Raise your hand if you have ever dog-cussed Jason Garrett or said Wade Phillips should be fired (or worse).
God bless you. I see that hand. Yes, and yours too. Oh, and yours, way back in the corner. And yes…my hand is raised, as well. Guilty. All over the vast expanse of Jerry’s magnificent, shiny football Mecca, hands are raised.
Four weeks ago, when the Cowboys were fresh off stumbling into December with back-to-back losses to the San Diego Chargers and the New York Giants, most who bleed silver and blue were sighing, cussing, cramping, complaining, puking, bleeding out the ears…and convinced this team was going nowhere as long as Jerry Jones was the General Manager, Wade Phillips was the head coach, and Jason Garrett was the offensive coordinator.
My, how our tune has changed. Now, we have this 11-5 team that has, for the first time in the illustrious history of the franchise, shut out opponents in back-to-back games. Division opponents, no less. We have this team that is roaring into the playoffs by winning the final three games of the season, clinching a division title, and serving notice to the rest of the NFC that the Dallas Cowboys are a team you just don’t want any part of, thank you very much.
We know the what. But do we know why? Why did this team do what last year’s team could not? Why is the feeling around this team even better than in 2007, when they were 13-3? We always know who to blame for the failures around here. But whom do we credit for the success?
Glad you asked. I have some candidates. In fact, I have the top twelve people most responsible for this team’s turn-around. We could call them the Twelve Apostles of the About Face, or the Not-So-Dirty Dozen.
Here they are…
Number Twelve: Jason Witten
It isn’t that Witten wasn’t great last year. He was. He always is. But never has he been more clutch than this year. Whenever you absolutely, positively must have a first down, throw it to Witten. It usually works out. Just ask Tony Romo. When has a receiver only scored two touchdowns in a season and had a more positive impact on his team?
Number Eleven: Mike Jenkins
By the first week in the regular season, Wade Phillips had not been able to decide between Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick as to which one would start opposite Terrence Newman. Newman, it was assumed, was the best corner on the team, and one of these young guys would have to step up and claim that second spot. By season’s end, Jenkins had asserted himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber corner, the best on the team, and one of the better corners in the league.
Number Ten: DeMarcus Ware
Sure, Ware was phenomenal a year ago and probably should have been named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. But what about this year? What about being carted off the field one week on a stretcher and coming back the next to get two sacks, force two turnovers, and seal the victory over the previously undefeated Saints? DeMarcus on the field makes every other Cowboys defender’s job easier.
Number Nine: Jay Ratliff
He is too small to be a nose tackle. He is also too quick, too tenacious, and too talented to be handled by most centers or guards or centers plus guards. The Ratliff motor is always humming. He creates havoc and helps set a tone for Phillips’ aggressive 3-4 defense.
Number Eight: The Offensive Line
They play so well as a unit, may as well treat them as one. From tackle to tackle, the Cowboys’ line has done a superb job of protecting the quarterback and gashing defenses for one of the league’s most potent ground attacks. Even when Marc Colombo, who was playing lights out, went down, the line never missed a beat. They plugged in Doug Free, and he has been more than serviceable as a replacement. (Witness the block Free threw forty yards downfield on Felix Jones’ 49-yard scamper last Sunday.)
Number Seven: Anthony Spencer
Did anyone else notice that Peter King selected both Spencer and DeMarcus Ware for his All-Pro team? And why not? Spencer has been a force, a monster, a whirling dervish, disrupting plays, harassing passers, corralling runners, and complementing Ware so well that no one misses Greg Ellis for a minute. Spencer had 50 tackles, 17 assists, six sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception during the 2009 regular season.
But numbers only tell part of the story. Anyone watching the Cowboys this year saw how Spencer influenced plays on almost every series.
Number Six: Keith Brooking
Brooking did not crack the Pro Bowl lineup in 2009, but he became the heart and soul of the Dallas Cowboys defense. He was the spiritual leader. His on-field play was as effective and impressive as the leadership he provided. Without Brooking, the Cowboys defense is a very different unit altogether.
Number Five: Miles Austin
Roy Williams was supposed to be the guy here. He got the fat contract. He cost the team all those draft picks. He was going to pick up the slack for the departed Terrell Owens. Right?
Miles Austin began the season as the number three receiver. But in Kansas City, with Williams hurt, he asserted himself, had one of the best days ever for a Cowboys receiver and began his dash to the Pro Bowl. He has been the big-time receiver, making the big plays at crunch time, torching defenses, snatching balls from the grasp of defensive backs, shaking off would-be tacklers, running past people, running over people.
Austin has done everything Owens did and managed to remain a team player. Imagine that.
Number Four: Jason Garrett
Granted, third down or fourth down and a yard to go has been a bit of a sticky wicket. Sure, the point production (ranked 14th in the league) isn’t on par with the yardage this team racks up (second most in the NFL). But have you not seen steady—and marked—improvement in this offense over the course of the year?
No longer saddled with the burden of getting the ball to T.O., whether it makes sense to do so or not, Garrett has devised a sophisticated offense that features a dynamite running game and a lethal passing attack. If he could just make those catches for Roy Williams and Martellus Bennett, he would be the genius he was touted to be a couple years ago.
Number Three: Wade Phillips
Yes. You read that right. I said Wade Phillips. I know I have been a rather vocal critic of the man. I dislike plenty of things about his leadership style. But you cannot argue with the results. The man has won 68% of the games he has coached in Dallas (record: 33-15). He has now won two division titles in three years. He has put together a defense that is on the best roll of any team going into the postseason.
And his players believe in him. They genuinely like him. They want to win for him. (Of course, if they really like him and want to keep him around, they might try winning at least one more game, just to be safe.)
Number Two: Tony Romo
From the first time he stepped on the field as the team’s starter, Romo has shown flashes of utter brilliance. He has made plays few others could have made. Unfortunately, he was also prone to making the worst possible mistakes at the worst possible times, costing his team scoring chances, giving up points to opposing defenses, and contributing to the team’s failure to achieve postseason success.
But Tony has turned a corner. He has gotten his gun-slinger propensity under control, and he has done so without diminishing his play-making prowess. Consider that in 2009, he threw for more yards—4,483—than ever before. He threw just nine interceptions, after having thrown 13, 19, and 14 the previous three seasons. He threw 26 touchdown passes this year and finished with a quarterback rating of 97.6, his highest ever.
More importantly, he has asserted himself as the undisputed leader of the offense.
Number one: Jerry and Stephen Jones
I picked Jerry Jones number one because this season’s success was predicated on his off-season moves. It was, far and away, Jerry’s best off-season for signing the right players and cutting the right ones loose.
I include Stephen because word has it that it was Stephen Jones who convinced daddy to cut ties with T.O. It was not an easy decision for Jerry Jones to make, not an easy thing to do. Not just because of his own ego, but because, I believe, he genuinely had a warm feeling for the receiver.
Jones did it. he pulled the trigger and Terrell Owens, PacMan Jones, and Tank Johnson were— *poof* —gone. Equally important, he let Greg Ellis, the so-called team leader who had become a broken record for whining about his contract and generally sowing discord on the team, go.
Then, Jones set about signing key people. He got Igor Olshansky to replace Christ Canty, the departed defensive end overpaid by the Giants. He signed Gerald Sensabaugh to shore up the defensive backfield, which had long been vulnerable due to the diminishing skills of safety Roy Williams. Best of all, he signed Keith Brooking, the five-time Pro Bowler who still had plenty in his tank…and the kind of salt and savvy this team so desperately needed in a locker room leader.
Sure, there is the whole Roy Williams (the receiver) debacle. But wasn’t it Jones who first told us that Miles Austin would be the deep threat the team needed in Terrell Owens’ absence? Didn’t we giggle…or snicker…or roll our collective eyes?
Wasn’t he right?
He’s been right about a good many things lately. And that is a good thing for a team that has been all wrong for way too long.