During last week's minicamp at Carrollton's Standridge Stadium, Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips was chatting with longtime radio voice Brad Sham. It had come to Sham's attention that veteran linebacker Bradie James was suddenly likening Phillips to TV's old Dr. Cliff Huxtable.
Compassionate but stern. Fair but firm. Soft yet...hard.
"You remember the Bill Cosby character, right coach?" Sham asked.
"Sure," replied Phillips with a chuckle. "Hey, hey, hey!"
This, my friends, is the stumbledoofus charged with leading America's Team out of its dark ages.
But while Phillips' colossal confusion between The Cosby Show and Fat Albert may be dispiriting— though, ultimately, not at all surprising—there are encouraging signs that he just may follow through on an off-season pledge to change. To be tougher. To be stricter. To be...better?
"I haven't totally changed my personality," Phillips said last week before the Cowboys' final organized workout until training camp begins July 28 in San Antonio. "You can't do that. But I can change how much I'm involved, and I can change what I expect from my players. I think it's going to be a positive difference."
In the wake of the embarrassing 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles which cemented the most disappointing season in franchise history, owner Jerry Jones talked of abrupt, drastic changes via taking "everyone to the woodshed." There would be, we were promised, tangible alterations in philosophy and personnel. A day after the December debacle, Phillips vowed an extreme makeover.
"If you're not going to change coaches, then the coach needs to change," Phillips said that gloomy day at Valley Ranch. "You can't say, 'Well, OK, everything's going to be all right,' because it's not going to be all right if you do the same thing, and I'm talking about myself. I have to look at myself from how I deal with things, from how we have training camp, how we have practices, whatever. If it means being more demanding, more whatever, I have to get it done."
So the way out of the wilderness—12 seasons and counting without a playoff win—is getting a 62-year-old to change his stripes? A 62-year-old, mind you, that in the first place was never a tiger, but a teddy bear. Simple: Transform dawdling, doting Hank Hill into detailed, dictatorial Vince Lombardi.
Yeah, right. And Will Ferrell's going to suddenly stop stripping to his undies in formulaic, funny movies.
But even though almost immediately Phillips' supposed macho reincarnation was diluted by him not addressing his team after the 2008 finale and castrated by a gag order imposed by his owner, Phillips arrives at the dawn of the 2009 season as—in theory—one of the most powerful men in the NFL. Entering the third and final year of his contract, he is the league's only head coach who doubles as defensive coordinator.
And last week—I'll be damned—he looked and sounded like a changed man. Well, sort of. At minicamp he wasn't exactly Bobby Knight, but there was a thorny top coat starting to develop over his marshmallow undercarriage.
Bradie James in December: "If you know a person to be a certain way and they have an extreme change, I don't know how well that's going to be taken. Wade is Wade. He is tough, but he also has some softness."
James in June: "He's much more involved. He's got more control on things. At times, he's like a new coach."
Armed with an ample belly and two-fold responsibilities, Phillips was more hands-on teacher. When a player committed a mental error—such as lining up offside—the head coach yanked him out of the play. He almost even raised his voice an octave above genteel suggestion.
"Whether I am or not, people are going to say my personality is laid-back," Phillips said. "But some things I've changed you can't see. They're at practice. Or in meetings. Some things I used to ask for I'm now going to demand."
"I expect players to show up for camp in their best possible shape," he said. "If not, we'll deal with it."
After a season in which some players privately rolled their eyes at $100 fines for being late to meetings, Phillips promises to charge players the league maximum for being overweight next month: $453 per pound.
"I'm holding these guys accountable."
Nonetheless, asking Ruth to be ruthless is, at best, a flimsy game plan. Try as he may, it's difficult to imagine Phillips commandeering credibility and authority in light of his quarterback waving off his punt call in Philly and his owner calling every major personnel decision.
More accountability, stricter discipline and less bullshit are well and good. But what a tougher Phillips really needs are better players.
At this point, all we know is that he'll have different ones.
Gone from the defense that last year cratered from Super Bowl hype to 9-7 humiliation: Kevin Burnett, Chris Canty, Keith Davis, Greg Ellis, Anthony Henry, Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones, Zach Thomas and Roy Williams.
That's not counting defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. And that's not, of course, allowing for the biggest addition by subtraction in club history—Terrell Owens.
"Last year we thought we were 'there' and we just weren't," Phillips said. "There's a different attitude out here now. A lot of guys have something to prove. I like what I see."
With the release of Owens, the offense and the locker room are more "Romo-friendly." If the Cowboys fail to score or harmoniously co-exist, it will fall on the shoulders of quarterback Tony Romo. The defense belongs 100 percent to the self-proclaimed "Mr. Fix It."
Led by dominating linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys recorded the NFL's most sacks last season. But after playing almost flawlessly in late-season games against the Seahawks, Steelers and Giants, they couldn't tackle with the season on the line. The lasting, stinging images of 2008: Ravens running backs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain bolting right up Dallas' gut and through Texas Stadium's heart for touchdown runs of 77 and 82 yards.
"What happened last year doesn't matter one bit," new linebacker Keith Brooking said. "This is a new team. We don't have those old memories."
In minicamp, Ware lined up all along the defensive line, and the offense was dominated by a refreshing combination of aggressive blitzes and humble focus from a defense that is now Phillips-friendly. Brooking played for Wade's defense in Atlanta. Defensive end Igor Olshansky played for Phillips in San Diego. Where in the past the Cowboys had more talented guys, they now have more Phillips guys.
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Pro Bowl-caliber players like Ware, Jay Ratliff and Terence Newman remain. But the excuses have been redacted.
"He's always been the head coach, but it's now totally his team," Ware said. "He controls the defense. He has more authority. You can tell he's more about taking charge of things."
None of us expect Wade Phillips to morph into William Wallace. But after a soul-searching off-season in which his persona has been tweaked and his roster overhauled, we can reasonably demand the Cowboys' first playoff victory since 1996.
Or else Phillips will have a lot more free time to brush up on his Cosby routine.