The Stars Align in Dallas
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Dallas Cowboys knew they had cemented their status as the NFC's top team as they packed their belongings Sunday evening for the trip home after convincingly beating the New York Giants. They were confident but not boastful, gratified but not overly ecstatic, as they stuffed their gear into travel bags and headed out of the locker room at Giants Stadium into the dank tunnel leading to the buses that would take them to the airport.
"I feel like I'm getting stronger and stronger," wide receiver Terrell Owens told a television interviewer as he stood by his locker and the last few players emptied out of the locker room. "I feel great. I feel like I can get stronger and get better."
Indeed, the Cowboys are feeling increasingly invulnerable these days, and the one thing they were leaving behind in that tiny dressing area Sunday night was any memory of their frailties last season.
Last season's Cowboys were a Super Bowl-or-bust team that went bust. Owens was ushered in after his turbulent stay with the Philadelphia Eagles ended, and willful coach Bill Parcells did his best to make things work with the receiver who is a magnet for controversy, but he usually couldn't bring himself to even utter Owens's name publicly. Parcells reluctantly benched veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe in favor of the untested Tony Romo and lived with Romo's ups and downs, and the Cowboys briefly seemed headed for postseason glory until a late defensive collapse and Romo's ill-timed gaffes produced a stomach-churning ending to the season. A first-round playoff defeat at Seattle was followed a few weeks later by Parcells announcing his latest retirement from coaching.
Enter Wade Phillips, the easygoing defensive mastermind who had failed to produce a single playoff win in head coaching stops in Denver and Buffalo, and Jason Garrett, the Cowboys' onetime backup to quarterback Troy Aikman who was viewed as a rising star in coaching and was hired as offensive coordinator by owner Jerry Jones -- even before Phillips was chosen over Norv Turner for the head coaching job.
Some around the league privately scoffed that Phillips got the job only because he would allow Jones to make all the major decisions, and wondered whether Jones had created another volatile mix by having Garrett in the fold as, in essence, a head coach-in-waiting.
But so far, at least, the wariness has been unfounded. The Cowboys are 8-1 after a 31-20 win over the Giants and are two games in front in the NFC East. They've been more imposing than the NFC's other 8-1 club, the Green Bay Packers, and they might have a chance to secure control of the race for home-field advantage through the conference playoffs when they host the Packers on Nov. 29 at Texas Stadium. Their only loss came to the mighty New England Patriots in a game that was closer than the 21-point final margin, given that the Cowboys had a second-half lead.
It's enough to prompt some to wonder if these Cowboys are beginning to remind anyone of the Cowboys of Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin when they were building toward greatness. But Garrett was having none of that even after Sunday's win.
"I'm not a big comparison guy," said Garrett, the quarterbacks coach for the Miami Dolphins before being hired by Jones. "Those teams are really special. They won three Super Bowls. That might be as good a team as was ever assembled. But we're really happy to be coaching these guys. The guys we have on this team, they come in every week and want to get better. They want to play together. They want to compete and get better. It's fun to be around."
Owens, in particular, seems content, with Parcells gone and Phillips and Garrett keeping things loose and making certain that Owens is satisfied with his role in the offense. He's had three straight games with more than 100 receiving yards and said late Sunday that this coaching staff is allowing him to play "stress-free football." "This is just scratching the surface," he said. "The sky's the limit for me."
Romo has rebounded from the anguish of his botched hold on the go-ahead field goal in the final moments of the playoff loss to the Seahawks that ended last season. He still takes too many chances and throws too many interceptions, with 11 this season. But he has passed for 23 touchdowns and is the league's third-rated passer, and he's leading the NFL's second-highest-scoring offense.
Romo's half-season of flashy play after taking over as the starter last season landed him in the Pro Bowl and in a prominent position on the gossip pages, and late last month he got the hefty contract to match, a six-year, approximately $68 million deal.