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Not Ready for Prime Time

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When I was in grad school, I taught a production class with a talented filmmaker named Julie. One afternoon a student asked why Julie hadn't screened any of her work for the class. She smiled and cooly replied that a lot of her work had sexual themes and "I just don't think you can handle it." The class, especially the young men, scoffed. "What do you mean we can't handle it," they hissed?

Two weeks later, one of my students turned in an accomplished film about alienation. It contained about ten seconds of sexual material. Many students flipped out. Some complained to the Dean. Others called their parents, who then complained to the Dean. When Julie joined the meeting held to sort things out, she turned to me and said, "I told them they couldn't handle it."

I thought of those haughty, immature students today as I watched Bill Parcells try to contain himself while his team cratered around him. On Thursday, reports from Dallas said that Wednesday practice had been sloppy. Parcells mentioned that he tried to change things in order to keep the players from being bored by the routine.

Think about that one a second. It's Redskins week, with a playoff berth at stake. You have a chance to end their season and avenge your most painful loss of the season and the coach is worried that his pupils might be bored by the routine. What's more, we read of players pleading for another aggressive offensive game plan and of taking more of a "gunslinger" attitude into Washington.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, the coach gave the players their wish. Dallas continued its more open game plan. In the first half, Dallas ran five and four man routes almost exclusively. By my count, only twice did Sean Payton dial up max protection for Drew Bledsoe and send three men out on patterns, and both of those plays resulted in long third down conversions. The first went for fourteen yards to Keyshawn Johnson on third and ten. The second went to Patrick Crayton for 24 yards on third and thirteen. Both came on the doomed first quarter drive that ended with Billy Cundiff's missed 38 yard field goal.

In exchange for more aggressiveness, the Cowboys offensive line turned it its worst performance in a season filled with poor performances, allowing seven sacks of Bledsoe. Torrin Tucker was overwhelmed by a good but not great end named Philip Daniels. Rob Petitti was again lost in space. The run blocking continued to struggle, with Al Johnson unable to move Redskins' NT Joe Salave'a. Even worse, the linemen committed a handful of holding and procedure penalties, two of which thwarted the first quarter drive when it reached the Redskins' 12 yard line. Dropped passes and bungled routes compounded the misery.

The o-line again had company. According to Fox's Troy Aikman, Parcells gathered his defenders last week and warned them that a repeat of the poor tackling and technique of the Chiefs game would doom them against Washington. He told them 120 yards on the ground would be unacceptable. The putrid run defense returned in strength, however, with Washington getting nearly 100 rushing yards by halftime.

The same problems resurfaced, with Washington running seemingly at will at the perimeters of Dallas' front. Kevin Burnett spelled Demarcus Ware in the third quarter last week after the starter blew too many assignments. Today, Burnett was in the game by the second quarter. He wasn't enough, though, as Scott Fujita also had his share of flailing tackles and blown assignments, the worst coming at the goalline when he left fullback Mike Sellars uncovered to catch Washington's third TD of the day.

The final indignity came in the last 25 seconds of the half, when Terrence Newman tried to tackle TE Chris Cooley with the top of his head. Meeting Cooley in the left flat, Newman dropped his arms and ducked his helmet. Cooley stepped over Newman and walked in for the Redskins fourth TD of the half. Newman, who had been literally run out of the game when he turned his back to a Clinton Portis sweep minutes earlier, drew a radioactive stare from Parcells when he reached the sideline. Whatever words accompanied the look could never be published here.

If that was not enough, the kicking game also disappeared. In addition to Cundiff's miss, Mat McBriar whiffed several punts, including a devastating 24 yarder from his own ten when the score was still 14-0 inside the two minute warning. Washington covered the short field he created in two plays to blow the game open.

Even when the score was just 7-0, closeups of Parcells on the sideline showed a calm, disgusted demeanor. He knew the Cowboys had lost this game on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. He also knows that sideline pep talks are for the Pam Olivers of the world, who actually believe they work. I'm not saying Parcells set his players up. With everything that was at stake, I would be shocked if he did. I did, however, imagine him thinking, "they wanted more sizzle. They wanted to think about bigger things than this game. Okay. But I tried to warn them they couldn't handle it."

Poor preparation aside, new deficiencies are emerging, this time on defense. It has, seemingly overnight, run out of linebackers. Early in the year Demarcus Ware was improving, Dat Nguyen and Al Singleton were steady and Bradie James was floundering. Now, Singleton and Nguyen are gone. Their backups look like backups.

Ware hit a wall mentally around the bye. It's as if somebody purged all the fundamentals out of his mind. He's making the same contain mistakes we saw in preseason. Fullbacks he can stuff are locking him up and turning him inside with regularity. His regression smarts more because Shawne Merriman, whom Dallas passed up to draft Ware, played with authority yesterday in San Diego's win over the Colts, getting two sacks.

Defeats like this often unveil the true leaders, the guys who didn't blow assignments, didn't get discouraged and kept making plays. It's hard to believe there were any such players yesterday, but Bradie James deserves our recognition. While the rest of the linebacking crew was either confused or overmatched, James was a true one man gang. He made that crowd-quieting goalline slam of Clinton Portis that the announcers incorrectly credited to Marcus Spears. Bradie won his battles Sunday and with Dat Nguyen's career in jeopardy, he likely enriched himself as well. Right now, he's the inside linebacking corp. You could argue that he's the linebacking corps, period. And to think he was the square peg at the time of the Raiders loss.

When Parcells was with the Giants, he had a quartet of Lawrence Taylor, Gary Reasons, Harry Carson and Carl Banks. Taylor's bust sits in Canton. Carson just missed the Hall last year. Banks was a prototype strongside backer, who could erase tight ends. Reasons was smart and scrappy. The only Cowboys LB right now who could challenge for a spot on that team is James. When you run a linebacker-dominant scheme and you have no linebackers, you've got nothing. No rush and no run defense.

Equally distressing was the absence of veteran leadership. LaRoi Glover started the game at RE next to Ware and was pushed around just as much as the rookie. His run defense performance, to my eyes, was the worst among the six man rotation. Greg Ellis is only seeing the field on passing downs. Chris Canty was injured and the coaches gave his reps to Glover, activating Thomas Johnson to take Glover's place inside. Ellis still brought a rush, but he's lost the staff's confidence on running downs.

And can anybody recall a play Roy Williams made? With Washington running left and right, we could have expected one big stop somewhere. Instead, the biggest hit in the secondary came from Keith Davis, who jacked up Robert Royal when the game was still at 7-0. We can bash Parcells for letting the youngsters get away from him but what about these guys? Tom Landry used to say that if you had to motivate a professional player, he was in the wrong business. And really, what can a coach do to an old veteran? Follow him around during the week with a whip and chair?

Almost every good team has a blowout loss during the season. The Redskins were demolished 36-0 by the Giants. The Panthers were embarrassed in Chicago. Cincinnati was thumped by Pittsburgh. The Broncos were humiliated by the Dolphins. The Bucs are also hurting today after being shutout by New England. The list goes on.

The vital quality for most playoff contenders has been their ability to bounce back. Dallas had the sixth seed entering the weekend. Now, they have the seventh seed. Losses by Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Minnesota have kept Dallas in the mix. They'll need some help from the Giants, but if Dallas wins out and the Giants clinch the East by beating Washington, the Cowboys can still make the playoffs. We'll learn a lot about this young team's heart next week.

I can guarantee you nobody on the roster will question this week's game plan. It could be divined from Woody Hayes and the players will take it, gladly. Not one will go to the press and lobby for more flash. They got theirs yesterday and proved they couldn't handle it.