There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bill Parcells completely rebuilt the Dallas Cowboys during his four year stay as head coach. Only four players remain on the Cowboys from the 2002 roster: Greg Ellis, Andre Gurode, Flozell Adams and Roy Williams. Parcells was able to revamp the team and while there were certainly a few mistakes made, a lot of the work was done through successful drafts. When he was unable to get the team over its final hurdle, a postseason victory, he decided that it was time to move on and resigned as head coach. The Cowboys had made a remarkable turn around from the 5-11 teams from just a few years before but it was obvious that someone new was needed to come in and breathe life into Valley Ranch.
Jerry Jones was faced with a tough decision to make. When you have a team that needs complete reconstruction, Bill Parcells is the guy you turn to. But Jerry needed to figure out who would be the best coach that is able to come in and take over a talented roster on the brink of success, as well as working in the most pressure filled environment in sports. While it seemed that Norv Turner was the frontrunner for the job, I was pulling for Wade Phillips from the start because he was the best fit for this team. The Cowboys had already hired an offensive coordinator as well as most of the assistant coaches from the Bill Parcells era. Wade Phillips is the type of guy who could come in and take charge of a team and coaching staff without letting his ego get in the way.
The best thing about Wade Phillips as a coach is that he is a manager of people. His philosophy is that you put your personnel in a position to excel and let them do the work. He allowed his assistants to coach the players without being overbearing while at the same time instilling his own brand on the Cowboys 3-4 defense. He let rookie coordinator Jason Garrett grow into his own as an offensive coach. He also came in and treated his players like grown men, a complete 180 from the stifling ways of the former coach. The locker room was a place of laughter and playful fun. Phillips preached his belief in the power of becoming a family and rearranged the locker room to promote fraternization among teammates. The Cowboys learned how to have fun again and it paid off in a big way.
Wade Phillips took essentially the same team from the 2006 season and went from 9-7 to 13-3, as well as winning the division title for the first time in a decade. With the help of Jason Garrett’s explosive offense the Cowboys enjoyed one of the greatest regular seasons in franchise history. Unfortunately, the fantastic season was abruptly cut short with yet another post-season disaster. A defense that had steadily improved as the season progressed allowed a back-breaking touchdown drive at the end of the first half. An offense that was unstoppable just a month before suddenly became painfully mediocre. And a great season once again ended in bitter disappointment. Immediately the questions started to fly. What went wrong? Are the injuries to blame? No answers were given. Wade Phillips endlessly proclaimed that the Cowboys were the better team and just lost the game. When asked about the season’s disappointment he refused to back down from pointing out the team’s 13-3 record and how the season should be considered a success. This attitude leads us to one last question: Is it the coach’s fault?
Undoubtedly the answer is yes. The Cowboys took it easy the last month with Wade Phillips stubbornly holding on to the hope that his team could regain its swagger from earlier in the season once the playoffs began. He refused to realize that winning was not just a switch that can be turned on when it matters most. Most importantly the Cowboys just looked like a different team in the playoffs and not in a good way. Gone was the high flying Cowboys passing attack from earlier in the season, replaced with a ball control offense that was able to sustain amazingly long drives in the first half against the Giants. Unfortunately, the defense was unable to do its part and allowed New York right back in the game in less than a minute. The whole season the Cowboys thrived on punching you in the mouth, quickly before you had a chance to recover and covered up the shortcomings of the defense. It was the exact opposite come playoff time. This approach lies squarely on the head coach’s shoulders.
The warning signs of this happening were there even before Wade was named the new coach of the Cowboys. He had never won a playoff game in his previous stints as head coach. As the defensive coordinator in San Diego, Phillips helped put together one of the hardest hitting and stifling defenses in the league. But when it mattered most in the playoffs against New England in January 2007, his team once again fell short. That time, it wasn’t lack of execution but a lack of discipline. The San Diego defense was called for two game changing unsportsmanlike penalties in the fourth quarter, which allowed New England to stay alive and win the game. Now look at the Cowboys in 2007 and their game changing penalties throughout the season; taunting on Kevin Burnett at the end of the first half in New York and the holding call on fourth and one against New England, and most importantly the penalties in the fourth quarter of the playoff game against the Giants. The season was littered with penalties that came at the most inopportune times, and it all comes down to lack of discipline.
The hope is that Wade Phillips can take the lessons he learned in his first year as coach of the Cowboys and take them to the next level. He has yet to have the chance to really build and improve the teams he’s coached in his career, never staying more than a few years in each spot. It’s the unfortunate reality of the league these days that if you don’t win immediately the franchise moves on the next guy who can. While he did take over a team that was littered with talent, the Cowboys were not without their glaring holes, especially on defense. The Cowboys were an improved team in 2007 but it is obvious that more needed to be done to take that next step. Through the draft and free agency the Cowboys have drastically improved in several areas of weakness, a good sign for Wade Phillips. But if he doesn’t get it done this year, then most likely he will be on his way out.
The Cowboys are much too talented of a team to come up short again this year, and the pressure is completely on Wade Phillips. Jerry Jones already has his next head coach on staff in Jason Garrett and will not hesitate to promote him if things go wrong again. Wade Phillips has already proven he is a good coach. What the Cowboys need is for him to be a great coach.
Note: While I was doing my Leo Tolstoy impression writing up this epic examination of Wade Phillips' future, Valainferno beat me to the punch with his Cliff's Notes version, here.