It's been one week since the Cowboys threw a sucker-punch to my solar plexus. Tony Romo's bobbled snap is now filed next to "The Catch" (Dwight Clark), "The Drop" (Jackie Smith) and a few other Cowboys' miscues in my mental card-catalog. Wait, make that my mental database, I don't want to sound as old as I really am. Speaking of feeling old, that game probably made Bill Parcells feel everyone of his 65 years, plus some. But, like everything in life, time starts to heal old wounds. In one week, I've gone from being on my knees crying "Why, football gods, why?" to thinking about crafting a defense that displays Roy Williams' strengths while masking his weaknesses. In other words, I'm making the transition to the offseason.
It's also been one week since the Tuna Watch began. In some ways, the Cowboys are held hostage as an organization until Parcells makes his decision. That's the trade-off for Dallas, or more specifically for Jerry Jones; he's the guy who makes the ultimate decision, and he still believes Bill Parcells can make this team a champion. The departure of Mike Zimmer signals there will be change in Big D next year, but how much change depends on Parcells. If he returns, he needs to make changes, not necessarily with his assistants - he could opt to promote from within for defensive coordinator - but something about this team needs to change, and Parcells is the fountainhead.
As much speculation as there was about this past season being his last - and that could still be true - if he returns that speculation will be magnified. Last year, after he decided to return, I compared the season to an "all-in" poker hand. With the signing of Terrell Owens, the Cowboys were gambling everything on the 2006 season. It was Super Bowl or bust for Dallas. Turns out it was bust. So can you again say this should be an "all-in" year for the Tuna? Well, that would sound like wearing out an old cliché, so instead I'll wear out a different one; this would be a "do or die" season for Bill Parcells. Maybe going from figuratively losing all one's money at a poker table to battling figurative death will shake up the Tuna, and maybe he will try some things a little out of his comfort zone.
You can't say that Parcells was totally resistant to change last year, pulling Drew Bledsoe and putting in Tony Romo was just what the Cowboys needed early in the season. Still, when the last part of the season rolled around, and our defense was being washed away like a sand castle at high tide, Parcells wasn't prepared to up his gamble. Even after it became obvious teams had figured out the defense and the players couldn't execute well enough to counteract that, we lined up in the exact same formations and coverages, save for the Lions game when we tried some variety. We can blame Zimmer for some of that, and we have, but ultimately it's up to Bill Parcells. He has to say that what we're doing is not working, and that we're going to try something new.
Next year, if Parcells is back, he should be working under a new strategy. It doesn't require abandoning core principles, like his belief in the 3-4 defense, controlling the clock, or a number of things that have become known as his signature. What he needs to do is recognize the capabilities of his players, and create schemes and game plans to fit their strengths. Instead of pounding a square peg into a round hole, carve out some space turning the round hole square, and then fit the peg in. Roy Williams is struggling in deep coverage, so quit running a Cover 2 all the time and exposing him. If the linebackers are not creating enough havoc on pass plays, start letting them move along the line of scrimmage creating doubt as to who is rushing from where. Instead of using JJ and MB3 in such a regimented routine, play them both early and go with the hot hand. These are just examples, not necessarily the best ideas, but Parcells needs to break free of his natural tendencies and surprise the opposition.
Bill Parcells has been around so long that there is a big, huge, highly-detailed, richly-illustrated book on how to coach against him. When he has the right personnel though, his plans tend to work regardless of what the other team knows and does. But that success has diminished over the years of his coaching. Last year I noted in an article about his legacy that the line representing his success has been trending downward. From 2-time Super Bowl Champ with the Giants, to reaching the Super Bowl with the Patriots, to losing in the AFC Championship game with the Jets, to not even winning a playoff game in Dallas. Most people would at least be in danger of getting canned with that kind of declining job performance. But coaching in the NFL is a highly-specialized skill, the potential pool of replacements is small, and it's hard to let go of his legendary status as a coach.
I write all this because I believe Parcells is returning. In a strange way, the longer he waits the more I feel he's coming back. He's probably spent some time feeling out opportunities that would satisfy both his soul and his pocketbook. If he had found one, I think he would have taken it. But the farther he gets away from the disappointment of last Saturday, and the more he realizes his options to be fulfilled are limited, the more I believe he will return. Coaching the Cowboys for one more year gives him the best chance to solve all his issues, he's probably not ready to leave the game entirely, he can't make as much money doing anything else, and he wants to go out a winner. He desperately wants to reverse that trend line of deepening failure.
One week after the Cowboys stunning exit from the playoffs, the Cowboys are contemplating numerous possible futures. The one that involves Bill Parcells demands success at any price in 2007. It's up to Bill to pay that price. He needs to be open to whatever combination of offense and defense Dallas needs to run next season to be successful, even if some of it isn't familiar. His challenge next year is to be innovative and flexible, to see things as they are and build on that. If you're calling it a career, then - to borrow some other clichés - leave it all out on the field, leave no stone unturned, throw caution to the wind.
After all, it's do or die.