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Predictions About Cowboys-Giants Do Not All Spell Doom

The Cowboys fans I know the best are not optimistic about Sunday’s game against the Giants. I am not optimistic about the Sunday’s game against the Giants. I expected plenty of others to feel the same way.

Most commentators, including nearly everyone with NFL Network and ESPN, have picked the Giants.

As it turns out, though, both of the major Internet simulators have picked the Cowboys to win, albeit by narrow margins.

In Accuscore simulations, Dallas won 51% of the games by an average margin of 25.5 to 25. Tony Romo slightly outperformed Eli Manning, helping the Cowboys to overcome a poor rushing performance.

What If Sports’ simulations were even more favorable, with Dallas winning 53.5% of the games by an average margin of 25-23.

Here is the summary:

So who wins the right to represent the division in January? According to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com simulation engine, the Cowboys come out on top 53.5 percent of the time by an average score of 25-23.

The regular-season finale of the 2011 campaign promises to be must-see theater, as the winner of Sunday night’s soiree between the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants is granted admission to the postseason. Apropos, then, that this matchup doubles as the WhatIfSports.com Game of the Week.

To say the Cowboys enter Week 17’s tilt with swagger would be a misnomer, as Dallas limps in losing three of their past four contests, with one of the defeats coming in heart-breaking fashion to the G-Men in Week 14. Rookie kicker Dan Bailey, who had been automatic in the first 11 ball games of the season, has missed three of his last eight attempts. Fellow neophyte DeMarco Murray was having a standout freshman year, only to succumb to a season-ending ankle injury. Head coach Jason Garrett’s decision-making has been suspect in December, leading many pigskin pundits to question if he’s the right man for the job. Worse, field general Tony Romo injured his throwing hand against the Eagles on Christmas Eve. While Romo is expected to suit up, it’s another headache the team harbors heading into Sunday.

Not that New York is riding a big way of momentum into MetLife Stadium. Although the Giants knocked off their Gotham City rival in Week 16, as well as their aforementioned conquest of Dallas three weeks ago, Tom Coughlin’s squad has lost five of their last seven games. Thanks to injuries in the backfield, the once-proud New York ground game is last in the league, managing a paltry 88.1 yards per outing. The Giants defense has not been immune to the health bug, with their depleted defense’s performance illustrating this sentiment, as New York is surrendering 381.5 yards per outing, fifth-highest in the NFL.

Plagued by a plethora of problems, how did both franchises find themselves fighting for a playoff position? The aerial assaults for the Cowboys and Giants are two of the more paramount attacks in the NFC. Eli Manning’s 305.8 yards per game is good for third in the conference, while Romo’s 102.2 QB rating is fourth-best in the league. While the cannons of Romo and Manning have been called erratic, many rosters around the NFL would jump at the prospect of implementing either arm under center.

Of course, it helps to have a talented base of receivers at your disposal. The Cowboys brandish dexterous quartet in Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Laurent Robinson and Miles Austin, while the Giants boast two 1,000-yard wideouts in Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, as well as the services of tight end Jake Ballard. Along with the Packers and Saints, the two NFC East adversaries flaunt two of the more endowed arsenal of targets in football.

So who wins the right to represent the division in January? According to the award-winning WhatIfSports.com simulation engine, the Cowboys come out on top 53.5 percent of the time by an average score of 25-23.

“Almost Anthony” Is One Key Missing from the 2009 Run

Players on the current version of the Cowboys don’t have nicknames like Too Tall, Hollywood, Mr. Cowboy, or the Dodger. Instead, the team has such original nicknames as TNew and DWare. There are plenty of variations of Tony Romo’s name, but that’s a different matter.

The most appropriate nickname for anyone on this team is Almost Anthony Spencer. The former first-round pick has a nose for the football and is often seen near the play. However, he is more well-known for near misses, as in “Spencer almost made it to the quarterback there, but he grabbed nothing but air.”

In 2009, after a 17-10 loss to Denver, I wrote, “If we could reward players for almost making plays, Spencer would be a Pro Bowler. Instead, he nearly gets sacks and nearly gets interceptions but never quite gets there.”

One week later, after a 26-20 overtime win over the Chiefs, I added, “Until further notice, Spencer will be known as Almost Anthony. He had two tackles and three quarterback hits, but he still has not recorded a sack.”

Spencer had two sacks against the Raiders on Thanksgiving Day, and those were his only two sacks for the entire season after 13 weeks.

Dallas had to win their final three games to have a shot at the playoffs. It was during those three games that Spencer temporarily shed the Almost Anthony name. Consider these stats:

vs. New Orleans: 6 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 3 QB hits, 1 fumble recovery.

vs. Washington: 5 total tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 2 QB hits.

vs. Philadelphia: 5 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 1 QB hit, 1 forced fumble.

Spencer added another sack in the team’s wildcard win over the Eagles, which still stands as the team’s only playoff win in the past 15 years. He even had a solid game in a loss to the Vikings, recording 9 tackles and a sack.

Fast-forward to 2011. Spencer has 6 sacks again this year, but none of them have come in the last three games. His most noteworthy play during that time was his complete whiff while trying to sack Michael Vick. Spencer wound up with Vick’s facemask on a key play that led to the Eagles’ first touchdown.

If teams knew they had to slow down both DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, this is a dangerous defense. However, Ware is the only playmaker between the two, and when he doesn’t pressure the quarterback, there is not a good chance that anyone else will.

Sure, Jay Ratliff can get there from time to time, but he’s inconsistent. And it’s true that Spencer has coverage duties and doesn’t always rush the passer. However, there have been plenty of plays where the team has rushed both Ware and Spencer, and Spencer has come up short, even though he doesn’t receive anywhere near the focus that Ware does.

Plenty of things need to go right for the Cowboys to win on Sunday, but a sudden resurgence by Almost Anthony would be a good start.

Buddy Ryan’s Sons Are Certainly Living Up to the Family Name

We are entering Week 17 of “I still don’t understand that hype surrounding the Ryan brothers.”

Rex Ryan’s Jets might have made two consecutive AFC title games, but after a loss to the Giants, his 8-7 team is nearly out of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, Rob Ryan just has to be the most overrated defensive coordinator in the league. Granted, if the Cowboys beat the Giants (and it will require a strong effort on defense to do so), Ryan will be the defensive coordinator on a playoff team for the first time in his career. That’s not impressive, but I will retract my overrated statement of the team can pull it off.

Both Ryan brothers are blowhards. They entertain the press by making obnoxious statements, and their teams have had just enough success that most think they are winners.

Remember a statement by another coach named Ryan? Something like, “You’ve got a winner in town.” That was, of course, Buddy Ryan when he was introduced as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.

However, an 8-8 team is not a winner. That was his record in 1994 with Arizona. Nor is a 4-12 team a winner, and that was the Cardinals’ record the year he was fired.

His overall record as a head coach was 55-55-1. He never won a playoff game as a head coach.

He made his name as a defensive coordinator, though only half the teams he coached as defensive coordinator finished with winning records.

Not a terrible overall record, but it was nothing to brag about. His sons apparently thought their father established a fine blueprint, though, because both continue to run their mouths even when their teams can’t back up what they are saying.

* * *

I don’t really care about Rex Ryan right now, other than to mention that his team backed up none of his talk in a game that the Jets (and our Cowboys) needed. I really do care about Rob Ryan’s mouth, because the Cowboys have rarely backed up anything he’s said all year.

And in today’s Dallas Morning News, Darren Woodson shared some thoughts about the team’s defensive personnel. This is consistent with what several fans have said this year.

One thing about Rob Ryan – and I know he’s trying to say all the right things as far as the personnel that he has – but let’s face it: the personnel that he has right now is not the personnel that he wants. There are certain guys up front – DeMarcus Ware’s a guy you definitely want. But as a whole, in his scheme, he puts you on islands at times where you have to make a play. He wants to bring the house and allow his corners to cover man-to-man. He doesn’t have that security in his corners right now, he doesn’t have that belief in his corners to just allow them to be out there in one-on-situations. So his hands are tied. He’s trying to do whatever he can to help his corners out, even to the fact of where, when you watch the game and you see it on tape, there are times when the safety is aligned 30 yards deep. … And that’s simply because he’s trying to eliminate a big play. But that’s not his style. His style is that he wants nine guys on the line of scrimmage, bringing guys from different angles. But he understands that “Right now, my corners are getting beat, and I’ve got to find a way to help these guys out.”

Woodson also questioned whether Terence Newman has the athletic ability to remain a viable option at corner. According to Woodson, Newman appears to have lost his closing speed, meaning that he’s having to give a bigger cushion to avoid giving up big plays.

Curious to see whether Rob has any influence over the team’s grocery shopping for next year. Then again, he might just move on, and we might just get to watch one more season with Jenkins, Newman, Scandrick, and Ball give up one 20-yard play after another.

History Only Makes Us Feel Better

Next Sunday’s game against the Giants is going to bring reminders of the 1993 finale in which the Cowboys won the NFC East and wrapped up home-field advantage by beating the Giants at the Meadowlands.  The similarities—Giants, at New York, vs. Dallas, NFC East title on the line.

Nothing else is similar. That 1993 team had lost four games. Two of those losses came when future Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith had held out to start the season. Another loss came when future Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman was injured. The final loss came on Thanksgiving Day when snow and ice covered Texas Stadium for the only time in the stadium’s history.

In 2011, the running back is injured and is only a starter because a superior rookie back was previously lost for the season. The quarterback puts up fine numbers, but he hasn’t much of a clue about leading the team to wins in big games and won’t be anywhere close to earning the votes to make it to the Hall of Fame. And the team’s new stadium has a retractable roof, so unless some malfunction occurs, it isn’t going to snow in there.

We don’t need to rehash it all, but the Cowboys have already had chance (vs. Jets) after chance (vs. Detroit) after chance (vs. New England) after chance (vs. Arizona) to win this year, only to find ways to lose. Oh, and the team would have wrapped up this division already had the team held on to a 12-point lead with less than six minutes left against the Giants just two weeks ago.

That 1993 team was a team of destiny, and most of felt it then.

This 2011 team? Here’s an analogy—the Eagles kicked a field goal with about 4:30 remaining in the third quarter yesterday. Dallas trailed 17-0 at that point. A guy in our section started screaming, “If your gonna win this thing, you’d better start playing now!” Nobody joined in his chant, and I think the collective thought (or at least my thought) was, with a puzzled look and a long exhale, win this thing?

I really want to think that this could be like 1993. Along those lines, this could be like 1979, when the Cowboys beat the Redskins to take the division title. In fact, this could be like 2009, when Dallas beat Philadelphia in the season finale to win the division and earn the right to host the Eagles during the following week.

But like the comparison between 1993 and 2011, there is little that is similar to 1979 or 2009. In 1979, Dallas was 8-5 after losing to Houston on Thanksgiving. But wins over the Giants and Eagles gave the Cowboys some momentum, and Roger Staubach had enough left in him to lead Dallas to a come-from-behind win.

In 2009, you might recall, Dallas had beaten the previously unbeaten Saints on the road and then beat the Redskins to secure a playoff spot. And Dallas had already beaten the Eagles earlier in the season.

The Cowboys have no such momentum right now. Their only win in December was against a Tampa Bay team that more recently lost 48-16 to the Carolina Panthers. The defense has been a weakness all year, and the defense that played the Eagles yesterday gave up 293 passing yards and forced one turnover only because Jason Avant tried to stretch the ball over the pylon on what was first called a touchdown.

What I fear is that this game might turn out to be something more like the season finale against the Eagles in 2008. One week earlier during that season, my son and I had watched the Cowboys play the Ravens in the last game at Texas Stadium. A Dallas win would have given the Cowboys a playoff spot, but the defense fell apart at the worst possible time. We took a long walk back to the car in the cold, feeling as if the season was over. The Cowboys had a chance to go to the playoffs by beating the Eagles in week 17, but Dallas gave a performance that words can’t quite describe. Philadelphia 44, Dallas 6.

After yesterday’s loss, my son and I took another long walk in the cold (for Texas, at least) to the parking lot after the game, feeling as if the season was all but over. It’s going to take a few more days and a lot of convincing to believe it will turn out otherwise after Sunday night next week.

Philadelphia 20, Dallas 7: Our Big Lump of Coal

One highlight from today’s game: Jason Witten moved into third place in receiving yards in team history.

My son and I left the parking lot to head to Cowboys Stadium just after the Giants had kicked a field goal to trim the Jets’ lead to 7-3 in the first half. It still looked like the day would bring quite a treat—a Jets win, meaning that the Cowboys would have their chance to wrap up the division at home with a win over the Eagles.

By the time we got to the stadium to stand in the security line, we could see that the Giants were ahead 10-7. Someone at some point said that the Giants had scored on a 99-yard play (Eli Manning to Victor Cruz, as it turned out).

It was 10-7 for quite a while. The stadium monitors would occasionally show highlights from the game, but not often. However, we were aware that the Giants had taken a 17-7 lead late in the third quarter.

It was 20-7 when the stadium monitors showed a Jet drive deep into Giant territory. On 3rd-and-goal from the 1, Mark Sanchez forgot to grab the ball, which squirted into the end zone for a touchback. Even though the Jets narrowed the score to 20-14 less than two minutes later, the mood at Cowboys Stadium was somber.

No way for the Jets to win, so the Cowboys-Eagles game essentially meant nothing.

Several around us repeated that statement in the minutes leading up to kickoff. The Cowboys turned around and played as if they believed the game meant nothing. It felt more like preseason game for much of the late afternoon.

Dallas had no answers for the Eagles, even if the score wasn’t 34-7 like it was on October 30. On the sixth play of the game, Almost Anthony Spencer almost sacked Michael Vick. Instead, Spencer grabbed Vick’s facemask, but Vick still spun around and flung the ball downfield. Riley Cooper made a nice catch, and the penalty on Spencer for the facemask move the ball into the red zone. Vick threw a 13-yard touchdown to Brent Celek to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.

Really, Philadelphia didn’t need more than that.

Felix Jones had a nice 10-yard run to open the game, but he only carried the ball four times. Tony Romo attempted two passes. On the second, his hand hit the helmet of an Eagles’ defender. Few in the stands realized that Romo would be out for the game, and in fact my son had to tell me that Stephen McGee had gone in.

Dallas decided to rest some starters who had suffered through a few injuries, and though Romo might have been able to play, head coach Jason Garrett indicated that the team wasn’t going to take any chances.

The strangest sight today was seeing Jerry and Stephen Jones (along with a third person) bolt onto the sideline after Romo had gone to the locker room for tests. Jerry went directly to Garrett, apparently to tell the head coach about the quarterback’s injury. Just imagine that circumstance happening in any other sport with any other team—the owner/general manager bolting onto the field to tell the head coach about an injury to a player.

Good Lord.

Ah, yes, there was more football to be played.  Dallas moved the ball to the Philadelphia 32 in the second quarter. A holding penalty on Tyron Smith pushed the Cowboys out of field goal range.

The Eagles should have scored on their next possession, but (per the replay booth) Jason Avant fumbled the ball as he reached out to try to let the ball cross the plane of the goal line.

Dallas turned around and moved the ball back to the Eagle 30. Garrett called for a pitch to Sammy Morris, but the whole play was flubbed. Morris lost 9 yards, and even if he had made the first down, Dez Bryant was called for an illegal shift. So Dallas ended up out of field goal range.

Philadelphia took control at its own 13 with 55 seconds left in the first half. The Eagles had just one timeout remaining. Any guesses what might happen?

22-yard pass. 33-yard pass. 27-yard pass. Five-yard touchdown pass. Philadelphia 14, Dallas 0.

The second half was a series of three-and-outs by the Cowboys and time-killing drives by the Eagles. Dallas had one long drive in the fourth quarter, but McGee’s fourth-down attempt to Martellus Bennett in the end zone went sailing wide.

The only reason Dallas scored was that rookie Bruce Carter blocked a punt, setting up a touchdown pass from McGee to Miles Austin.

So next week is for all the marbles. It’s going to take a few days to start believing this team has any chance to win.

Cowboys-Eagles Storyline

The Cowboys face the Eagles at 3:15 tomorrow at Cowboys Stadium. By then, we will know whether the Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win. Should the Jets beat the Giants and the Cowboys beat the Eagles, then Dallas would take the division title.

Of course, a Giant win means that the division title will be up in the air until week 17, no matter who wins between Dallas and Philadelphia. The Eagles need the win to keep their slim hopes alive, but that would only happen if the Giants lose to the  Jets.

Below are some key stories:

* * *

Finally took a tour of Cowboys Stadium. Here is one clip from our visit:

Dallas 31, Tampa Bay 15: Miscues Don’t Completely Ruin Dominant First Half

The Cowboys should have spent Saturday evening celebrating. But a win is a win, right?

This was going to be the game where the Cowboys played so flawlessly that I couldn’t get angry. When Dallas took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, I told my young son that Dallas would score 50 tonight.

By the end of the second quarter, I was half-right. Dallas led 28-0 thanks to three Tony Romo touchdown passes and a Romo touchdown run.  At that point, the Buccaneers had only managed one first down, and that came on the opening drive of the game. One play after that first down, Josh Freeman fumbled the ball, which set up the first Dallas touchdown.

At halftime, Deion Sanders said there was no way the Cowboys would suffer another second-half collapse. After all, he said, Tampa player had all but quit.

Friends, this is the Cowboys we’re talking about. The Cowboys had not held a halftime lead of at least 28 points since 1994. But that is irrelevant. This is the 2011 Cowboys we’re talking about. These Cowboys know exactly how to ruin any lead, no matter the margin and no matter the time remaining.

So just think what could happen when the Cowboys received the second-half kickoff. Feed Felix Jones early and often, helping my fantasy team? Throw very safe passes to Jason Witten and Miles Austin, moving the ball just a bit and eating up the third quarter?

Maybe that was the plan. But a nine-yard run by Felix Jones was wiped out by a holding penalty on Tyron Smith. That backed the Cowboys up to their own 10. Two plays later, Dallas faced a 3rd-and-19 from the 11.

What could possibly happen? Lots of things, which is why much of the pregame focused on such highlights as Romo throwing two picks returned for touchdowns by the Lions, which put the Lions back in the game on October 2.

So what should we all think and feel when Romo protects his 28-point lead by trying to keep a 3rd-and-19 play alive, rolling to his right, getting hit and stripped of the ball by Adrian Clayborn? And what should we believe when Dekota Watson scoops up the ball and runs in for the score, cutting the Dallas lead to 28-7?

I couldn’t even get mad. This team is so clueless about how to win a game that I had little doubt that Tampa would make a game of it after all.

Dallas did go on a drive that ate up 7 minutes and led to a Dan Bailey field goal. That was promising.

But the defense turned around and gave up a long drive that resulted in a touchdown, followed by a two-point conversion.  With 23 seconds left in the third quarter, Dallas led by only 16 points, and the Buccaneers could have tied it with two touchdowns and two more conversions.

Let’s borrow from Baylor’s Robert Griffin III: It was unbelievably believable that the Cowboys had no idea up to that point how to put the game away.

Dallas moved into field goal range, only to suffer a sack that put the team out of range. Mat McBriar has faltered in a few situations this year, and when the team could have used a punt downed inside the 20, he kicked the ball into the end zone.

Tampa moved the ball back into Dallas territory. The worst play was a 4th-and-9 play from the Tampa 44. Kregg Lumpkin took a pass over middle, but Sean Lee was right there. However, the best tackler on the team missed the tackle, allowing Lumpkin to pick up the first down.

Fortunately, that drive stalled with just under six minutes left. Dallas killed some clock, and McBriar had another opportunity to pin Tampa Bay deep. Another touchback.

The Cowboys held on the final drive, giving Dallas its eighth win of the year after the offense ran out the clock.

Again, the story of the game should have been the first half. Romo finished the game with a QB rating of 133.9, and most of his damage came before halftime. He threw touchdown passes to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Laurent Robinson. A big positive is that Austin looks like he has returned to form, but Romo continues to look in the direction of Robinson.

Two other positives were the play of Jones and his new backup, Sammy Morris. The latter picked up 53 yards on some tough runs throughout the game.

The defense also played a nice first half. The second half wasn’t terrible, but it was troubling to see DeMarcus Ware on the bench during several series in the second half. By the end of the game, Ware and Anthony Spencer were on the bench, and Dallas went with Victor Butler and rookie Alex Albright.

(Someone explain this: Tampa double-teamed Albright on a few of the plays late, and Dallas still couldn’t manage a sack.)

Anyway, the win is a positive. The first half had many other positives. But the feeling that this team really hasn’t learned anything is glaring.

 

Cowboys-Buccaneers Storyline

The Cowboys are set to take on Tampa Bay for the first time since 2009. The teams have faced one another 14 times, with Dallas holding an 11-3 record.

Their last contest resulted in a 34-21 win. The Cowboys scored three second-half touchdowns in the win. Noteworthy: the three Cowboys who scored (Patrick Crayton, Roy Williams, and Marion Barber) are no longer with the team.

Miles Austin was not yet a starter, but he gave a preview of things to come with a 42-yard touchdown reception on a catch and run. That score gave Dallas a 13-7 halftime lead.

Thanks to Storify, here are other stories:

The Roll of Academic Pedigree and Playing Experience in Head Coaching Success

Few probably believe that Jason Garrett’s job is in danger this year, even as he makes costly mistakes. Franchises with high turnover rates at the head coaching position simply aren’t successful (review, for a moment, the recent records of the Oakland Raiders and Washington Redskins…for that matter, review the records of the Dallas Cowboys).

That said, some are finding it puzzling that someone as immensely intelligent and wise as Jason Garrett could make the type of mistakes he has made. I mean, the man froze his own kicker, after all.

Support for the statement that he is immensely intelligent and wise: (1) he went to Princeton and Columbia; and (2) he played in the NFL for many years.

That’s logical. He’s clearly smarter than most of us. And he had professional playing experience that must have taught him a great deal.

The problem is that neither elite academic pedigree nor professional playing experience alone has had much to do with coaching success in the NFL.

Consider this: of the 20 head coaches in NFL history with the most wins, only two attended schools remotely close to Princeton in terms of academic reputation. Those coaches include Bill Belichick (Wesleyan) and Marv Levy (masters degree from Harvard). Other coaches on this list attended such schools as John Carroll University, Pittsburgh, Dayton, Juniata College, Univ. of Illinois, Eastern Illinois, San Diego State, Syracuse, etc. Nothing wrong with these schools, but I don’t know how many people would seriously confuse them for Princeton.

That said, perhaps someone could argue that Belichick’s education helped him to become the mastermind that he is. However, Belichick’s success is more likely based on a long grooming period. He was, after all, a highly successful assistant coach long before he was a head coach. Maybe his superior intelligence told him to seek mentoring as an assistant, but his degree in economics from Wesleyan probably had little to do with his career trajectory.

As for Levy, most remember that he lost four consecutive Super Bowls with Buffalo. However, few would know that after he earned his M.S. from Harvard in 1951, he spent more than 40 years as an assistant or head coach at the high school, college, or professional level. Again, the M.S. in English history probably had little to nothing to do with his later coaching success.

Another coach worth nothing was Vince Lombardi. He attended Fordham University—a fine institution—but he couldn’t find a job after graduating in 1937. He later enrolled at Fordham’s law school, but he dropped out after one semester. Needless to say, I would doubt that Fordham’s academic reputation had much to do with his five NFL titles and two Super Bowl titles.

As for playing experience, the majority of coaches in the top 20 list for wins had some NFL playing experience. However, nine of these 20 had no playing experience. Moreover, in most cases, the playing experience seems to have been more important to these coaching landing assistant jobs than it was to having a direct impact on head coaching success. And in most cases, the experience under a strong mentor seems to have been the most critical aspect of future success.

Back to Garrett. Garrett played in the league for eight years. During one of those seasons, his head coach was Jimmy Johnson. His other head coaches were Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, and Jim Fassel.  “Great minds” isn’t what comes to mind.

(Of course, Garrett’s father is a longtime assistant coach and scout. He also led Columbia University to an 0-10 record in 1985.)

Garrett also served as quarterbacks coach at Miami when the head coach was Nick Saban. Great college coach. Not so great at the pro level.

His mentor during his time as offensive coordinator in Dallas? Wade Phillips? Jerry Jones?

The bottom line, I think, is that Jerry hired Garrett to mentor himself, with Jerry assuming that a smart guy like the Princeton-educated Garrett could figure this stuff out on his own. It hasn’t been a complete failure by any means, but it’s no wonder Garrett makes mistakes that more seasoned coaches probably wouldn’t make. And I seriously doubt that the Princeton degree ensures that Garrett won’t react poorly to pressure, which seems to have happened a few times this season.

So again, I’m not saying Garrett should be fired. I’m saying that, much like the problems with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, we probably could have seen these limitations in coaching. Here’s to hoping for an injection of wisdom over the next four days.

* * *

Here’s a list of the top 20 coaches in NFL history in terms of wins, along with their colleges and playing experience, if any.

Don Shula, John Carroll University, Case Western Reserve Univ. (M.S.)

George Halas, Illinois

Tom Landry, Univ. of Texas at Austin

Curly Lambeau, Notre Dame

Paul Brown, Miami (Ohio) (did not play professional football)

Marty Schottenheimer, Pittsburgh

Chuck Noll, Dayton

Dan Reeves, South Carolina

Chuck Knox, Juniata (did not play professional football)

Bill Belichick, Wesleyan (did not play professional football)

Bill Parcells, Colgate Univ. and Univ. of Wichita (drafted, but did not play professional football)

Mike Holmgren, USC (drafted, but did not play professional football)

Bud Grant, Minnesota

Mike Shanahan, Eastern Illinois (did not play professional football)

Joe Gibbs, San Diego State (did not play professional football)

Steve Owen, Phillips Univ. (now defunct)

Bill Cowher, North Carolina State

Marv Levy, Coe College, Harvard (M.S.) (did not play professional football)

Jeff Fisher, USC

Tom Coughlin, Syracuse (did not play professional football)

His Profile Notwithstanding, This Defensive Coordinator Hasn’t Fixed Anything

[I changed the original title, which was “Our Pregnant Defensive Coordinator Hasn’t Fixed Anything.” I’m pretty sure that Rob Ryan isn’t pregnant]

I was once a member of a certain now-defunct, Cowboys-related forum. During week 2 of the 2009 season in the inaugural game at Cowboys Stadium, the Cowboys grabbed a 31-30 lead with less than 3:40 remaining. A defensive stop would show that the team had turned a corner, would give the Cowboys a 2-0 record, and would open the new stadium in style. It didn’t happen, of course, as Eli Manning marched the Giants right down field, facing only two third downs on their final drive. Lawrence Tynes nailed a field goal as time expired to give the Giants the win.

A prominent member of that forum swore he wouldn’t watch the Cowboys again as long as Wade Phillips was head coach. Wade was supposed to “fix” the defense, and his failure was evident to this forum member after the loss to the Giants. To my knowledge, this member refused to watch the Cowboys for the rest of the 2009 season (including the playoffs), and what was odd to me at the time was that a number of other members agreed with the principle of what he was doing.

Consider for a moment the defensive starters on that 2009 team — Marcus Spears, Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, Bradie James, Keith Brooking, DeMarcus Ware, Terence Newman, Gerald Sensabaugh, Mike Jenkins.

Now fast-forward to last night’s complete collapse, caused mostly by that same defense. Sure, Wade Phillips is gone, replaced by the only pregnant football coach in the United States. But look at the defensive starters— Jay Ratliff, Anthony Spencer, Bradie James, Keith Brooking, DeMarcus Ware, Terence Newman, Gerald Sensabaugh, Mike Jenkins.

Dallas has added a young linebacker in Sean Lee, and he’s made a big difference, including a huge interception in the fourth quarter last night. Dallas also replaced Ken Hamlin, first with Alan Ball and then with Abram Elam. The Cowboys also bid farewell to Igor Olshansky, replacing him with Kenyon Coleman. Spears was replaced by Jason Hatcher as the starter.

Otherwise, this is the same group, including the same members of the secondary. Alan Ball couldn’t cover anyone as a safety in 2010, and he certainly can’t cover anyone as a key backup corner now. Mike Jenkins can make three great plays in a row, followed by a fourth play that drives us all mad.

Terence Newman had a great game against Buffalo a month ago. But he played a big part in the loss to Arizona last week, and he blew several coverages in the loss to the Giants. He could have given the Cowboys a 7-0 lead with a pick-six early in the game, but he caught the ball as well as your average offensive lineman and watched the ball fall straight to the ground. The Giants should have scored earlier than they did last night because Newman failed to cover Manningham on a play where Manningham dropped a sure touchdown reception.

The bottom line is that Dallas has tweaked with this defense a bit here and there, but this is largely the same bunch who could not stop anyone during much of the 6-10 season in 2010. In fact, most of these players have been around for a series of gut-churning losses during the past six years. If you want a bad trip down memory lane, read this article at ESPN, which chronicles 13 head-scratching losses since 2005.

Now back to guts, or a gut, consider this new defensive coordinator, who was supposed to fix the defense that “Mr. Fix-It” failed to fix. Rob Ryan’s resume before 2011:

  • Seven seasons as a defensive coordinator in Oakland and Cleveland. Not one of those teams had a winning season.
  • The 2006 Raiders finished third in total yards allowed. Of course, that Oakland team went 2-14.
  • His defenses finished 22nd or worse in six of the other seasons in which he was a defensive coordinator.
  • His defenses finished 27th or worse in total turnovers in four of his seven seasons.

How does this compare with Phillips’ tenure in Dallas? The Cowboys finished in the top 10 in yardage allowed during each of Phillips’ first three seasons. As far as team defensive stats, Rob Ryan’s defense has never finished ahead of a Wade Phillips defense in any season other than 2006, when the Raiders were (once again) 2-14.

No, I am not defending Wade as either the head coach or the defensive coordinator. And yes, I was one of those who wanted to believe that Rob Ryan could provide an answer on defense.

But the bottom line for me right now is that my attitude is not far from my former friend on the Cowboys forum. If I didn’t have tickets to the Eagles’ game on December 24, I might consider by own boycott. It’s seriously become that sickening to watch this team.

Anyway, Rob Ryan is Rex Ryan’s brother and Buddy Ryan’s son. That’s really what he has going for him. And apparently networks are just too happy to show Rob mouth the F word as he somehow continues to walk in straight lines even with that large stomach of his.

But he’s being asked to fix a defense consisting of the very same players who have lost so many of those games in the past several years. These are the same corners who find creative ways at various times to blow coverages at the absolute worst possible times.

We’re expected to believe that the results will change because of who is designing the schemes. Jerry apparently believes that the results will change depending on who designs the schemes.

But the greater concern is what has stayed the same. Same personnel. Same secondary coach, who was also once a head coach who managed only 15 wins in three seasons. Dallas brought in two free agents during the off-season, but both of them (Elam and Coleman) had been in Dallas before.

The most we should probably expect from a coordinator is better, um, coordination. Instead, we sometimes see confusion among members of that defense. We saw last night a last-second substitution that resulted in Mario Manningham ending up wide, wide open for what turned out to be a 47-yard touchdown. One play before that, the Cowboys neglected to cover Hakeem Nicks, who was the same player who had torched the Cowboys for nearly 100 yards in the first quarter.

The problems with this 2011 team are not limited to Ryan’s defense, and the problems are also not new to this team in 2011. The problems come down to this—no one area of this team is good enough to cover for deficiencies in other areas. Forget that talk about talent, and forget for a moment about who is designing schemes and calling plays. These players—especially the ones who have been on the field for these era-defining losses—are not good enough to win games consistently.

Some teams, such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh, can win with their defenses, even if their offenses are inconsistent.

Others, such as New Orleans and New England (in the last few years, at least), win with overwhelming offenses, even as their defenses tend to give up huge yardages to opposing offenses.

Then there are the current Packers, who seem to win games on both sides of the ball.

For Dallas, when the offense catches fire, the defense tends to suffer a let-down. But in games when the defense holds tight, the offense can’t get anything going. The offense might make a critical score late in a game, but the offense can’t trust the defense to make a key stop. But in another game, the defense gives the offense a chance to win, and the offense can’t come through.

No, this hasn’t been true in every game, or else this team wouldn’t have a 7-6 mark. However, this imbalance occurs often enough that that team repeatedly struggles to stay above the .500 mark. For 2011, I’ve returned to my original prediction of 8-8.

And when Rob Ryan joins his brother in the head coaching ranks, I’m simply not going to lose a second of sleep over it. The real question is whether Dallas will bother to fix what is really broken. When the general manager doesn’t answer to anyone but himself, though, there’s little reason for immediate optimism.