Monday December 29th, 2008

PHILADELPHIA -- Venturing into the losing Dallas locker room early Sunday evening at Lincoln Financial Field, I expected to find a deep reservoir of disillusionment and disappointment and see the almost visceral pain of chronic underachievement etched on the faces of Cowboys players, coaches and officials. It was, after all, the worst Dallas defeat in 20 years I was wading into.

Instead, I and other media members were treated to a lesson on the importance of continuity. On the wisdom of staying the course, and not over-reacting based on just one loss, or one lost season, as it were. And the teacher embracing the status quo, believe it or not, was Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner who for 20 years now has earned a reputation for anything but inaction and an aversion to quick and decisive moves.

"I changed coaches one time after two years, and that's not the thing to do,'' said Jones, asked repeatedly if the services of Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips would be required for a third season in Dallas. "You give it more than two years. I'd like to see the advantage of continuity. I made a change with Chan Gailey after two years and I've regretted it ever since. I didn't allow continuity to be a factor. Obviously it was a disappointing year, but we won't have a head coaching change, no.''

Did you get that? Chan Gailey some how just saved Wade Phillips' job. Because of Gailey, Jones is refusing to do what needs to be done in Dallas and send Phillips on his way, letting Sunday's season-ending debacle of a 44-6 (Recap | Box Score) loss at Philadelphia be the final straw.

What's that they say about the definition of insanity? Doing exactly the same things and expecting different results? That's the refrain that kept crossing my mind as I listened to Jones explain his new-found respect for continuity. Just because he thinks he made a mistake with Gailey once upon a time doesn't mean he's not making another mistake by keeping Phillips around this time.

Gailey, you might recall, was the Cowboys head coach in 1998-99, just after the Barry Switzer error, uh,...era. He went 10-6 and won the NFC East his first season, but Dallas lost to the Cardinals (of all people) in the first round of the playoffs. Gailey's Cowboys took a step back in his second season, finishing 8-8, but again got bounced in the first round of the playoffs after qualifying as a wild card.

Almost 10 years later, it all sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it? Substitute Phillips' disappointing 9-7 record this season for Gailey's 8-8 mark in 1999, and you've got a virtual carbon copy. But Jones is adamant that he won't make the same mistake again, hastily jettisoning Phillips like he jettisoned Gailey. Not when a third season might just flip the script.

"I want to see how it works to give it three years, this coaching group,'' Jones said. "I like what we're trying to do offensively and I like what we're trying to do defensively.''

Really? Which part of that did Jones like on Sunday, when the back-from-the-dead Eagles (9-6-1) roared out to a 27-3 halftime lead and never broke a sweat thereafter, clinching the NFC wild-card playoff berth that could have belonged to Dallas with a win.

Denial is a powerful emotion, and Jones seems to be fully in its grip about now. I understand that he has his name -- and his sense of pride -- staked on Phillips' succeeding in Dallas. But Jones is signing up for another season of dysfunction and disarray if he brings Phillips back in 2009. The status quo needs to get the old heave-ho.

There's nothing about this Cowboys team that portends Super Bowl success just around the corner. Instead, from all appearances Dallas is a team in much need of a new sense of discipline and direction. Phillips' easy-does-it-approach clearly has not worked, and the bottom line is that the Cowboys have only deepened their reputation for being one of the surest bets in the NFL when it comes to choking in December.

Dallas went a desultory 1-3 in the season's final month, and now has lost its regular-season finale an astounding nine years in a row. Throw in last year's December/January meltdown in Phillips' first season, and the one before that in Bill Parcells' final year on the job, and you've got a Dallas team that has mastered the art of packing it in when the games grow exponentially larger. That's not the kind of label you want for your team when you're opening an NFL-record $1.3 billion new stadium next year, as Jones is.

"I think we have a team we have put together that you'd expect to be in the playoffs,'' Jones said. "But from this moment on, I have a resolve to get things right.''

If Jones really meant that, he'd see that showing Phillips the door was the first step in that process. Phillips is a fine head coach when all is going swimmingly and the wins come once a week, but he seems incapable of staunching a team's bleeding when things turn difficult during the course of the long NFL season. And this Cowboys team suffered even more than its usual share of challenges.

Jones' patience with the limitations of his head coach is misplaced. He needs to blow up his failed chemistry experiment in Dallas and start over, at least on a selective basis. Risky acquisitions such as Pacman Jones, Roy Williams and Tank Johnson have proven to be mistakes, and Terrell Owens late this season began to show all the classic symptoms of his team-killing earlier incarnations.

As for Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who reportedly collapsed in the shower in the post-game, alarming team officials, his continued penchant for underperforming down the stretch is more troubling all the time. He's now 5-8 as a starter in December, and he won't get any chance this season to improve upon his 0-2 career playoff mark.

You can't give up on Romo at this point, but you need to significantly change the equation in Dallas somehow, and his growing sense of ease with the team's December troubles has to be at least a bit concerning to Cowboys lovers. Asked how he'll deal with his deepening reputation for coming up small in big games, Romo in Sunday's post-game casually shrugged it off.

"I wake up tomorrow and keep living,'' he said. "You just keep playing the game. It's a fun game. It's enjoyable. We're going to try and win next year. We're going to try and get back in the playoffs and try to win the Super Bowl. That's all you can do. If we don't, OK. If we do, OK. I've had a lot worse happen to me than a loss in a sporting event, that's for sure. If this is the worst thing that ever happens to me, then I've lived a pretty good life.''

As much as I admire his perspective, you'd still like to see Romo not too accepting of defeat, with a little more fire in his belly after a galling loss like this one to the Eagles. There's a time for the status quo, and a time to panic. Staying the course is all well and good, unless you know you're on the wrong path and it's time to act.

In Dallas, the time for continuity has passed. If Jerry Jones and the Cowboys overlook that lesson, they're doomed to repeat recent history. I'm betting even Chan Gailey knows that.

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