This is the final installment in a five-part series in which I take longer looks at five key moments in the 2010 season (go here to look for parts 1-4). The moments I included on my list all either represented or forced a larger philosophical change that ended up having long-term repercussions during the 2010 season, and perhaps into the future. Today's essay looks at a moment which precipitated a crucial change that, in my estimation, doomed the 2010 campaign.
Moment #1: Dez Bryant's High Ankle Sprain in the First Week of Training Camp
Almost all the news coming out of the first week of training camp was positive. The first salvo was fired by the defense, which dominated the first couple of days of practice. The offense rebounded, however, and began to operate crisply and pick up some nice gains in the passing game. By all accounts, practices were crisp, physical and more than a bit chippy. The lion's share of praise, however, was reserved for first-round draftee Dez Bryant, who picked up where he had left off during OTAs and minicamps by repeatedly making highlight reel catches that elicited excited "oooohs" from the Cowboy fans assembled in the climate-controlled Alamodome.
Exactly one week into camp, however, Bryant dove to catch a low pass and was rolled on by the trailing Orlando Scandrick. He remained on the ground for a while, writhing in pain, before struggling to his feet. He then attempted to walk to the sideline by himself but needed to be helped by the Cowboys' training staff. A subsequent MRI revealed a high ankle sprain that threatened to keep him out of action for 4-6 weeks. Suddenly, Jerry Jones' shiny new toy was going to miss the bulk of training camp and, more critically, all the much-needed preseason games.
As per Jones' directive, the coaching staff eased off. Consequently, the tempo and intensity of training camp practices began to diminish. By the time the team had relocated to Oxnard, they were practicing frequently (on numerous occasions, Phillips pointed out that he had scheduled more two-a-days for the Cowboys than any other coach had for his team) but with nowhere near the intensity that had characterized the early practices in San Antonio. Although a lot of time was spent working on stuff in the California sun, not much progress was being made--in fact, the ‘Boys likely took a step or two back. This seeming regression was compounded when, in the span of three days, both Kyle Kosier and Marc Columbo suffered injuries that would keep them out for the remainder of the preseason (and, as it turned out, the season opener).
The results of this easing off can be seen in the way Dallas played in its preseason games. In the opener, the Hall of Fame game against the Bengals, the Cowboys handily won the battle at the line of scrimmage--and their defense was clearly dominant, narrowly missing a shutout. A week later, the moribund Raiders played them fairly evenly. In early August, the Chargers were the dominant team at the line; Tony Romo seldom had time to throw, while his opposite, Philip Rivers, sliced and diced in limited game time. The following week against the Texans, in the traditional tune up for the season opener, Dallas was humiliated in literally every phase of the contest. In the final preseason game, the starters were pulled, with the assumption that they could flip the switch once the games counted.
As it turned out, they couldn't. The downward practice spiral that characterized the bulk of the preseason had created a soft, bloated, and imprecise team that, on offense, struggled to be aggressive, to execute, and to control the line of scrimmage. On defense, the front seven had trouble getting off blocks; the secondary blew assignments and had difficulty tackling. And I've already written about the numerous problems that plagued the Dallas special teams at the beginning of the year. As we know all too well, the overall results were disastrous: numerous penalties, close losses to supposedly inferior teams, and a season that was effectively over by the beginning of October.
Looking back, its no surprise that Jason Garrett's first order of business was to put his guys in pads for Wednesday practices. One of the media-driven themes of the first weeks after he was promoted to head coach was that Garrett was copying the methodology of Jimmy Johnson, whose teams had engaged in spirited, physical practices throughout the season. Unlike most of these themes, this one was correct; perhaps the most noticeable improvement during the last half of the season was that the Cowboys' line play improved significantly. One pleasing result was that the comparatively immobile Jon Kitna had the time to pass that more evasive Tony Romo had seldom been afforded before his season was abruptly terminated in week seven.
It seems so obvious, so simple: to prepare for a violent game, you have to prepare violently. Watching the conference championship games on Sunday, I saw four organizations who clearly believe in intense physicality as a fundamental organizational principle; indeed, when asked to define his team's style of play, Steelers linebacker James Harrison replied simply, "violent." Jimmy, and his teams, clearly understood this equation. As a man who played under Johnson, Garrett appears to as well. At some point, however, Jerry Jones appears to have forgotten this basic maxim.
The explanation is fairly obvious and completely understandable: he doesn't want any of the shiny toys GM Jerry has collected (and Owner Jerry spend a gazillion dollars for) to get broken. But this is faulty thinking. To win in the NFL, I submit, you must practice as if you are going to lose players--and prepare to win in spite of these losses. The Packers, for example, are currently missing sixteen guys with whom they began the season, many of whom (Mark Tauscher, Brady Poppinga, Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley) are starters and/ or key contributors. They suffered a staggering 83 games lost by starters due to injury this season. Yet they managed to win anyway. Do you know what we call such a tough, resilient team? That's right: NFC Champions.
If they are to have any success in 2011 and beyond, the Cowboys, as an organization, need to instill this level of mental and physical toughness--a quality that jumped ship the moment Dez Bryant limped to the sideline, and Jerry passed his fear down the chain of command, on that fateful Friday in July. That's one of the reasons why the hiring of Rob Ryan as defensive coordinator makes so much sense: he and Garrett are going to conduct brisk, spirited practices wherein they encourage--nay, demand that--their respective charges to pound the heck out of each other.
How else can Dallas be expected to do the same to the opposition?