Wading Through Doubt

What do Wade Phillips and Jenny the elephant have in common? An uncertain future.
John Pyle

Oxnard, California: This season will be Texas Stadium's last hurrah.

The same fate shouldn't be reserved for Wade Phillips.

It's all—well, mostly—caviar dreams and champagne wishes at Dallas Cowboys training camp this summer. The team's headquarters at the Marriott Residence Inn River Ridge complex is saturated with testosterone, yet somehow tranquil. The Pacific Ocean is three miles west. Seagulls hover during practice. And temperatures, thanks to a morning marine layer and afternoon sea breezes, never flirt with 90, much less 107.

It's pure paradise, the perfect setting for a team coming off 13 wins, returning 13 Pro Bowlers and picked by everyone with a pulse and a Web site to be the NFC representative in Super Bowl XLIII.

But, alas, something's amiss. You can't see it in quarterback Tony Romo's lickety-split release or hear it in Terrell Owens' happy-go-lucky media circle jerks. But it's there.

You can feel it.

Rarely in professional sports has a coach debuted with an .812 winning percentage and bolstered the psyche of a fragile locker room, only to be saddled with a future as uncertain as Jenny the elephant. But, with Phillips entering the final year of his contract and with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett set as the heir apparent, that's the prickly hand dealt Dallas' head coach.

While owner Jerry Jones shelled out $3 million to keep Garrett from bolting for another NFL head coaching job, he declined to extend Phillips' existing two-year contract under the guise of "the ink's not even dry yet." (Green Bay's Mike McCarthy, meanwhile, was rewarded for his 13-3 season with a five-year extension.)

Garrett is the NFL's highest-paid assistant; Phillips' five-day forecast is bleaker than that of Bennigan's.

Bottom line: Phillips, 61, is perceived as the laid-back caretaker, charged with not screwing up star-studded talent that should get to the Super Bowl before he rides off into the sunset. Garrett, 42, is considered the innovative, hot, young assistant, his genius only beginning to arc.

The overlap is, at best, awkward. At worst, it could undermine all our grand plans.

Though Phillips is a good man and a great coach who deserves better, he enters Dallas' final season at Texas Stadium with his security in limbo and his authority seemingly usurped.

"You could say it's a little awkward, and I would understand where you're coming from on that," Jones admitted early in camp. "But to me it's an outstanding situation. There's no head coach I'd rather have than Wade, and there's no other offensive coordinator I'd rather have than Jason."

It's comforting, of course, that the only ripple of discontent during training camp is invisible.

The Cowboys are loaded at every position, having added linebacker Zach Thomas, nose tackle Tank Johnson (enduring his first training camp with the team), cornerback Pacman Jones and running back Felix Jones. They need to develop a dependable No. 3 receiver (with Sam Hurd likely replacing the departed Terry Glenn). They need to upgrade at backup quarterback (with Tampa Bay's Chris Simms likely replacing Brad Johnson, whose arm is worse than the adjustable rates of those shitty mortgages prompting all the home foreclosures). They need to avoid injuries (with cornerback Terence Newman's strained groin the only blemish so far.)

Football-wise—evidenced by the pre-season prognostications and the ubiquitous HBO Hard Knocks cameras—the Cowboys are as powerful and popular as ever.

But by not rewarding Phillips with a contract extension after 2007, it feels like Jones has taken his head coach for granted. Let's hope the players don't follow suit. That would be suicidal.

Publicly, to his credit, Phillips says having his successor calling the plays—if not the shots—isn't uncomfortable.

"I let you guys worry about that stuff," Phillips said as camp opened. "I'm happy to be coaching the Cowboys, and I'm thrilled to have Jason as part of my staff."

But Wade can't be exactly "thrilled" that his contract remained unchanged while Garrett received a hefty raise—he now makes only about $500,000 less than the head coach—to spurn offers from Baltimore and Atlanta. (The thing's had a quirky protocol from the outset, what with Garrett being hired before Phillips.) Phillips ultimately signed off on retaining a pricier Garrett, but Bill Parcells also once OK'd the arrival of Owens, and we all know how that played out.

Like Phillips, Garrett downplays the potential distraction.

"I'm very happy where I'm at," Garrett said after running post-practice sprints by himself last week. "It's an honor to work for Wade. Our approaches to life and football are very similar, and we work well together. Sure I was tempted by the offers, and I owed it to myself and my family to go through that process. But in the end, the best fit for me was right here. I'm focused on getting better every day and accomplishing our goals as a football team this year. We do that, and our futures will take care of themselves."

Still, some local columnists and even NBC analyst John Madden are going so far as to label Phillips a "lame duck" coach, reasoning that Garrett will be the Cowboys' head coach in 2009 regardless of this year's results.

Not so, says Jones.

"It's not a Super Bowl issue," the owner said of Phillips' status. "Winning the Super Bowl is not the criteria. It's just plain wrong to say that if we don't win the Super Bowl then Wade doesn't keep his job. That's not even a thought for me."

Former quarterback and current Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman added, "If Wade was a true lame duck it would not be a good thing. But with the personalities involved I don't see it being a problem. I don't think Wade is threatened by Jason Garrett."

He shouldn't be. Or am I the only one that remembers Dave Campo, Chan Gailey and Bill Parcells?

While Parcells nauseated us by cherishing the Giants' past more than the Cowboys' present, Phillips is trying his darnedest to bridge dynasties. Last time I was in Oxnard, Parcells invited Jim Burt and Carl Banks to camp. Last week on the sidelines were the likes of former Cowboys Duane Thomas, Michael Irvin, Nate Newton, Erik Williams and James Washington.

Hard Knocks, meet soft touch.

While fans clamor for more emotion and the media demands more intensity, Phillips calmly sips his Diet Dr Pepper, gives veterans days off, refers to this li'l shindig as "Camp Marshmallow" and jokes about how he exercised right through last week's Southern California earthquake.

"The coaching staff gets a lot of the credit," Owens said of his team's general giddiness. "Before it was like the military. Now we're allowed to be grown men."

Underrated and underappreciated, Phillips will be a major reason the Cowboys win a playoff game for the first time in 12 years and play in their first Super Bowl since 1995.

Yes, Jason Garrett is the future of the Cowboys.

But in the present, Wade Phillips deserves better than a cold shoulder and a hot seat.

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