Cowboys' Winter Wonderland
You can no longer get your boots at Western Warehouse. Mark Cuban is actually being pursued by a creditor. Oklahoma won a college football beauty contest over Texas. And there is a black man in the White House.
Our city—our world—is incredibly inverted. To which the Dallas Cowboys say, rubbing their hands together and slowly turning the calendar to December: Finally!
For a football team that has teased us with gold, frankincense and myrrh only to deposit coal in our stockings the last 11 years, a bizarre, upside-down finishing month will be the imperfectly perfect climax to an extraordinarily abnormal season.
"Hopefully we'll play our best football in December for a change," cornerback Terence Newman said after the 34-9 Thanksgiving drubbing of the Seattle Seahawks at Texas Stadium. "Maybe it will be a complete switch and we'll turn the tables."
In today's crazy climate anything's possible. Ross Perot can lose millions in a hedge fund. Plano's wildly successful Martini Park can be shuttered. And the Cowboys can enter the playoffs on a roll.
To accomplish that, Dallas must have a winning record in December. Win three of its last four games. Sounds simple, but it hasn't happened since 1996. Since then—for myriad reasons, led by the fact that they have a tendency to crack worse than The Jonas Brothers' prepubescent voices—the Cowboys are a confounding 18-36 in December/January including five consecutive playoff losses.
Last year, for example, they started 11-1 before a 2-2 downturn in December led to the gut-wrenching home playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. There's no logical explanation, but you can count on a rabbit hiding candy eggs at Easter, the Texas Rangers wilting in July's heat and the Cowboys freezing come Christmas.
"I think that [December drop-off] is one of those baseball stats," Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips said after the Seattle win. "At night on Thursdays, they've won this many games. You can come up with a lot of different things. I just don't think it correlates. You make your own December."
That's exactly what I'd say and precisely how I'd debunk the theory. Especially if—like Phillips—my personal record in December was similarly abysmal. Phillips, in his six full seasons coaching NFL teams, has a losing 11-16 record down the stretch, including 0-4 in the playoffs.
"This is a different year," he contends. "This is a different team."
Even if you believe the Cowboys are perennial chokers and Phillips is perched to be replaced by offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, there are positively peculiar signs that left is now right, up is suddenly down and Dallas will instead succeed late after sucking early.
What began as "Super Bowl or Bust" will end as "December or Implode."
"It's going to be a challenge for us to get into the playoffs," said quarterback Tony Romo. "But we remain very confident. I like our chances."
The resurrection, of course, belongs to Romo. Or, to be more precise, Roamo.
Early in the year the quarterback was committed to improved mechanics, quieter feet and pocket patience. The result? Numerous hits, a sour disposition and, ultimately, a broken pinkie leading to a three-game absence.
In leading the Cowboys to three wins in 12 days and vaulting them to 8-4 and into the thick of the NFC Wild Card chase, Romo is back. So are his happy feet. And his happy demeanor. Against Seattle he made plays with his legs and his arm, throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns. (Quick aside: Why the hell, with his team up 31-9 in the middle of the fourth quarter, was Romo in the game the last three offensive possessions?)
Romo's return has re-booted an entire organization. The defense, too indifferent to even attempt tackles a month ago in New York, has held its last three opponents under 100 yards rushing and recorded seven sacks—punctuated by seven ridiculous turkey-dance celebrations—against the Seahawks. Shoot, the team even announced this week that it's sold 85 percent of the season tickets and 240 of the 300 luxury suites at the new Jonestown Coliseum in Arlington.
Despite season-ending injuries to Mat McBriar, Roy "Safety" Williams, Felix Jones and Kyle Kosier, there is reason to believe that—after years of shooting their wad in a fit of premature exaltation—the Cowboys are actually saving their best for last.
Don't think it's doable? Consider:
A year ago this week, while the Cowboys were basking in the glow of 12-1 and eyeing a Super Bowl rematch with the undefeated New England Patriots, a certain team was licking its wounds after a resounding 41-17 loss in which its quarterback threw four interceptions and the home team was booed off its own field. At 7-4 and with no realistic chance of catching the elite NFC East leader, the team headed into December modestly clinging to Wild Card playoff hopes.
That certain team? The New York Giants.
Yes, it's possible to win a Super Bowl without winning a division.
But to trick us into believing—to convince us that the world's biggest Christmas tree residing in, of all places, Rio de Janeiro is a fluke we should embrace—the Cowboys need to go, at worst, 3-1 in December. To assure that, they need to win Sunday.
"A big part of getting this thing right in December," said owner Jerry Jones, "starts in Pittsburgh."
It won't be easy.
The Cowboys begin a tortuous, defining final-four stretch Sunday against the Steelers without the four aforementioned players and with running back Marion Barber and linebacker DeMarcus Ware less than 100 percent healthy. The Steelers have the NFL's No. 1 defense, a Pro Bowl quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and a recent Super Bowl pedigree. And who knows how reinstated cornerback Pacman Jones will affect the secondary's chemistry, much less the team's locker room or the city's night patrol?
Of all the NFC teams jockeying for a post-season berth, Dallas has, by far, the most difficult closing schedule. After Sunday's visit to Pittsburgh, the Cowboys host the Giants and Baltimore Ravens before ending December 28 at Philadelphia. Combined, those four teams are 34-13-1. Each will likely have moral and mathematical motivation to beat Dallas.
"We can't go out and play four games at once," said receiver Terrell Owens. "Right now we can only take care of Pittsburgh. We're playing better. It shows what we can do when we get our minds and bodies right. But we have a lot of work ahead of us. All we've done so far is put ourselves in position."
Said Romo, "It's going to be difficult, but we're playing our best football at the right time. So, we'll see. I think we're all looking forward to December."
Boot Town going bankrupt? Cuban's stubbornness to pay former coach Don Nelson? The 11-1 Longhorns being leap-frogged by the 11-1 Sooners despite a head-to-head victory at the Cotton Bowl? The reality of President Obama? You can chalk them all up as quirky, unusual occurrences and glitches in The Matrix.
Or, like the Cowboys, you can look up in the sky, see Jupiter, Venus and the moon closer than they'll be at any time before 2052, and finally believe the stars are perfectly misaligned.
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