By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
I was wrong.
Not about the Minnesota Vikings beating the Dallas Cowboys, mind you. That one I nailed. My mistake was predicting that—short of a Super Bowl appearance—head coach Wade Phillips wouldn't return in 2010 and beyond.
Even in the wake of an embarrassing 34-3 dismissal from the NFC Playoffs in Minneapolis last Sunday, owner Jerry Jones inked Phillips to a new deal that will keep him coaching at Valley Ranch through at least early 2011.
Translation: The bar for Dallas Cowboys' football has been lowered further than I expected. Once upon a time this proud franchise—America's Team, anyone?—measured success via Super Bowl banners. These days it's Wild Card wins.
Phillips has been here three seasons. His Cowboys have one playoff victory.
Really, that's progress?
Ask yourself: Are the Cowboys any closer to winning a Super Bowl today than when they walked off the field after Tony Romo's botched hold in Seattle back in 2007? Maybe. But only marginally.
The Cowboys are 33-15 under Phillips, winning a pair of NFC East Championships and going 1-2 in the playoffs. In retrospect, the January 9 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium was the perfect poison.
With that result, Phillips' Cowboys are good enough to proclaim themselves winners; bad enough to never seriously threaten any real post-season hardware. But Jones—and the players—covet continuity, regardless that it's a continuity of mediocrity.
The combined score of Dallas' last two season-ending losses: 78-9.
"His record speaks for itself," Romo said last Monday afternoon while teammates cleaned out their lockers at the team's practice facility. "He's done a great job, kept the team together through a lot of tough times this year. He's done a fantastic job. I think it's always important to continue to have the same system in place. For players, it goes a long way to continue to build and continue to improve, because the system is a big part of it."
Added linebacker Bradie James, "It just wouldn't make any sense to let him go right now, with just the way that we played, the way that we ended the season. I don't think that it's broken."
No, but is it fixed?
"I'm disappointed," Jones said in the post-game locker room, "but not discouraged."
Face it, the Cowboys promptly fell down and farted on the big stage in the Metrodome. The 31-point loss to the Vikings is the second-worst in franchise history behind only a 38-6 shellacking against the Detroit Lions at the end of the 1991 season. In the end, the Cowboys couldn't block the Vikings' pass rush (six sacks), couldn't cover receiver Sidney Rice (three touchdowns) and couldn't do anything except whine (right, Keith Brooking?) like little crybabies when quarterback Brett Favre threw a rub-it-in touchdown in the final two minutes.
The Cowboys called the Vikings classless. Minnesota shrugged, then rejoiced while Favre coat-tailed the American Idol phenomenon and sang "Pants on the Ground" in the victorious locker room.
That, Cowboys fans, is a tough tablet to take.
Dallas promises it's already marked the calendar for a 2010 regular-season rematch with the Vikings. But will the Cowboys be any better next season?
In a lot of ways, January 2010 feels like January 1992. Back then a young team led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin won a playoff game in Chicago before the humbling loss to the Lions. It was a significant improvement, and the defeat only temporarily paused the progression. The next season the Cowboys again made the playoffs and wound up winning Super Bowl XXVII.
This year a young team led by Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin won a playoff game in Arlington before the humbling defeat in Minnesota. It was a season of significant, barrier-busting improvement, the defeat possibly pausing the progression. Next season...
"We now have the understanding of what it takes to do certain things," Romo said. "Now we know what to do to get to that point. Now we have to do even more to take the next step. We'll do that."
The Cowboys won in December. For the first time since 1996 they won a playoff game. Unfortunately, the next advancement—from good to great to elite—may be even more difficult.
Re-signing Austin is off-season priority No. 1. He's a genuine run-after-catch playmaker that opens options for everybody from tight end Jason Witten to running backs Felix Jones, Tashard Choice and Marion Barber. As a restricted free agent, the Cowboys can match any offer from another team. In other words, he'll remain a Cowboy.
Second on the list has to be finding a reliable kicker. Nick Folk wasn't the answer, nor was Shaun Suisham. It'd be a shame for the Cowboys to attain and acquire championship-level parts only to taint the whole operation with a Dollar Store kicker. Defensive end Marcus Spears is the only other front-line player who will require an off-season re-signing, putting the Cowboys in healthy shape roster-wise.
In the draft, they need an offensive left tackle. Flozell Adams is old and creaky and—though his injury against Minnesota was debilitating—the Cowboys were lucky he made it though 17 weeks. Doug Free proved himself serviceable, but after Adams' departure the Cowboys allowed four sacks, scored 0 points and went 0-9 on third down. Upgrading from Ken Hamlin at safety and Roy Williams at receiver are also on the front burner.
"I think we're close," Witten said. "We definitely took some steps in the right direction this season. It's disappointing that we lost like we did to end it again like last season, but it doesn't totally take away from the season we've had."
Said Brooking, "I'm not satisfied one bit. I didn't come here to win one playoff game and go home. We need to come back next season and be a better football team. This is unacceptable."
Even though the Cowboys ultimately didn't overachieve, Phillips did enough—by most fans' standards, anyway—to keep his job. He was a little tougher disciplinarian, with players' fines jumping from $100 to one game check. He was a little more demanding as far as accountability, with Patrick Crayton losing his starting job to Austin, and Folk—better late than never—finally getting cut.
I can't call Phillips Stumbledoofus anymore—not with a playoff win on his otherwise impressive résumé. But it's easy to be reminded why I tagged him that in the first place. It wasn't merely the fact that he didn't go for 4th-and-1 at Minnesota's 30-yard line on Dallas' second drive. It's the fact that after the game when he attempted to explain his lack of gonads he had no idea it was 4th-and-1.
"Well, it wasn't fourth and one," Phillips said. Yes, it was. Inexcusable.
My dollar says Bill Cowher would not only go for it there, but he'd damn sure know why he went for it. But, alas, we'll never know.
Still, the question begs to be asked: Considering the evidence of three seasons, are you convinced Wade Phillips can take—can lead—the Dallas Cowboys to the next level, and the next, and the next, to a Super Bowl victory?
Sorry, I'm not.
But I've been wrong before.