Bill Parcells’ retirement following the 2006 season meant Jerry Jones was running free again and he immediately descended into the chaotic, dysfunctional ways that had plagued the team before Parcells’ arrival.
Normally when an NFL team is looking for a head coach they go about pursuing him immediately so he can start assembling his own staff. That’s why the weeks before the Super Bowl are a hive of activity for NFL coaches. Usually, by the Super Bowl, teams have named their head coach and he’s assembled both his coordinators and parts of his staff (unless they’re pursuing a coach in the Super Bowl).
Not the 2007 Cowboys under Jerry Jones. First, in a highly unorthodox move, Jones re-signed offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Garrett had interviewed for the Cowboys’ head coaching position and was also in contention for a potential head coaching gig with the Ravens. This was a highly questionable move because it would mean any incoming coach wouldn’t be able to name his own coordinator, severely limiting the pool of head coaching candidates.
Second, Jones seemed in no hurry to find a head coach. He interviewed ten candidates and most thought former Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Norv Turner would get the job. Finally, on Februay 9th Jones introduced Wade Phillips as the seventh head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The decision was not universally embraced.
Phillips was a very successful coordinator who’d had decent, but not great, results as a head coach. He was essentially the anti-Parcells. Where Parcells was a demanding control-freak who at times rubbed players, coaches, staff and the media the wrong way, Phillips was a laid-back, non-threatening presence. More importantly, he also seemed happy to simply be coach of the Cowboys and represented absolutely no threat to Jerry’s status as the main decision-maker. This was clear to all from his first day on the job.
Shockingly to many (well, me anyway) the 2007 team jumped out of the gate and basically ran uncontested to the team’s first division title since 1998. The team’s 13 regular season wins tied the 1992 Super Bowl champion for best in team history.
Tony Romo emerged as a legitimate star, starting all 13 games, tossing a franchise-record 36 touchdowns and more than 4,200 yards. Terrell Owens was as good as hoped for, catching 15 touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards. The offense would rank second in the NFL in points and thirdrd in yards. In short, the team was an offensive juggernaut.
The defense wasn’t as good (13th in point, ninth in yards). But they did record 46 sacks (14 from DeMarcus Ware) and forced 19 interceptions. Teamed with the explosive offense the 2007 Cowboys team was by far the best, most promising team since the mid 90’s.
The team seemed like a well-run machine through the team’s first 12 games, compiling an 11-1 record (the only defeat a 48-27 loss to a Patriot’s team that would win all 16 regular season games). Week 13 featured a match-up of 10-1 teams that would likely decide homefield advantage through the NFC playoffs. Dallas would defeat the Packers 37-27 that night. Third-year QB Aaron Rodgers saw his first NFL action, filling in for an injured Brett Favre.
Dallas fans were rightly enthusiastic about the team’s prospects moving forward. At that point the Cowboys had outscored opponents 395-248, or 33-21 per game. That 12-point differential per game would have been fifth best in team history and better than any of the 90’s teams.
But it would be fool’s gold as the team never again came close to playing as well in December/January as it had September through November.
- First came a 28-27 defeat of the 6-6 Detroit Lions on the road. Any win on the road is good but the Cowboys defense surrendered 390 yards and the Lions led 27-14 entering the fourth quarter. Tony Romo then engineered three consecutive long drives. The team first went 56 yards in 10 plays for a 1-yard Marion Barber touchdown. Romo then marched the team 74 yards in nine plays only for Jason Witten to fumble on the Lions’ 1-yard line, leaving the team down six points with 3:32 to play. Romo then took over with 2:15 left, needing to go 83 yards for a touchdown to win the game. He did exactly that, with Witten atoning for his error with a 16-yard touchdown catch with 18 seconds remaining to win the game. (Witten had 15 catches on 18 targets for 138 yards and the lone touchdown).
- The following week the Cowboys suffered a humiliating, late-season home defeat to the Eagles, eerily similar to the prior season. The Eagles caused three turnovers, held the Cowboys to only 240 yards, held the ball for 33 minutes and kept the high-powered Cowboys’ offense out of the end zone. Dallas converted only one of thirteen first downs. Romo completed only 13-of-36 passes with zero touchdowns, three interceptions and 22.2 rating. It was a dispiriting loss in every manner.
- Now at 12-2 and following a horrible loss the Cowboys needed a win to regain their swagger. And the following week at Carolina they seemed back to themselves early, racing out to a 14-0 lead and scoring 17 first half points. The offense sputtered the rest of the game, however, generating only three second half points and never looking threatening. Dallas held on for an unimpressive, ho-hum 20-13 victory. Still, the objective had been met. Dallas had won the NFC East for the first time in nearly ten years and secured home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. All seemed good. Only a meaningless season-finale against Washington remained before entering the playoffs in the best position the team had enjoyed since 1995.
- The Cowboys lost the next week 27-6. The game was played in horrible conditions; a steady rain fell throughout with temperatures in the mid-30’s and a 10 MPH wind. The Cowboys simply didn’t show up. The offense generated only 147 yards, with Brad Johnson playing quarterback through the second half. Sixteen rushing attempts netted only a single yard. Dallas held the ball for less than 23 minutes. Simply, there was no compete or heart on display by the Cowboys at any time during the game. The entire team had no interest in playing NFL football that day and only seemed interested in getting off the field and into a dry locker-room.
Many Cowboys fans seemed undisturbed. The game was meaningless; they had homefield locked up; everything was smooth. I didn’t think so. I was bothered by the performance throughout December but I was aghast at what happened in Washington.
Championship teams don’t quit. Championship teams don’t curl up because it’s a little cold. Championship teams take pride in their performance and possess an inner-driven will to compete regardless of the circumstances. The team looked like a group who believed they need only show up and victory would be assured.
- Season: 2007
- Date: 2008.01.13
- Opponent: New York Giants
- At stake: advance to NFC Conference finals
- Result: Loss
- Score: 21-17
Two weeks later Dallas faced off against the New York Giants in the first playoff game hosted at Texas Stadium since 1998. And the Cowboys played their best game since the November tilt against the Packers. They out gained the Giants 336 to 230. They held the ball for more than 36 minutes. They converted ten of sixteen third downs. They committed only a single turnover on the game’s last play. They had back-to-back 90+ yard touchdown drives, including a truly monumental 20-play, 90-yard, ten and-a-half minute drive.
And yet the walked off the field losers. The team was done in by several factors:
- The Dallas defense played very well. Four of the Giants’ drives netted 10 yards or less and only three managed to penetrate midfield. However, each time the Giants passed midfield they score a touchdown. One of those was a soul-crushing response after the Cowboys’ 20-play drive when Eli Manning needed only 0:47 seconds to march the team for a 71-yard touchdown late in the second half. In less than a minute the defense had squandered the momentum gained from the monumental drive.
- Another Giants’ touchdown came after yet another special teams gaffe by the Cowboys, allowing R.W. McQuarters a 25-yard punt return leaving the Giants to travel only 37 yards for their final touchdown. This had followed a 45-yard kick-off return that flipped field position on the previous possession.
- Eleven Cowboys’ penalties cost the team 84 yards. Numerous and costly penalties were also a constant throughout this era.
- Patrick Crayton helped torch Tony Romo’s legacy. First Crayton dropped what should have been an 83-yard touchdown on a 3rd-and-14 where Romo made a miraculous play to avoid being sacked. Then, on the penultimate play of the game Crayton simply quit on a route that, had he not quit, would have seen him running untouched to the end zone for a perfectly placed, last-second, game-winning touchdown.
- The Cowboys final four possessions ended with three punts and an interception; the final three drives each failed with the Cowboys needing a touchdown to take the lead. The last two drives were particularly disappointing because Dallas took over at the Dallas 44 and the Giants’ 48 respectively. The juggernaut Cowboys offense was twice given short fields needing a score to win the game and advance and in neither instance met the challenge.
The reality is the Cowboys lost this playoff game because they simply weren’t good enough. They didn’t play their best football, which isn’t surprising considering they hadn’t played well over the final six weeks of the season.
Here’s a comparison of the team’s per-game stats through November versus after November:
What stands out is the offense fell apart late in 2007. After averaging nearly 33 points per game in the early months the team scored less than 16 points per game (-53%) in the last month. Yardage totals declined from 391 to 299 (-24%). The defense, meanwhile, allowed the same number of points and same number of yards as earlier in the year but saw their turnovers forced decline from more than 2 per game to 1.3 per game (-36%). Looking at differentials the story is clear:
A team with a +12 point differential across an entire season would rank among the NFL elite; very few teams have reached that number. Yet, in every category (points, yards, turnovers) the team went from elite to negative. Finally, it’s been well-documented that winning the passer rating statistic is highly correlated with winning and we see that with the Cowboys’ numbers in 2007:
A team with a +42-point passer rating variance will not only win a lot of games, it will dominate opponents. A team with a -19-point passer rating variance will lose the vast majority of its games.
Simply put, the Cowboys went from a dominant squad powered by a juggernaut offense to a mediocre team with a mediocre offense. It’s no real mystery that they lost.
I have a long-held theory that any time every unit of a large team declines or plays well below ability the leadership is responsible. And the 2007 Dallas Cowboys support the theory. Wade Phillips simply let the team get lazy and self-satisfied despite having accomplished nothing. At no point during the clear and obvious decline in performance did Phillips challenge or question the team’s performance. In fact, Phillips would get defensive when asked about it, citing the team’s overall record and home-field status.
We’ll see that Phillips not having the team ready to play key games and watching the team lose in those games would be a hallmark of his tenure.