PHILADELPHIA--The week leading up to the Cowboys-Eagles clash told the story before a down had been played. It was quiet in Dallas, almost eerily so. That's never good before a big game; it usually portends disaster.
I couldn't figure out why so few people in Big D were talking about a battle that would, in all likelihood, determine the NFC East champion. The Dallas Morning News all but ignored it, choosing to bury the Cowboys inside most of the week (they ran a Tim Cowlishaw piece early on, but that was about it for columns) and instead running a series on college athletics and other nonsense. The radio-show hosts around town frequently broached the topic, but the callers seemed almost indifferent. They weren't alone. With the exception of head coach Bill Parcells and a few select players like La'Roi Glover, many of the Cowboys had a similarly relaxed attitude, as if the game were just one of 16. It was strange.
Conversely, in Philly, there was serious tension and excitement. The Eagles players talked about wanting to beat the Boys, a win that would not just improve their record but also double as an early Christmas present for the citizenry. The fans, meanwhile, were close to rioting. Everywhere you went, Birds backers screamed Eagles cheers or chanted an old favorite: "Dal-las Sucks." My buddy suggested that if the Birds lost, he would lose all faith in head coach Andy Reid, and maybe even life--and he's married with a kid on the way. One talk show even fielded a call from a fan who said his Birds were "gonna carve those Cowboys up good." Then he revved up his chain saw, on the air, for everyone to hear. Really.
That's why the beatdown the Cowboys suffered on Sunday was sweeping but far from shocking. One city and one team were aware of the magnitude and acted accordingly. Their counterparts didn't.
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It's true that the Cowboys and their fans have never felt as passionate about the Eagles as the Birds and their fans feel about Dallas. It's largely one-sided hatred born from an all-encompassing inferiority complex and a number of other issues dating as far back as 1966, when, Philly natives will tell you, that bastard Tom Landry ran up the score in the Cowboys' 56-7 home victory. (Did I mention Landry was a bastard?)
But here's the thing. The Cowboys, and you, too, shouldn't have been all crazed because of the rivalry but rather because of the meaning behind the game. It wasn't about the Boys continuing to get better or planning for the future. The Pokes are past that now. The season has already exceeded everyone's expectations, and now new goals must be set. The Birds game represented an opportunity to redefine what the Cowboys were/are trying to achieve. Forget guaranteeing a winning record; it was about first place and the potential for playoff primacy. How can you not get charged up for that? How can you not get so excited that you foam at the mouth and urinate uncontrollably? Or something. It's like Ric Flair, of WWE fame, always says: To be the man, you have to beat the man.
To do that takes something special, a mind-set that borders on the obsessed, even the insane. I don't think many of the Cowboys appreciated that notion before the game, and I don't think many of you did, either. And if that doesn't change, there will be no playoffs, only a lot of free time to think about how a hot start gave way to a complete meltdown.
It's been a long time since the Pokes have played in a contest that important, so maybe they (and you) just weren't ready. Maybe they (and you) were simply out of practice. But when the division is on the line and the postseason is in limbo, that's hardly a consolation and, more than that, it's an extremely weak excuse, one the Boys of the mid-'90s never would have needed to use.
"No, you know, experience, that shouldn't matter," running back Troy Hambrick said. "They got guys. We got guys. Their guys made plays. We didn't.
"This team is still learning how to dodge a punch. It's one thing for a punch to land, like it did today, but you gotta dodge the punch."
Offensively, the Cowboys did what we all thought they couldn't--advanced the ball by using the run as the primary focus. Then, the 150 team rushing yards came against the Eagles, who are about as good at stopping the run as my mom is at stopping my dad from finding where she hides the holiday cookies--that is, not good at all. (The best part about heading home to Philly is hanging with my parents, who, I've long contended, were the inspiration for the over-the-top Costanza clan of Seinfeld fame...I suppose that would make me George by default, but oh well.)
Other than the unexpected success the Cowboys had running the ball, there weren't a whole lot of positives. They missed tackles and dropped passes and snapped a ball out of the end zone for a safety. They looked thoroughly nonplussed--as cold as the weather, which I don't miss even a little. (There's nothing fun about going outside and feeling your face freeze up while shoveling snow until your back hurts. But I'd better get back on point, because this is starting to read like another of my many complaints, and my editor keeps threatening to change the name of this column to "I'm Bitchin'.") Their effort, frankly, mirrored their attitude heading into the game--timid and uninspired.
"That's about as upset at a team as I've been," Parcells said without raising his voice or even an eyebrow, which made that statement more frightening, not less. "I keep saying that we're young, but you only have so many chances at a thing.
"I don't know where we're going now. We'll see, I guess."
There are three games left, every one of them hugely significant. If the Cowboys want to claim a wild-card berth, if they want to make this season about something more than simply erasing the painful memory of the past few years, they need to fully grasp that concept. They need to wake up and act like football players with something to play for this year. Because there is a time to sit quietly in the background and wait for tomorrow, and then there is a time to snarl and slobber and pop someone in the jaw just to let them know you can.
Parcells understands. Glover and Darren Woodson understand. Now they need to impress that mentality upon the bulk of the Boys.
The rest of you need to get in on the act, too, because that sort of thing is infectious, and if it doesn't start with them, perhaps it can start with you. Stop sitting on your hands and cheer like mad. If it's slow going at first, try alcohol--it tends to loosen the inhibitions and the tongue. And would it kill one of you to buy a chain saw?
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