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Fixing the Cowboys is up to Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips

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How to fix the Dallas Cowboys? That's the billion-dollar question. (This is the Cowboys and Jerry Jones, we don't do million-dollar questions.) There's an old adage when things go wrong with a sports team that says: "You can't fire all the players so you fire the manager." Now, I'm not stating that Wade Phillips should be fired because that ship has sailed. Jerry Jones has unequivocally made it clear that won't happen this offseason. But the adage still has meaning in the sense that you have to use the players you have (even more so after free-agency and the draft) so if you want things to change you have to have a change in management, or in this case, management style.

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Wade Phillips has already offered up the idea that he is going to change, that he will be tougher on the players, the way they practice might change, there might be fines and punishments for infractions in practice like penalties, missed assignments etc. I applaud that approach although I fear it won't be enough. He needs to go further and establish the fact that the inmates aren't running the asylum. He doesn't need to become R. Lee Ermy in Full Metal Jacket but he does need to make it known that players will not be allowed to undermine the coaches. It can be argued that the players are correct (in the technical sense) when they speak out about the failings of the coaching staff, but that's not the point. A sports team generally can't function when players feel they have the right to say or do whatever they want and there will be no repercussions. Most organizations can't function well under that kind of structure. Unfortunately, that's exactly where the Cowboys find themselves.

At the risk of opening up another contentious Terrell Owens debate, he is an example of what you can't have on a team. Before you guys blow your top and start firing off comments dismissive of the idea, hear me out. I'm not advocating the dismissal of T.O. from the team and I don't debate the idea that he is our best wide receiver and provides us with a dangerous weapon that causes defenses to re-think their strategies when they play us. I think that is true. But when he, on multiple occasions this year, is publicly questioning the offensive coordinator's abilities he does so to the detriment of the team. He can coat it with the gloss of "I just want to win and when I get the ball it helps the team win" which has enough truth in it to make it hard to deny the statements validity. That's not the point though, what it does is have the effect of trickling down to other players who now start thinking, even if they don't say it publicly, that they are being wrongly used in the system or their talents are being overlooked. This can lead to a variety of ailments including apathy, not accepting responsibility for your own failings and various other thought-processes that hurt overall effort and cohesion. There are other players who have done the same thing and are equally as culpable as T.O. I will be blasted for singling out T.O. but he is the easiest example because he does it the most often and the most vociferously. So if you want to hang your objections on that point, so be it, but I think you miss the bigger picture which is that we have quite a few guys on this team that think blaming the coaches or others instead of looking in the mirror and examining their own efforts is the right way to go.

Who is ultimately to blame for all of that discontent? The coach and the GM/Owner. They need to be on the same page and I don't think they are, even though their relationship appears to be solid. It's not a matter of consciously undermining each other but it's their personalities and the way they approach things that end up striking a disharmonious chord. Wade Phillips is so much of a player's coach that he believes a player's happiness is paramount. He might say that's not the case but his actions belie that claim. We don't need him to call out his players publicly but behind closed doors he doesn't seem to be able to take on a player. Benching someone for a game or even the first quarter would be a good way to set an example. Limiting playing time is one of the few ways left to get a players attention in this coddling-culture of professional athletes that we currently live in. The argument against that is you can lose a player by doing something along those lines, but if you do, you have to wonder about that player's mental-makeup and whether he is the kind of guy who will help you get to where you want to go anyway. There are different examples just this year of coaches unafraid of taking on players or the team in a confrontational way. Mike Singletary sent TE Vernon Davis to the showers in the middle of a game. Afterwards, by most accounts, Davis played much better in the remaining games. Ken Whisenhunt, after his Cardinals got shellacked by the Patriots, told the team they better come to practice the next week with a new attitude and any player who didn't would find himself on the bench for the playoffs. They're now playing for the NFC championship. John Harbaugh, the Baltimore Ravens coach, was asked how he sold his philosophy to the players. He responded it wasn't his job to sell it, it was their job to buy it. They are now playing for the AFC championship.

The Cowboys have lapsed into a world where the belief in pure talent has blinded them to the other aspects that make a team successful. They do this at their own peril and that peril has been realized repeatedly in their recent past.

Jerry Jones is also responsible because we have seen him take the side of players, maybe not explicitly, but by not shooting them down when they turn to him or even when he is asked by the press about comments they have made. If he wants to ensure that the team respects, and even to some extent fears the coaches, he needs to make it known in no uncertain terms that the coaches have his confidence and if you, as a player, are undermining that effort there will be consequences. Jerry also has the habit of playing nice-guy with the players and fails to understand that his tacit approval of their complaints is killing this team's ability to perform at a high-level. Team-unity, a highly abstract concept, is nonetheless a critical part of a team's success. Counterarguments like the 70's Yankees are just exceptions that prove the rule.

Coaches can be nice and still succeed. Tony Dungy obviously comes to mind. But his success as a "player's coach" probably owes more to his personality and his particular brand of nice. I don't know for sure because I'm not in the Colts locker room but I would venture a guess that while he is not a screamer or thought of as a disciplinarian, one thing he does manage to do is command the respect of his players. I would go further and say that while on the surface his demeanor is light, in terms of the players he demands accountability and belief in what the coaches and the organization does as a whole. Whether it's verbal, implicit or just a result of the type of players they bring into that organization, Dungy manages to be "nice" but never sees his team in chaos in terms of player's comments or actions. I'd argue it's impossible to just copy his style because every coach's personality and demeanor are different. The point is that you have to reach a level of command and respect, whatever the methods, and the Cowboys don't seem to be there.

You can't silence players, everybody needs to be able to speak their minds and express their opinions or you end up with suppressed resentment which is no better than explicit resentment. People are adaptable though and most will comport themselves to the situation they are in if they believe they are doing it for the right reasons. Players will subvert some of their misgivings if they think there will be consequences for overt displays of undermining those in charge and that those in charge are truly working in their best interests. If a player can't do that, then they need to be made an example of so the virus doesn't spread. It's a fine line to walk but the Cowboys organization has veered from one side of the line to the other and has not been able to find the happy medium.

If the Cowboys are to succeed, the head coach and the GM/Owner must work in concert with each other and they must establish some boundaries for the players. It can be a difficult task at first and they might lose a player or two along the way. You might have to take a few steps back before you can take a step forward. Or you can continue along the same path they are currently on and end up with a talented stable of athletes who can't pull it together when the pressure comes down. Too many agendas spoil the meal.

That's what I think, anyway. Feel free to express your own thoughts, because unlike a sports team, this blog can actually thrive on dissenting opinions. Or if you agree, that's cool, too.