It's the eve of training camp at the Grand Hyatt hotel on the San Antonio Riverwalk and—despite a coaching career on the verge of a nosedive—Wade Phillips is headed up. In less than 24 hours he'll begin trying to deliver on his promise of tougher accountability. But as he steps onto the elevator, he oozes not football intensity, but familial empathy.
Upon spotting a toddler sleeping in a stroller, Phillips bends down, soaks in the cute scene and softly offers, "Aww, sacked out."
He is sincere. He is personable. He is humble. He is disarming.
He is, without a doubt, the wrong man for the job of Dallas Cowboys head coach.
I admire Phillips. I'd love to have him for my uncle, my neighbor or my deacon. Just not as my football coach trying to lead America's Team out of the worst drought in franchise history. After 12 seasons without a playoff win, the Cowboys need to be driven from the desert by a dictator armed with a taser, not coaxed and lured by a portly "Pawpaw" offering hot biscuits and cold milk.
Never thought I'd say this, but—in some ways—I miss Bill Parcells.
Not that Phillips doesn't deserve credit for being tougher this preseason. Just not quite tough enough.
Couple hours after departing the elevator, Phillips is up on a conference-room dais inside The Alamodome. During his state-of-the-union address, he punctuates his reincarnation by—kinda, sorta—
slamming his fist on the table.
"We're ready," Phillips says. "We got knocked down last year, but we're going to get up. We're going to get up fighting."
Commence eye-rolling, under-your-breath snickering and all-out cynicism. It's impossible enough for a 62-year-old teddy bear to suddenly change his tiger stripes. And it's even more improbable given our memory of Phillips in the aftermath of last December's season-ending, 44-6 debacle in Philadelphia. Asked outside the locker room if he still felt he was the right man to coach the Cowboys, Wade—sounding like animated Hank Hill—offered the meekest of retorts.
"Well," he said, before a long pause soaked with uncertainty, "sure."
Given a chance at camp to explain the demoralizing 2008, the good ol' country boy instead botched a cliché.
"Last season is gone," Phillips says. "It is what it was."
This could all change, of course. But for perceptions to be altered, results to be improved and funerals to be re-routed into resurrections, Phillips has to deliver what he was hired for:
Defense. A play-making, ball-hawking, game-changing 3-4 defense that was the hot spot on his otherwise lukewarm résumé. We can dissect Tony Romo. Analyze Roy Williams. Juggle Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. But if the Cowboys don't play better defense in 2009 they won't make the playoffs and Phillips won't have a job.
Interesting, because Phillips' defense has simultaneously run off players and run out of excuses.
He's the NFL's only head coach/defensive coordinator. It's his scheme. A lot of his players—most recently linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive end Igor Olshansky—are hand-picked. The team's best player—DeMarcus Ware—plays defense. Still, it's difficult to label this defense more talented in light of losing seven of its top 14 tacklers.
The biggest problem—other than shabby tackling that allowed those heart-breaking, Texas Stadium-closing runs of 77 and 82 yards to the Baltimore Ravens last December—has been the lack of defense-created turnovers. Led by Ware's 20, the Cowboys topped the NFL last season with 59 sacks. That pressure on the quarterback resulted, however, in only eight interceptions and one defensive touchdown.
Phillips plans on moving Ware around in quirky alignments. He'll rely on Olshansky (whom he coached in San Diego) and Brooking (whom he coached in Atlanta) for veteran, knowledgeable stability. And he'll require Pro Bowl seasons from nose tackle Jay Ratliff, linebacker Bradie James and cornerback Terence Newman, and break-out years from pass rusher Anthony Spencer, new safety Gerald Sensabaugh, and cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick.
"We have a chance to be really good," Phillips said during camp.
The Cowboys—thanks to the departure of Camp Cupcake—are already tougher.
In San Antonio Phillips conducted 31 practices over 22 days with two-a-day workouts half the time. Players showed up in shape and were yanked from drills for mental mistakes. An entire month elapsed with nary a peep from HBO, TMZ or the FBI. For a head coach, who on the sidelines sometimes looks like a befuddled janitor searching for his misplaced mop, it was more boot camp than training camp.
"It was a little different," Phillips admitted. "We did some things and changed some things with the mental part of the game in mind. The guys responded to it well, and I think it will help us down the road."
James, who last December skeptically shrugged when Phillips vowed to change his approach, is now convinced at his coach's metamorphosis. The coach may not have developed a swagger, but at least he's tweaked his waddle.
"He's almost like a new coach," James said late in camp. "He said he was going to be different. I didn't know how he was going to pull it off, but he has. He knows what's at stake. He knows we have to have a winning season."
While owner Jerry Jones praised the return of Phillips in San Antonio—"There was no wavering on him because I know in my heart he's the best coach for the Dallas Cowboys"—he wouldn't go so far as to promise a future beyond 2009.
Phillips is 22-10 in Dallas. He's 7-1 in September. But he's also 3-5 in December and without a playoff win—in Dallas and in his head-coaching career. He has the NFL's highest-paid assistant—offensive coordinator Jason Garrett—on his staff and successful veterans Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan in his rear-view mirror. His three-year contract expires after the season, and it's painfully obvious that he and his .687 winning percentage are firmly on the hot seat, if not already in the guillotine.
"We all know there is a short window," Jones said during camp. "If we don't accomplish what we all have expectations for, then I'm afraid the time will pass us by, and there is a lot of that on this team."
Remember, NBC analyst John Madden referred to Phillips as a "lame duck coach" before last season.
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Said Phillips, "I don't worry about my job. I worry about the job I'm doing."
The Cowboys' coach can yank his headset off in preseason games and slam his fist on tables and promise to be tougher, but in the end, Wade will be Wade.
He's the guy that sugarcoats a playoff loss to the Giants by trumpeting his team getting to the "final eight." He's the guy who refuses to blame Jenkins for a Titans touchdown last week even though it was evident the cornerback allowed receiver Justin Gage a free escape off the line of scrimmage. He's the guy who at this year's camp actually said. "We've won here. We just gotta win a little more."
And he's the guy who—win, lose or drawl—will be fired by Jones after this season.