Fighting Off The Ghost of Decembers Past, The Dallas Cowboys Are About To Save Their Best For Last
At long last, football season has arrived.
The draft? Organized team activities? Training camp? The NFL schedule's first three months? Bah humbug. As far as Dallas Cowboys fans are concerned, it's all one big glob of coagulated, repetitive foreplay without any hint of climactic payoff.
Once upon a time Debbie did Dallas. But since 1996, the Cowboys haven't been able to do December.
With two victories in five days over hapless opponents Washington and Oakland, this year's Cowboys are 8-3. They lead the NFC East division. They have the league's second-ranked scoring defense, fourth-ranked overall offense and special teams that consistently produce points and/or positive field position.
But in the words of head coach Wade Phillips—I'm paraphrasing here—his team ain't done shit.
"We're not in the playoffs. We haven't won our division," Phillips said after his team's 24-7 disposal of the Raiders on Thanksgiving at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. "We haven't accomplished anything yet. We're not there. We're not there yet."
(At this point in the column I'd like to compliment Phillips for his hard, humble approach. I'd like to, but, alas, I can't. Because during the same press conference Phillips interjected—unsolicited, mind you—that his team was 3-0 on Thanksgiving and has 30 victories in three seasons. Kind of dilutes the "We haven't accomplished anything" mantra, doesn't it?)
With a two-game lead on the New York Giants and one up on the Philadelphia Eagles with five to play, the Cowboys are close to a post-season berth. To another division title. To earning the chance to win a playoff game for the first time in 13 years.
But it doesn't take the Ghosts of Decembers Past to convince us we've been here before.
Last year, in fact, seems eerily similar.
2008: The Cowboys whip the Seattle Seahawks, 34-9, on Thanksgiving to improve to 8-4 and head into December with momentum and a three-game winning streak. Asked about his team's struggles in December, Phillips scoffs. "To me that's a baseball stat," he said. "This team plays better on this day of the week, at night, on grass. Whatever. You can twist it around anyhow you want. But you've got to play good football. You've got to make your own December."
2009: The Cowboys whip the Raiders, sending Dallas into December with momentum, a two-game winning streak, more questions and similar answers. "It's one of those baseball stats," Phillips echoed. "We've got to keep winning. Keep executing. Nobody knows that better than we do."
There is no logical explanation for Dallas' December demons. Except, of course, that the Cowboys simply haven't been good enough to win big games against good teams.
In 2007, they lost two of their last three and dropped a home playoff game to the Giants. And last year they coughed up a late lead and a game in Pittsburgh, surrendered two late, long runs in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens that closed Texas Stadium and failed to show up in a humiliating 44-6 loss in Philadelphia that punctuated a disappointing season with " ...or Bust."
Since '96 the Cowboys are 18-31 in December and have lost five consecutive playoff games. Neither Barry Switzer nor Chan Gailey nor Dave Campo nor Bill Parcells nor Phillips has discovered a way to keep in December the winning football displayed in November.
Asked to pinpoint the problem, Cowboys linebacker DeMarcus Ware could only shrug. "I can't explain it."
Said receiver Patrick Crayton, "That's the month we're judged on around here. I don't know why it's been like that in December. We've got to change that. We know what's in front of us. We control what happens."
Rabbits hide candy eggs on Easter. The Texas Rangers wilt in August's heat. Julia Roberts once said "I do" to Lyle Lovett. The Cowboys freeze and fail come December. Some things just make no sense.
Which is exactly why there's hope this year. Because, in case you haven't noticed, the world's gone kooky.
Tiger Woods needs a new driver. Donnie Osmond is somehow still a heart-throb. And SMU—for the first time since 1984—is going to a bowl game. The stars, it seems, are perfectly misaligned for the Cowboys to finally win in December.
The good news: The Cowboys will win three of their final five, finish 11-5, win the NFC East and host a playoff game.
The better news: 8-3 gives them a safety net, a "just in case" cushion if 2-3 happens.
Let's not kid ourselves: The Cowboys aren't in the same class with the Minnesota Vikings or New Orleans Saints. But there's no reason not to consider them the third-best team in the NFC.
After two weeks of anemic offense, quarterback Tony Romo threw for 300 yards against the Raiders. Miles Austin is a real-deal No. 1 receiver. Jason Witten is Jason Witten. Felix Jones lost his knee brace and found his burst. On defense, Mike Jenkins has suddenly matured into an above-average cornerback, Anthony Spencer validated his improved play with two sacks, and linebacker Keith Brooking admits to having a bad memory.
"I don't care what happened here 10 years ago—this is a new team," Brooking said. "We're improving, getting better and better each week and playing some good football. There's no reason we can't keep winning just because the calendar changes."
If the Cowboys have a winning December, they will earn it. After Sunday's game at The Meadowlands against a Giants team fighting for its playoff life, Dallas will play the San Diego Chargers and Saints (both division leaders) before finishing with divisional rival games against the Redskins and Eagles.
"We've got as tough a schedule as anybody," Phillips said.
The Cowboys are healthier than last year, when they entered December without Felix Jones and Kyle Kosier and with Romo having missed three games with a broken pinkie. More important, they're also happier.
A locker room that—thanks to a certain receiver whose initials might be T.O.—was divided is now united. After the win over the Raiders, the defensive line departed wearing matching camouflage hunting gear.
"I think it's all about the mentality of the team," Ware said. "You look at a lot of these games—there haven't been a lot of blowout games. There have been games where we have to fight back during adverse times, and that's how December is going to be. There are going to be some adverse times, and I think we are in a better position to push through it."
Though Romo is 15-2 in November and only 5-9 in December, he agrees the tougher exterior will provide for a December that's, well, memorable for the right reasons.
"We wouldn't be in this position if we hadn't pulled out games against the Chiefs and Redskins," he said. "So in a way those games are even more important, strange as that is to hear."
Phillips will continue trumpeting "Different year; different team." Sounds like he's whistling past the graveyard, but let's hope the Cowboys of Decembers past, present and future take heed.
Though, between you and me, I'd feel more confident if the message wasn't being delivered by a seventh-year head coach whose teams have gone 12-19 down the stretch including 0-4 in the playoffs.
Ready or not, football season has arrived.
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