Can Cowboys Bounce Back?
by Trevor Whenham - 11/26/2008
As the Cowboys get ready for their annual Thanksgiving tilt, and the rest of the season beyond it, you really have to wonder if a team with this many issues can be a contender. They have been the worst kind of soap opera this year. They are still right in the mix, though. They have the record to be a wild card team right now, though they would miss out if the playoffs started today thanks to tie-breakers. If the team that has shown up the last two weeks can stick around, though, then they will be playing into January. If that happens then I can't imagine anyone would be too excited about playing them.
As we get ready for the stretch drive, let's look at the issues that have faced this team and stopped them from being a legitimate contender, and the team's chances of overcoming those issues:
Issue: Coaching mess - If we have learned anything this year it's that it doesn't work well when both the once and future coaches are on staff at the same time. It hasn't worked in Seattle, the Colts got off to a rocky start, and it certainly hasn't worked in Dallas. Wade Phillips has had to operate with Jason Garrett looking over his shoulder all year, and he has known that in a pinch Jerry Jones would side with Garrett. That hasn't made it easy for Phillips to do his job, or to maintain the respect of his team. This issue isn't going to change, and it will only get worse with every real or perceived misstep the team takes.
Issue: Player unrest - This is essentially a code word for Terrell Owens. The other T.O. has mostly been a model citizen this year, but he has starting yapping in recent weeks - no surprise given the struggles. His complaint is the typical one - he wants the ball more. He got it a lot in San Francisco and they won big. That won't do anything to shut Owens up. We've seen how divisive Owens can be on a team if he wants to be. The difference here, though, is that his teammates speak up on his behalf when he beaks off. That hasn't happened in the past. If things go badly in Dallas this year it won't be Owens' fault. In fact, it's Roy Williams, not Owens, that needs to step his game up to help his team.
Issue: Tony Romo's health - This is perhaps the biggest one. This team can only go as far as Romo can take it, and that was starkly illustrated by the brief but disastrous Brad Johnson era. Romo is basically healthy now, and the team's two-game surge corresponds with his return. Tom Brady taught us that no quarterback's health can be relied upon, but Romo is young enough that chances are decent that he will be able to make it the rest of the way relatively unscathed. The one scary thing, of course, is that we don't know the real status of his finger. If it isn't well healed then it could become an ongoing problem. He sure didn't look bothered in San Francisco, though.
Issue: Defensive liabilities - This one is puzzling. Coming into the season the Cowboys were perceived widely as the best team in the league, and their defense was a big reason for that. We got the first hint that things weren't as they were supposed to be in Week 2 when they beat Philly while allowing 37 points. That was the first of four times that they allowed more than 30 points in a game. The Raiders have nothing to play for, yet they have only allowed 30 points twice. The defense has been a disappointment, but there are signs of hope. Though they give up too many points, they are in the top eight for yards allowed, and they have looked generally solid the last couple of weeks. Before the season it seemed like the defense was going to win some games for this team. Now it would be positive if they just didn't lose any. That's no guarantee, but it at least seems possible.
Issue: Pacman - I won't spend much time on Jones, because I don't think that he is particularly relevant. He hasn't been particularly effective when he has played, so it doesn't really matter if he is in the lineup or not. He may be a distraction, but no team in sports outside of the Yankees is more adept and practiced at dealing with distractions. Jones is a major media fixation, but I am bored of it all.
Issue: Schedule - Coming into the year we knew this was going to be a problem. They play in one of the two or three toughest divisions in football, and there weren't as many soft spots outside the division as a team would like. Dallas is in the mess they are in when it comes to making the playoffs in large part because they somehow managed to get blown out by the Rams. That's inexcusable. Outside of that, though, they have won the easy games they need to win, and been at least somewhat competitive in the tougher ones. Down the stretch the schedule makers are not the Cowboys' friends. They should have a gimme on Thanksgiving (If they don't win against the Seahawks at home then ignore everything I have said here, because this team has no hope). The last four, though, are brutal - at Pittsburgh, hosting the Giants and Ravens and then finishing up at Philly. With the win over Seattle they will be 8-4. Ten wins in the minimum to make the playoffs, but 11 would be much more comfortable. That means they need two or three down the stretch. That doesn't give them much of a margin for error. If this was the Cowboys team that I thought we were dealing with coming into the season then I would have no concerns. With this squad, though, the schedule still looms as a major issue.