With a Whimper

It was fitting. The Cowboys' inauspicious season ended exactly the way it should have--with a loss to the dreadful New York Giants, a team that hadn't won since Halloween, a team that was 0-6 with rookie quarterback Eli Manning under center and that had 15 vets on the disabled list. No last push from the Cowboys, no final defiance, just a meek and meager showing that petered out, allowing the season to die the way it should have--with a nearly inaudible last breath and no discernible struggle. They went peacefully.

A week later, this is still the thought: How fitting.

"It's the way we are," head coach Bill Parcells admitted to a number of media outlets right after the game. "It's what we do. We do those kinds of things.

"We don't take care of the ball; we're not mentally tough, not physically tough enough.''

Hmm, yes. It was an ugly bitch of a season, and if this team had been a woman, any of the preseason suitors would now have that morning-after "what the hell was I thinking?" sobriety. Cold showers are in order. Wipe your memories clean and deny it ever happened--that's always the best course of action. For you, that is, not for the players or the coaches or the organization. They must be held accountable. Someone has to stand up and claim this mess. But no one has.

A week later, this is the other lingering thought: Where is the culpability?

The day after the season finally fizzled, local fans and media types waited for Parcells to address what went wrong. Last year, he hid from nothing. Then, why would he? They were 10-6 and made a playoff appearance (albeit an unmemorable one) when no one forecasted half that success. But this year was different for a number of reasons. While the team stumbled and lost, Big Bill stonewalled, saying frequently that this question or that would be better explained at the end of the season. So we waited. And then the season ended, and we expected what he'd promised--an honest appraisal. Didn't happen. Like his team, Parcells simply faded away, reneging on his vow to shoot straight when there were no more games to be played.

Instead, in place of the coach, the Cowboys sent out this e-mail on the Monday after the Giants disaster:

"There will be no player availability on Monday, Jan. 3 at Valley Ranch. There is no scheduled press conference with Head Coach Bill Parcells in the near future."

How ignominious for Parcells and the Cowboys, how unfulfilling for the rest of us. After a season of uninspired football that flipped their record from 10-6 to 6-10 (they have but one winning season in their last six), the least Parcells could have done is stand in front of the disaster he unleashed on fans, throw up his hands and claim the wreckage as his own. That's not too much to ask, really. It would have been commendable.

It's doubtful that anyone would demand a plan from him on how to clean it up, because it's possible that even the great Bill Parcells--the legendary coach whose mere presence was supposed to deliver them from the horrors they've endured since the mid-'90s--is unsure where to go from here. Because you can gather the positives in one quick sweep: Julius Jones and Jason Witten (and also Roy Williams if you want to credit him for time served). That's it. After that, there are only questions and headaches. Who will be back? What should they address first? Who do they cut, and who do they draft, and who do they try to sign as a free agent? Who the hell knows? It is, unquestionably, an enormous undertaking. And when you look at it that way, maybe it's not so hard to understand why Parcells wanted to slink away, pull the covers over his head and ignore the world.

The truly depressing thing is that they'll head into training camp with many of the same issues that daunted them last season. Marcellus Wiley, whom they signed to a four-year, $16 million deal, was a bust on the defensive line, so they still need a real pass rusher to complement Greg Ellis. They don't have a big, punishing linebacker or a cornerback to play opposite Terence Newman, and who will replace Darren Woodson at safety is anyone's guess. They have a number of problem spots on the offensive line, no backup for Jones at running back, and the quarterback situation is such a joke that the late-night hosts could get endless hours of material out of it if they chose to do so. (Then, they'd have to care about the 'Boys, and why bother?)

That last one rankles most. The quarterback drama didn't preclude this team from winning, but the mishandling started right from the beginning, and it certainly didn't help. The idea that ancient Vinny Testaverde was going to guide them deep into the postseason was suspect. But that was less offensive than Parcells' obstinacy, less bothersome than the fact that the head coach refused to concede his mistake. He told us over and over that Testaverde wasn't the problem but didn't say that he was a problem. And he was. He was woefully unproductive late in games or in key situations, and he did what Parcells always said he wouldn't--he made bad decisions (as evidenced by his 20 interceptions, tied for the most in the NFL). The fact that Parcells continued to play Testaverde was indefensible. Maybe Tony Romo and Drew Henson weren't ready, but Testaverde was at the opposite end of that scale--long past his prime or usefulness. Playing him was the greatest evil, because it sunk the Cowboys deeper into their god-awful rut by ignoring the future once the present was clearly lost. Now, in addition to digging out of their 6-10 crater, they must also go forward with no real idea about the (in)ability of Henson or Romo.

"I would guess, based on what's happened this year, that the organization doesn't think that either Tony Romo or Drew Henson will be the starting quarterback next season," Troy Aikman told ESPN, before adding, "but the only way I know how to evaluate a young quarterback is to let him play."

It is an untenable predicament from nearly every angle. The 'Boys have some $20 million of cap space and two first-round draft picks, which is the good news, but they are handicapped by too many leaks and not enough fingers to plug them, which is the undeniable bad news. They are, in many respects, exactly where they were at this point a year ago. They've answered their running-back dilemma, but that's all. Other than that, they are who they were going into training camp last year. But after the way they played this year and after the way they were managed, after denying the obvious problems with this team and refusing to address them, that's hardly surprising. The 2004 season was a waste on so many fronts, but it was no one's fault but their own that they failed to progress or set themselves up for '05. They are damaged goods whether they'll stand in front of us and admit it or not. Denials will do them no good--each of them must, by now, understand that they played a role.

That they must suffer together is most fitting of all.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez