By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Remember back when Greg Ellis was a good guy?
Before the position change grousing and the contract complaints and the trade demands and the retirement threats and the career-jeopardizing injury, he was one of the Dallas Cowboys' best players and best people. Not anymore. Not right now.
It's been a tumultuous year for the once-beloved Ellis. Public whining has diluted his popularity. A torn Achilles tendon has decreased his productivity.
He's deteriorated from the team's defensive anchor into the franchise's anarchist, amazingly generating more negative headlines this pre-season than Terrell Owens.
Greg Ellis, meet Johnny Drama.
Wait. Here comes the but.
"But I don't want to totally rule out Greg Ellis," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said before last week's exhibition finale loss to the Minnesota Vikings. "I'm not going to rule him out."
Jones, to be clear, was addressing Ellis' availability for Sunday night's NFL season opener against the New York Giants at Texas Stadium. But he could've just as easily been assessing Ellis' character.
Not sure which begat the other, but the Cowboys need the return of both Ellis the good guy and Ellis the good player.
"Of course I want to play," Ellis told reporters last week at Valley Ranch. "But if I'm not out there I think the team can win without me. People are saying things like, 'Well, he thinks he's God's gift to this football team.' No, I just want to have the opportunity to be a part of it."
As Michael Finley was to the Mavericks, Ellis is to the Cowboys. Good player, shackled to a lot of bad teams.
No player has been with the Cowboys longer, yet he has never won a playoff game. Since arriving as a No. 1 draft pick in 1998 he's been a forthright spokesman and fearless captain. He returned from that gruesome broken leg in '99. He's led the team in sacks six times and likely would've tied Harvey Martin's team record of seven had he not torn his Achilles last November 12 against the Cardinals. Shame that when the Mavs finally won the Western Conference and finally advanced to The NBA Finals, Finley, the player who paid the majority of the dues, wasn't around to enjoy it.
The Cowboys have a chance to make the Super Bowl. And, despite his undulating physical and mental states, Ellis has a chance to contribute.
"I still think he's got a great chance to be a part of a very successful team and defensive unit," Jones said. "We're counting on him. He knows we're counting on him. We don't have a player that understands the system any more than Greg does."
Said head coach Wade Phillips at training camp in San Antonio, "We need his skills. We need his experience. He's an important part of what we're going to try to do defensively."
Countless times over the last year, however, the Cowboys could have done without Ellis' headaches.
Last summer he bitched and initially balked at moving from defensive end to linebacker, mandated by Bill Parcells' switch to a 3-4 alignment. Nonetheless, when he crumpled on an innocent-looking rush in Arizona in the season's ninth game, Ellis led a defense that ranked third. Without him the unit cratered, surrendering 33 points per game the final month.
Last spring, identifying an eventual successor to the 32-year-old Ellis, the Cowboys used their top draft pick on Purdue pass-rusher Anthony Spencer. Ellis, who already had a hurt foot, expressed his hurt feelings.
Ellis the PC; Spencer the Mac.
"People can say, 'He's not going to take your job,'" Ellis said during camp. "But that's the nature of this beast. You don't draft a first-rounder to sit the bench."
Though awarded a $4 million signing bonus in '03, making $2.5 million this season and under contract through '09, Ellis went public with his crazy crusade for financial security. He never asked for more money, just guaranteed money.
And when Jones shrewdly shrugged off the plausibility of re-structuring the contract of a 10-year veteran coming off a major injury, Ellis dug his hole deeper when he threatened to retire.
A talk with his wife, a call from Darren Woodson and a bolt of common sense (retirement would've meant refunding half his '03 bonus) quickly halted his thoughts of quitting.
"I heard people saying he was selfish, and he's not that way at all," said Woodson, the former Cowboys Pro Bowl safety. "If he wasn't a great guy, a committed guy, I wouldn't have called him. But I didn't want him to leave with fans thinking those things about him."
Said Ellis, "It didn't happen, so we are where we are."
Since Achilles injuries typically require a year's rehab, Ellis is actually ahead of schedule. That doesn't, however, mean he'll be ready for the start of the season. He hasn't practiced since the first day of camp on July 25, when pain in his heel forced him from The Alamodome field. A medical second opinion last week confirmed he's healing but not yet healthy.
Exasperatingly, Ellis has been "day-to-day" for six weeks.
The Cowboys can temporarily survive with Spencer but will eventually need Ellis' unique pass-rushing skills opposite Pro Bowl linebacker DeMarcus Ware because Phillips' 3-4, much more aggressive than Parcells' version, is predicated on pressure.
Improved defense is why Phillips was hired in the first place. It's why the Cowboys have spent eight of their last 10 top draft picks on defensive players. It's why seven of the 11 starters were ranked among Sports Illustrated's 500 best NFL players. It's why an 11-5 record and the first playoff victory in 11 seasons are not only realistic but required.
With assistants free to talk and defenders free to attack, Dallas will be better.
Boasted defensive coordinator Brian Stewart of his unit during camp, "I feel it should be the best defense in the NFL."
For that to happen, Ellis must stop campaigning and start contributing. It's been too long since he's been a positive presence. Forever a fixture at team functions, he wasn't at the Gaylord Texan's Glass Cactus bar last week, where co-linebackers Bradie James and Bobby Carpenter played dominos with T.O. during quarterback Tony Romo's radio show party. He wasn't on SI's ranking. And he likely won't be in uniform Sunday night when NBC's Al Michaels and John Madden detail an early NFC East showdown with season-long ramifications.
Gone but not forgotten, the Cowboys need Greg Ellis. To again be a good guy. And a great player.