's is, indeed, the right path. As the GM, he's looking for proof that he has made good decisions by allowing someone other than himself to make roster decisions that he alone used to hold sway over.
He, and we, are looking for proof.
All of the Trinity's rhetoric will be rendered meaningless unless this team's fortunes are changed on the field of play. For Jerry and fans alike, it's time to see marked improvement in the way this team handles top flight competition. All of the principles necessary to build a winner that have been espoused by Garrett, Jones and Jones will fall on deaf ears unless this team translates that shift in philosophy into more wins and fewer losses. This 2012 Cowboys team needs to beat the Eagles and Giants. They need to be able to match physical intensity with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. They need to play better in the December stretch run. They need to make fewer mental mistakes. This team needs to PROVE to one and all that the changes that they've made are changes for the better.
So there it is. The 2012 season is a (and maybe THE) defining moment for this franchise under this leadership Trinity and can be nothing other than the Season of Proof. So, with a frosty mug of Dogfish Head IPA (it's beer for the uninitiated...and it's damn good) in hand, join me in raising your glass, to The Season of Proof!
...AND GO COWBOYS!!!!!