Sports Outside the Beltway

Can Cowboys Avoid December Collapse?

The Dallas Cowboys are 11-1 and in the driver’s seat for home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. This is the best start in the history of a franchise that has made it to eight Super Bowls and an NFC championship game. Yet many around Valley Ranch are worried.


Mac Engel rehashes the team’s recent history:

Starting in 1997, the team is 16-29 from the time Dec. 1 hits to the end of the regular season; they haven’t had a winning record after Dec.1 since 1996. Fully aware of their annual December collapses, the Cowboys know this team won’t truly be any different unless they can finally rid themselves of their well-earned reputation as December gag artists.

And unlike years before, there are no valid reasons why this team should collapse again. “I don’t think it’s going to be like that this year,” linebacker DeMarcus Ware said.

These days, such rhetoric from Valley Ranch shouldn’t inspire the masses. They said it in 2003. They said it in 2005. They said it again in 2006. And every time the faithful fell for it.

In coach Bill Parcells’ first season in 2003, they collapsed, and instead of winning the division they fell to the sixth seed and lost in the wild-card round. The excuse? The team wasn’t that good to begin with.

In 2005, the team was 7-4 but collapsed and missed the playoffs. The excuse? “We lost [left tackle] Flozell Adams [to injury],” Jones said, “and that was a good excuse for us.”

Last season, Dallas was 7-4 and playing well behind quarterback Tony Romo. But no one saw the Cowboys’ collapse coming as they blew their NFC East lead and slid into the fifth seed in the playoffs. The excuse? Take your pick. The quiet explanation is that Parcells was too stubborn to let the defense do anything other than what it had been doing and that they became easy to game-plan for. The louder explanation is that the team was gassed. “As much as people say, ‘Oh, we were worn down,’ that’s not it,” tight end Jason Witten said. “The fact is it’s happened every year.”


The Cowboys are confident again. More confident than possibly any Cowboys team in the past decade. Their offensive line is solid. They have a Pro Bowl wide receiver in Terrell Owens, and they should get Terry Glenn back at some point. Their defense has been solid enough. Tony Romo is the NFL’s best passer not named Brady. That includes Peyton Manning, too.

While the remaining schedule features three road games, the Cowboys play but one team with a winning record — the Lions, who are 6-5 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak. Save for a major injury, there are no reasons — or excuses — this team will repeat such a dramatic flop again.

“I know that everybody said the end of the year the last couple of years the team has faltered a little bit,” coach Wade Phillips said. “I don’t see that from our team.”

No one does. Of course, no one saw it last year. Or the year before that. That’s why it’s an uneasy time at Valley Ranch.

His Star-Telegraph colleague, Randy Galloway, thinks this team is indeed different.

What follows are a few seemingly obvious theories on why what happened last December won’t happen this time:

Big Bill wore out his teams, while the style of easy rider Wade Phillips has meant fresh bodies.

“People think that, but it’s not true,” said tight end Jason Witten in a conversation a couple of weeks ago. “Physically, there is no excuse about us being tired or worn down last year. In fact, it was almost just the opposite.” (No team had fewer major injuries than the ’06 Cowboys, almost the same as this year). “But mentally, there’s probably something to that. The team may have been worn down mentally. I was fine with Bill. Liked him a lot. But you know Bill. He could be miserable to be around, and that impacts different players in different ways. That’s just Bill.”

And with Wade? Witten laughed at the comparison, then added, “What Wade does is keep it a lot lighter, but give him credit for stepping up and addressing all the issues that need to be addressed within the team. His style might seem like he lets things slide, but he doesn’t do that.”

There’s no Sean Payton on the December schedule this time. It’s no coincidence, of course, that the crash of ’06 started and continued with a 42-17 thrashing by Payton’s Saints on Dec. 10. As Big Bill’s former top offensive assistant, Payton provided the perfect blueprint on how to derail the Romo Express and how to destroy a Cowboys defense that had played pretty well until then. The biggest indictment of Parcells after the Saints embarrassment was he never countered, never adjusted. Frustration overwhelmed the coaching staff because Bill resisted making a change on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively. It took Big Bill retiring for that change to happen, with Jason Garrett on offense and Phillips on defense.

Greg Ellis and the defense. Face it, all you Ellis rippers, over his early-season contractual hassles, when Greg plays linebacker, this defense gets the job done. When he’s not in there, both the Parcells defense and the Phillips defense has struggled. One of Big Bill’s best moves, second only to starting Tony Romo, was switching Ellis to linebacker in the 3-4, something even Ellis initially balked at.

Obviously, there are still questions about the current defense, particularly in coverage. It’s not necessarily a playoff-ready defense by any means. But Wade’s finest moment of the season, along with that of Brian Stewart, the defensive coordinator, came Thursday night against Green Bay. The scheme against Brett Favre was a masterpiece. Favre was shockingly befuddled. He looked as confused as Aaron Rodgers was supposed to look.

Speaking of confused, how did Rodgers look that good? And forget that weak excuse about the defense hadn’t seen him or prepared for him. The kid had thrown two passes all year. And 33 passes in three seasons. The Cowboys hadn’t seen him because he doesn’t play.

The schedule. Take a look at the final four games. If the Cowboys “collapse” against this bunch of NFC rats (Detroit, Philly, Carolina, Washington), then we can forget about football and start investigating a curse that has been placed on Jerry Jones’ football house. There is no excuse not to win all four. It’d be a disgrace and could bring back a flood of December nightmares to lose more than one.

Tony Romo and the offense. Going into December, only one quarterback in the league ranks ahead of Romo. That’s Mr. Brady. Sorry, Peyton, but you’ve had a few problems lately.

The game is about the quarterback (I think I’ve mentioned that a few times over the years), and Romo is still falsely blamed for having “five bad games” last December. Wrong, dead wrong. Romo won in New York and won in Atlanta with big-time performances. Otherwise, he was not good in December, and Parcells also saddled him with a junior high offensive game plan in Seattle.

But the Romo of then, and the Romo of now? OK, you already know that difference.

Eldorado Owens is also a factor this season, as opposed to last season, and remember that Witten was a forgotten target a year ago for some strange reason. Thank you, Jason Garrett, for changing that. Plus, the offensive line is a positive force for the most part (still a little shaky in the running game).

Overall, this will be a December when we can ignore the Cowboys’ recent history. Either that, or there ain’t no Santa Claus.

Let us hope.

Finally, while all of us die-hards are frustrated with the flaws of this team — not covering kicks well, inconsistent defensive backfield play, discipline penalties on the O-line — the fact is it’s pretty good. As Jim Reeves points out, in the modern era, all teams are flawed.

It’s a curse, really. The tendency, for those of us who lived through it here in the early ’90s, is to compare everything Cowboys with the three Super Bowl champions we watched dominate the NFL 15 years ago. Naturally, the 2007 version comes up lacking in that comparison and will until it stands on the field in Glendale, Ariz., in February. Even then, should the Cowboys get that far, we’ll be pointing out how they still don’t measure up to the AFC champs, whether they be the Patriots, or the Colts, or whoever.

It’s simply the nature of the business, but it is a tad unfair to these Cowboys. It’s a far different NFL than it was in the ’90s. Every team — even the Pats — has warts compared to the teams of that era.


Yes, of course, the Cowboys have weaknesses in the secondary. No stop-the-presses revelation there. Against everyone but the Patriots, however, the offense has been able to overcome those weaknesses. Anybody see a reason why that should stop between here and SB XLII?

Did the Cowboys get the benefit of a couple of officials’ calls [in the win over the Packers]? Probably, though I’d say the late pass interference call in which Miles Austin was tripped at the 5 was at least debatable. He was clearly hooked before the leg-tangle brought him down. If the flag had come immediately, instead of well after the play was over, the call wouldn’t have been nearly as controversial as it turned out to be. But those calls happen every game, some for the Cowboys, some against them.

Bottom line is that the Cowboys won and won handily. They’ve redirected the NFC road to the Super Bowl. Barring a monumental December collapse — don’t even think it — it now runs directly through Dallas. No frigid late January visit to Lambeau Field, thank you very much.

And while the Packers may have gained some confidence for a potential rematch after their second-half comeback behind Rodgers, what can Favre be thinking? He is now 0-9 as a starter in Dallas. At some point, he has to begin believing that he just can’t win here. Maybe he already has.

I would suggest, in fact, that strictly in the context of Thursday night’s game, Favre’s injury was the worst thing that happened to the Cowboys, because that’s when they let up on what had all the makings of a total blowout.

Warts? You bet this team has them, and chances are they’re not going away. But then, that ’95 Cowboys Super Bowl team had a few itself, including one at head coach. It’s just that the Steelers had a bigger one. His name was Neil O’Donnell, and he played quarterback.

What a concept. Other teams with warts, too.

Here’s my suggestion: Take the half-full glass, offer a toast to Phillips and the 2007 Cowboys and drink up. It’s already been a heck of a ride.

Cowboys fans are unlikely to sit easy unless and until the team wins another Super Bowl. That’s the expectation with this franchise year in and year out. Is it ridiculously unfair? Of course. But the teams of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1990s — before free agency and the salary cap set in and created this thing called parity — spoiled us.

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