Last year when Jerry Jones was looking for the successor to Bill Parcells, I was much more in favor of Wade Phillips over Norv Turner. I thought Turner was an incredible offensive coordinator yet he just wasn't able to get it done as a coach, and players that had played for him have stated that he was never able to get accountability out his players. It was obvious that the team needed a change of pace from Parcells, but I also wasn't keen on seeing a pushover coach come in and lead America's Team. As the coaching search continued and Wade Phillips emerged as one of the favorites to get the job, it made sense to me that Phillips would be the best fit. With Tony Romo heading up a talented offense, it was obvious the unit that needed the most work was a very inconsistent defense. Wade Phillips was known for coming to a team and being able to improve the play of his defense almost immediately. Under Phillips, San Diego had turned into one of the most talented and feared units in the league. And if the team wanted someone different than Bill Parcells, there is no one further on the opposite end of the coaching spectrum than Wade Phillips.
As soon as training camp started last year, the changes from the previous regime were apparent. Dubbed by the local media as "Camp Cupcake" it was thought that while a change of pace is nice, perhaps there is such thing as being too much of a "player's coach." However, the Cowboys exploded out of the gates to a 12-1 record before finishing the season 13-3 and the number one seed in the NFC. Perhaps we were wrong to speculate and Wade Phillips really was the coach we needed to find success.
Yet disappointment of December bled over into January and while, yes Dallas did have a first-round bye, the Cowboys bowed out once again in the first game of the playoffs. A team that had played high-octane, high-flying football for three months fell flat on its face, unable to score more than 20 points in the final four games of the season including a 21-17 loss to the New York Giants. Immediately questions were raised, wondering why Dallas yet again failed when it mattered most. What was most disconcerting was how Wade Phillips handled the scrutiny, almost refusing to acknowledge that the season was a failure as he relentlessly cited the team's 13-3 regular season record.
As the Cowboys moved forward during the 2008 preseason the players said the right things, the coaching staff was tweaked to help better support Wade Phillips and Jerry and Stephen Jones improved the team as much as their wallets would allow. On paper the Cowboys improved an already impressive team but the question has still remained; will Wade Phillips be able to find postseason success with perhaps the most talented team in the NFL?
Some have stated that the Cowboys locker room is just ready to erupt, that the team on the constant verge of turmoil as numerous egos fight for breathing room. Yet Wade Phillips has been able to reign in those egos as preaches the power of the team as family, a concept that has been embraced by all on the roster. HBO's Hard Knocks, usually a insider's view of team controversy, has come up empty as it portrays a team having fun together as the prepare for the upcoming season. But the way the team has played in the first two games of the preseason has many wondering if perhaps there is such thing as too much fun.
There is nothing wrong with losing in the preseason; teams play their starters sparingly, there is no game planning and it is used as a nominal time to evaluate young players. However, undisciplined and uninspired football is very concerning to see, especially when a team has Super Bowl hopes. What is most disconcerting is that the issues that have plagued the team in August are the same problems that led to its downfall last January. Penalties and lackluster effort will trump any amount of talent you might have on your team, and the responsibility for improving in those areas has to lie somewhere, and the finger is immediately pointed at the head coach.
To me, Wade Phillips is more of a team manager than the head coach. He allows the assistant coaches and coordinators to do their jobs with minimal interference on his part. Granted, he does have a bit more involvement with the defense but rarely do you see him on the sideline with a clipboard and dry-erase marker, telling the linebackers how better to get to the quarterback. He isn't going to give an impassioned, fire and brimstone motivational speech before a game. He leaves that for his veterans like Terrell Owens and Greg Ellis. And being that kind of head coach is not a bad thing. Tony Dungy was thought to be too soft a coach until he won a Super Bowl with a depleted defense.
What Wade Phillips needs to do is find that perfect balance between being the nice guy coach and being able to instill the discipline necessary to win a championship. Perhaps what we saw against Denver was just a tired, tapped out team ready to get back home after three weeks of training camp. But what you start doing now as a team will carry on into the regular season and will provide something to build upon as you gear up for the playoffs. What might seem like a simple, harmless penalty in week 2 becomes a game changing holding call in the playoffs. If the Cowboys come out and cream the Texans in the first half of Friday's game, then all the chagrin about the last one will immediately be forgotten. But high level of discipline and work ethic have to be present at all times, no matter how unimportant the game might be. The mindset of a championship team has to be there from the very beginning, but you can't just think you're a great team. You have to play and act like one. That falls on the head coach's shoulder.