After a 44-6 Fiasco in Philly, Garrett and Phillips Must Go

December 28, 2008

Facing a survive-and-advance scenario, the Dallas Cowboys came up woefully short on Sunday, falling to rival Philadelphia, 44-6. The loss eliminated Dallas from the playoffs and gave the Eagles the final wild card spot in the NFC. Philadelphia now faces the Minnesota Vikings on the road next week.

As for Dallas, this season must be deemed no less than an absolute failure. By far the NFL’s most talented team position-by-position, the Cowboys had visions of adding an unprecedented sixth Lombardi trophy to their storied legacy as the NFL’s most dominant franchise since the merger. Ultimately, the team’s inability to return to the playoffs must be blamed on one source -- the coaching staff.

There were other factors in the failure to be sure, starting with injuries. Promising rookie running back Felix Jones was lost for the year. Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten battled nagging injuries all year. Corner Terrence Newman was unavailable for several early games. Finally, stars Tony Romo and Marion Barber also missed significant playing time.

Undoubtedly, better health from these players alone likely would have produced the one or 2 extra wins needed to reach the playoffs. But, all teams have injury problems in the NFL. It is an invalid excuse.

Is Tony Romo the problem?

The media has continually put forth the notion that Romo can’t win the big game. They also said the same thing about Peyton Manning. And Michael Jordan. And Kevin Garnett. We don’t really hear those same claims anymore, do we?

Such bold labels are the byproduct of reactionary and lazy journalism. One of the easiest things one can do is claim that a player is not a “winner.” Usually such claimants have little to back up their assertion, other than pointing very generally, to wins and losses. But the answers to such questions truly lie in the details.

Romo is in the early years of a long career. Even assuming that this year’s debacle was entirely his fault (which it was not), he will continue to grow and improve. Thus, his past failures will not dictate his future performance.

More important however, Romo’s performance has not been the problem the past 3 years.

In clutch, two-minute scenarios, Romo has consistently moved the Cowboys into scoring opportunites on numerous occasions. He seems to thrive in hurry-up scenarios with the game on the line -- a clear contradiction to the media image.

Romo took the heat for last year’s playoff loss to the Giants, but the true culprit in that game was Cowboy defense. The offense moved the ball well that day, and dominated the time of possession battle.

This year Romo had a so-so year by his standards. He missed games due to a broken finger. He played hurt with a bruised back. He also had some ugly picks. Despite those problems, he entered Sunday’s as the THIRD rated passer in the NFC.

Sunday Romo had three turnovers. Two were late fumbles with the game out of reach, as Romo tried to hold onto the ball a little longer in an attempt to make a play. Such thinking is acceptable when facing a large deficit. His third turnover was a pick due to a miscommunication with Roy Williams. Again, it’s a mistake not caused by a bad read, but rather is rooted in a lack of practice time with his newly-acquired target.

Romo is not the problem.

Then there is the issue of chemistry.

Many in the media have likened the Cowboys to a team of individuals. But this year’s biggest story of locker-room discord -- the TO-Witten-Romo controversy -- turned out to be more of a media creation than any substantive problem.

So where really was this chemistry problem?

One possible area might be found in owner Jerry Jones’ importation of so-called “problem” players Tank Johnson, TO, and PacMan Jones. Well, Tank and Terrell Owens clearly have done more good than harm.

As for PacMan, his mid-year suspension was a distraction, as the defense and special teams were disrupted by his absence. Still, PacMan provided some depth at corner, was strong in run support, and was acquired for a relatively cheap price from the Titans. His addition alone did not single-handedly ruin the season.

Nor did Jones’ other personnel moves. Lately, Jones has been solid in accumulating talent. For every Bobby Carpenter draft bust, he has had some stellar picks as well. One such example was his decision a few years ago to draft do-everything star linebacker DeMarcus Ware over the one-dimensional, steroid-fueled Shawn Merriman.

This year’s draft was productive as well. Felix Jones is a future star. Corners Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick played extensively and showed promise. Second round tight end Martellus Bennett proved to be a capable receiver and backup to Jason Witten. And fourth round running back Tashard Choice was a vital contributor down the stretch.

By all accounts, Jones willingness to take risks has been an asset. His attempt to jump-start the team by trading for Roy Williams should be applauded, even if it didn’t work out this year. It’s that type of mentality and proactive approach which often separates the NFL’s elite from the dull, small-market nobodies of the league.

So is Jerry free from fault? Not quite. One big problem was the lack of a capable backup QB, as Brad Johnson cost them some games. But his real undoing was the coaching staff he hired.

When Jones and Bill Parcells parted ways, Jones opted to hire retread Wade Phillips. Although he is a solid defensive coordinator, Phillips had been mediocre as a head man. His hiring was second-guessed by many.

For one year it worked. The team needed a breather after several years with the Tuna’s tyrannical rule. Phillips’ laid-back demeanor allowed the players to relax, and put them in a position to succeed. Ironically, the one aspect of the team he was expected to improve -- the defense -- actually was the 2007 team’s weakness.

This year, the easygoing approach was the problem. Now a full year removed from the Tuna’s glare, the team lost its edge and became undisciplined. Each week, numerous penalties were committed. When some of the locker room distractions occurred, Phillips failed to respond in a heavy-handed manner.

He did have some success however, as the defense reinvented itself and led the league in sacks. In particular, DeMarcus Ware had a career year.

Phillips' shortcomings were not related to X’s and O’s, but rather involved intangibles. Those shortcomings showed up on the field Sunday.

Earlier in the day, the Eagles learned that both Tampa Bay and Chicago had lost. That meant that with a win over the Cowboys, Philadelphia would make the playoffs. As a result, the inspired Eagles came out with the intensity needed to continue their season.

Facing the same scenario, the Cowboys came out flat.

After the Eagles had taken a quick 3-0 first quarter lead, the Cowboys tried to respond with a long drive of their own. The Cowboys already had converted several short third downs on their drive, thanks to some tough running from Tashard Choice.

Confronted with another third and one deep in Eagles’ territory, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett foolishly abandoned the successful running attack, and dialed up a short pass in the flat to Roy Williams. Williams was dropped for a loss, and the Cowboys were forced to kick a tying field goal. In the process, some key momentum was lost.

In the second quarter, the Eagles began to dominate. QB Donovan McNabb led the Eagles on two long scoring drives, putting them ahead 17-3. On both drives, the Dallas defense was on its heels and visibly confused as to its coverage assignments. All the while, Phillips radiated fear, confusion, and defeatism on the sidelines.

After a Romo pick, Philly capitalized with another scoring drive, and led 24-3. By halftime it was 27-3.

In the third quarter, the Cowboys went into hurry-up mode in an attempt to rally. Again, the incompetence of the coaching staff was on clear display.

Facing a third and inches in their own territory, offensive coordinator Garrett once again made a horrific call by choosing a quick pass to TO in the flat. The pass fell incomplete, and the punt team was inexplicably sent to the field. In an attempt to stop the insanity, Romo took charge and waived the unit off, defying Phillips and his staff. Romo then ran a QB sneak through the line for a first down, and the drive continued. Eventually, a Romo fumble killed the drive.

Still, the sequence showed the shortcomings of the coaching staff. Not only did Garrett virtually duplicate the bad call he made in a similar down and distance situation in the first half, but Phillips lacked the common sense to realize the SEASON was on the line, and absurdly sent out the punt team. The only clear thinkers for Dallas were the players themselves, Romo in particular.

The remainder of the game degenerated into Dallas turnovers and Philly points. McNabb finished with 175 passing yards and two touchdowns. Coach Andy Reid had the Eagles primed to perform, and brought a more balanced attack than in their recent loss to Washington. Overall, Philly has been playing as well as any NFC team, and should be favored to defeat the Vikes next week.

Meanwhile, Dallas appeared flat and unprepared from kickoff onward. The defense seemed confused, while the passing game offense appeared out of sync. More important, the team had no sense of urgency, save for a few minutes early in the third quarter.

It is that lack of urgency which is the biggest problem with Phillips.

Some coaches are born to be second fiddles. They are competent at X’s and O’s, and do perfectly fine as assistants, but when put in a head coach position, they simply lack the charisma to inspire and lead. Phillips fits in this class.

The constant expressions on Phillips' face this year have been exasperation, confusion, bewilderment, and frustration. He radiated no confidence or intensity, and it affected the team.

What this team needed was a figurehead with charisma. Parcells had that charisma, and motivated the team through fear. Other inspirational coaches, such as Jimmy Johnson, brought a more positive-thinking approach. But whatever the methodology, the common denominator is fire, intensity, and charisma.

Phillips’ lack of fire cost Dallas dearly the past two weeks. The biggest debacle might have been the week 16 collapse at home against Baltimore. The team was flat, and seemed unprepared when Baltimore called a late fake field goal. Against the Eagles, the team should have been primed to avoid the same fate.

Jones should have seen this coming. He went through this same issue already when he promoted assistant Dave Campo to the top spot several years ago. Campo was a successful coordinator who clearly was in over his head being the top man. Simply put, he was not born to be that type of leader. Phillips is that same type of man, although not quite as pathetic as Campo.

And then there is Jason Garrett, the highly-paid assistant who was supposed to be Phillips’ successor.

Garrett has been equally complicit in this year’s failure, if not the primary cause of the collapse. After last year’s success, Garrett was getting gameplanned this year by opposing defensive coordinators. Any minimally creative blitz packages gave Garrett's offense fits, as he seemed to lack basic hot routes or audibles ready in response.

It took him three quarters to figure out how to counter Baltimore last week.

On Sunday Garrett had some early success running quick slants, and giving Choice some touches. But those calls were undone by the two pathetic third down pass calls mentioned above.

In addition, Garrett has failed to properly utilize Roy Williams, as most of his routes seem to be 5 yards or less. He also has been unable to get big-play threat Miles Austin onto the field.

The solution?

1. Fire Garrett

Garrett’s once-glowing reputation has been tarnished this year, and for good reason. He also seems to have worn out his welcome with Romo and TO, as both men voiced concern about Garrett at the post-game press conference. Garrett and his high salary must be gone. No exceptions.

2. Fire Phillips. Or, in the Alternative, Demand More from Him

Wade would be acceptable as the defensive coordinator, if he would be willing to take the demotion. As a second fiddle, like in San Diego, he grades out alright. Since he is unlikely to accept such a scenario, he should replaced.

However, Jones gave Phillips a ringing post-game endorsement. He lamented making a prior coaching change after only 2 years, and vowed to avoid the same mistake again. So, if Phillips returns, what next?

Again, there are pros and cons with Wade. A return would mean a sound defense, continuity at the top, and a coach the players seem to like. Because the players seem to like Phillips, the potential for high performance is there. The team, in theory, should buy into his plans, and be ready to go to battle for him.

The cons are the lack of charisma and intensity.

Therefore, if Phillips remains with the team, he will need to personally elevate his game in order to take this team to the next level. He must avoid business-as-usual complacency, and look within himself to generate the requisite intensity needed to compete for an NFL championship. He can start by raising a lil more hell and accountability in the locker room.

3. Hire a New Quarterbacks Coach

Romo seemed to be overcoached somewhat by Wade Wilson, and regressed because of it. Romo had a tendency to stay in the pocket more than ever this year, rather than using his improvisational scrambling abilities. As a result, he appeared indecisive and less instinctive, causing him to hold the ball longer and take more hits.

All of these changes in his play are the product of overcoaching. What makes Romo great is his ability to improvise. It should never be coached out of him. Under former QB coach, and current Miami assistant David Lee, Romo had a much better in-game, quick-thinking approach. He needs another mentor in Lee's class to help him regain that form.

4. Fire Defensive Coordinator Brian Stewart

This coach was another staff member who inspired no confidence and radiated contrived emotion. Phillips took over play-calling duties from him at the end of the year anyway, so his departure would be a minimal loss.

One possible replacement might be UCLA’s outstanding coordinator, DeWayne Walker. Walker has produced several stellar UCLA defensive teams, despite having mediocre talent. He also has previous NFL experience.

The 2009 season may find Dallas once again as a preseason favorite for another title. However, without improved leadership at the top, a 6th ring will be quite difficult.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald

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