By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
I was wrong.
There, I said it. Wasn't so bad. Humbling but not horrible. Therapeutic even.
After the Giant debacle two weeks ago I prematurely kick-started the annual Cowboys mystery, "Who's Next?" As in, the next candidate trying to fill Troy Aikman's cleats. Tony Romo? Drew Henson? Phillip Rivers? Matt Leinart? After the dismal New York performance in which he looked worse than Vinny Testaverde and only slightly better than Uncle Rico trying to throw the ball over that mountain, Bledsoe and the Cowboys appeared dead, soon to be buried.
Then something simple yet magical happened last Sunday at Texas Stadium. Parcells allowed his bus driver to play fighter pilot.
And for the next three hours, entranced, entertained Cowboys fans forgot about the first marriage and the second mortgage and the endless Christmas list. More important, the Cowboys remembered the blueprint for success. With Bledsoe playing risk-taker instead of caretaker, Dallas choreographed offensive plays designed to score points instead of just eat clock and feed Parcells' ego.
The result: 31 points, a fourth quarter of heart-stopping, season-saving plays and a collective hope that Parcells will finally admit his guilt and unleash his team into the playoffs behind game plans that are more desperation than caution.
Against the Chiefs, the Cowboys won because they quit playing not to lose.
"There was risk involved," Parcells said of the uncharacteristic strategy. "But the players executed."
Especially Bledsoe, the oldest Cowboy at 33, who landed here only after Dallas treasured Buffalo's trash. A slight upgrade from Testaverde. But a star of the present, much less the future? We chuckled. And when Parcells lauded him as a savvy veteran who could "manage the game," we yawned.
Now, as he did then, Bledsoe bristles at the characterization.
"I never really liked the whole 'bus driver' thing, because I don't think it's a fair assessment of our offense or our talent," Bledsoe said before the Giants game. "To say we're just out there to not make mistakes has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way."
When given time to throw, Bledsoe has been anywhere from good to spectacular.
It's surprising, given all the mobility of a curb, that he made it upright to December. At times Bledsoe's been skittish, stubborn and even stagnant in the pocket, and who can forget the brain-fart interception--delivered by Drew Badthrow--that sealed the 13-10 loss in Seattle?
"I've done OK," Bledsoe said of his performance this season. "I've taken care of the ball reasonably well, and when we've had chances to score, we usually have. The one throw--the one decision I'd like to have back--was the pass in Seattle."
For all his flaws, Bledsoe has sneaked in among the NFL's all-time elite quarterbacks. In his 13th season he's fifth in completions, 15th in touchdown passes and has nine 3,000-yard seasons, tied for the most in league history.
Even more shocking, Bledsoe is this team's MVP, probably a Pro Bowl star and maybe even the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. All that in an offense handcuffed by Parcells and injuries to tackle Flozell Adams, receiver Patrick Crayton and running back Julius Jones.
Just as impressive, Bledsoe's remained accessible after games good and bad, answering questions with care and candor. He lives not in Highland Park but Westlake, drinks beer, plays catch with his three sons, still wears eye black and his next excuse will be his first. After Sunday's heroics he slapped on a Santa hat and spent Monday delivering cheer to children in Dallas hospitals.
What's not to like?
Other than his coach.
Parcells said the aggressive strategy against the high-powered Chiefs was born of necessity. Did he listen to players, who said they campaigned for a more ambitious approach in the wake of the Giants whiff? Or did he tire of tiptoeing his way to 10 points and finally succumb to our season-long screams? "Fans and laymen," Parcells labels those of us who crave bombs over ball control, who think "protective" and "production" go together about as well as Martha Stewart and anonymity.
Quick, name the Cowboys' two most impressive offensive showings of the season. Against the Eagles and Chiefs, both at home, Dallas started with three passes and finished with 30-plus points. In contrast, the conservative Cowboys have failed to produce more than two offensive touchdowns in their last four road games.
Yep, your Cowboys have become the Rangers. Homers at home; strikeouts on the road. Except this has nothing to do with stealing signs and everything to do with scripting plays. Want a weird, telling stat? When opponents score first this season, the Cowboys are 6-3. When the Cowboys score first, they are only 2-2. Three conclusions: 1. Dallas' conservative approach usually gets it in an early hole. 2. Parcells' grind-it-out style has nurtured exactly one victory this season--the 20-7 sleeper over the Lions. 3. When forced to play aggressive and come-from-behind, Dallas' offense can morph pretty well from bus to bullet train.
So, duh, why not start the game playing like you are behind?
"It can cost you pretty dearly to just take that gunslinger attitude toward every game," Parcells said. "I don't think it's percentage football."
It was against Kansas City. Instead of keeping tight end Jason Witten in to help block to avoid negative plays, Parcells sent him into pass patterns to make positive plays. Witten caught seven passes and a touchdown. Instead of trying to achieve Parcells' coveted stat of amassing more running plays than the opponent, the Cowboys turned a run into a pass. Bledsoe hit Terry Glenn with a gorgeous 71-yard flea-flicker fling. And instead of trying to score via old-school smash-mouth football inside the 10, the Cowboys rallied on a reverse to Glenn and a pass to afterthought tight end Dan Campbell, who hadn't scored in two years.
The risks were there. But, as usual with this Cowboys offense, so were the rewards.
To make the playoffs, the 8-5 Cowboys have to win two of their last three games. Unfortunately the next two against Washington and Carolina are on the road, where Parcells doesn't coach desperate and daring but safe and scared.
We want Parcells to admit he's been wrong all year about Bledsoe and his offense and actually try to win another game against another comparable opponent by outscoring them. But who are we kidding? Sunday against the Redskins the Cowboys will go back to establishing the run, controlling the clock, playing field position--and losing.
Here's hoping I'm wrong. Again.
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