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Snap Judgments: Gag order lifted, Phillips reminds why it was there

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we wrap up the NFL's annual meeting with a little table-hopping among the league's head coaching set, and more from the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort...

• Spent part of my morning Wednesday with Cowboys coach Wade Phillips, he of the Jerry Jones-imposed gag order for much of this offseason. And now I can see why they gagged him in the first place. Much of what Phillips offered up at the NFC head coaches media breakfast didn't pass the sniff test.

I understand the need for spouting the company line, but when it came to facing the inevitable questions concerning Terrell Owens, Tony Romo and the Cowboys' much-discussed locker room chemistry issues, Phillips' logic was usually twisted beyond recognition. I didn't see him get a bite of food, because most of the time he was too busy talking out of both sides of his mouth.

Asked what the Bills are getting in Terrell Owens, Phillips did nothing but toss bouquets T.O.'s way, describing him as "all the things you want in a football player,'' and "probably the most productive receiver in the league in the last several years.''

That obviously begged the question, if all that's true, why did the Cowboys feel the need to release him?

"Because we feel like we can go forward with the guys we have,'' Phillips said, referencing the likes of young Dallas receivers Miles Austin, Sam Hurd and Isaiah Stanback. "We've got some emerging players who are going to make a difference.''

Phillips three times answered in the affirmative when asked if Owens' release was a purely football decision, rather than attitude-related. But if that's true, what could Jerry Jones have possibly meant earlier this week when he said not having Owens around would put Romo in a better position to succeed as a quarterback? What could he have been referring to if he wasn't at least tacitly identifying Owens' penchant for being disruptive, and that his club had made your classic addition by subtraction move?

"I think this season is going to be even more of a breakout year for [Romo], just because of experience, not because Terrell is or isn't there,'' Phillips said. "It's just experience and playing the game. And Tony's still 21-8 as a starter the last two years. But I think this is a big year for him.''

So do I, largely because without Owens around, Romo may not have anyone else to absorb some of the blame if the Cowboys fail for the 13th consecutive year to win a playoff game. But this is how Phillips explained the notion of Romo being a better quarterback without Owens on the Cowboys roster:

"It's more him making decisions,'' Phillips said. "Getting better, and those kind of things. With a quarterback -- every position is really about making decisions, but a quarterback certainly makes the most decisions, and I think he's improved in that area over the last two years. But there's more room there, and he works at it as good as anybody.''

Huh? Not having Owens might indeed improve Romo's decision making, but only because he doesn't have to face the always-tricky decision of how often to throw the ball in T.O.'s direction any more. We all know that when things start to go south with Owens around, not getting the ball enough is usually the source of his discontent.

Phillips contends the Cowboys' chemistry issues were "blown out of proportion after the season,'' and I don't completely disagree with him. But undoubtedly there was some validity to the team's chemistry problem, overblown or not, and when I asked Phillips how much of it was fair to look back on, he turned prickly for one of the few times Wednesday morning.

"I'm not even going to discuss that, because that's why I didn't want to talk about it in the first place,'' he said. "Because you begin talking about last year and all these things: this didn't happen; somebody said this. I'm through with that.''

Surprisingly, Jones brought Phillips back after last year's 9-7 debacle in Dallas, but in essence told him to start cracking the whip a bit more on his players. Phillips promised to amend his laid-back ways, but he's not letting us in on any of his changes just yet.

"Obviously, there've been change already,'' said Phillips, alluding to moves that are not quite so obvious to me, unless he means Owens' departure. "Some of it's modification, an adjustment. Everybody's going to say you ought to be a tyrant rather than the person you are, but I have a lot of pride in how I work with players and how they respond to how I coach. There's going to be certainly some things that we do different, but I'm not going to go into any of them. I have a plan for what I want to do and I'm going to do that.''

Even the whole issue of a gag order being imposed on Phillips is now apparently open to interpretation. After saying all offseason that he couldn't talk to the media because Jones wanted to be the one voice speaking for the organization, Phillips this week said he could have talked if he wanted to, making the gag order sound like a bit of his own creation.

As it turns out, Phillips had a lot to say Wednesday morning about all the issues that surround his always-topical Cowboys. It's just that by the time I got up from his table at breakfast, I didn't know what any of it really meant.

• I tried to get NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to tell us if he favors a 17-game regular season, or the 18-game version, but he said he has not yet shared his preference with the league's club membership because he hasn't made up his mind.

"I'm not sure I've found a position I think is best,'' Goodell said. "And I try not to draw conclusions before I've heard all the analysis and opinion. I'm keeping an open mind and trying to understand all the different perspectives.''

This much is clear: Though it's early in the debate, there's enough support in the NFL for an increase to 17 games, but no sooner than 2011 due to the issue being tied so closely to the upcoming CBA negotiations. But 18 games might be a push, even though the historical precedent is for the league to increase its schedule by two games, from 12 to 14 to 16.

Goodell said he thought history does help the case for going to 18 games. "I think it does, in the sense that, yes, it's been done effectively in the past. But it's clear you don't need four preseason games any longer.''

The most telling thing the commissioner said on the issue is the early feedback from the analysis done by the league's competition committee is an increase of games is feasible.

"The big feedback that we have is we can do this and do this effectively,'' he said. "What we heard very firmly back again is that it can get done and get done in a way to improve the quality of our game.''

The league will continue to analyze the move to 17 or 18 games and will pick the issue back up at the owners meeting in Fort Lauderdale in May. Goodell said while there are "undoubtedly some camps that are probably falling into those two categories [17 or 18 game seasons], we did not go around the room and try to determine [the level of support]. Those things will be addressed in May.''

• You can kiss off any chance of seeing the NFL re-seeding the playoffs by overall records in the foreseeable future. After the issue got a long and vigorous debate at last year's annual meeting, and had some support league-wide, the proposal that the Jaguars made this year was withdrawn Wednesday without a vote. It had virtually no momentum this year, even though the 8-8 Chargers and 9-7 Cardinals played host to divisional round playoff games against teams with vastly superior records in the Colts and Falcons.

Like a lot of NFL rule proposals that go nowhere, this one probably made too much sense to ever happen.

• I made sure I listened in on new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz for a little bit Wednesday, and I'm still getting the strong vibe that Detroit isn't taking a quarterback first overall. But the reality is the decision has yet to be made and the private workout the Lions are putting Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford through on March 31 in Athens is potentially pivotal.

Schwartz said the Lions will try to emulate some game-like conditions for Stafford to deal with, which is anything but the sterile, structured setting of a prospect's pro day, which is run by his school.

"We can direct this,'' Schwartz said. "We can tell him exactly what to do on the play. We can make him throw into the wind. We can say, 'Hey, these are the throws we want to see.' When someone else is scripting it, they can accentuate a positive, and make it kind of like watching a performance. I can't sing, but probably a good producer could put me in a studio and at least hide it a little bit, and that's what we're looking to avoid here.''

Schwartz said this private workout with Stafford will be important, but then, every part of the process is when you're picking first.

"You need to be comfortable with everything about that player,'' Schwartz said. "Every facet. If the player fails to jump through any of those hoops, so to speak, you're not going to be comfortable, and particularly at No. 1.''

Schwartz concedes a quarterback prospect at No. 1 has more hoops to cleanly jump through than anyone else. "There are probably more variables at that position than other positions, so it probably does make the odds a little longer.''

Hear that? I'm definitely sticking with Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith in the top spot of my mock draft -- but check back next Thursday to see if I've changed my mind.

• I'll say this much for new Bucs head coach Raheem Morris: He's got an infectious level of enthusiasm, and no shortage of self-confidence. Before he got the Bucs job at the age of 32, he interviewed for the Broncos job two weeks earlier. And if he does say so himself, he nailed the interview.

"I walked out of that interview, and I felt like Michael Jordan having just passed over (Cavs guard Craig) Ehlo and hit the jump shot at the top of the key,'' Morris said. "Walking out of there, I knew it wasn't going to take long [to be a head coach]. Now I didn't know it was going to be two weeks later, you know, but I got the feeling, 'Hey, this is what I want to do.''

• Whenever Morris has seen embattled Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels this week at the annual meeting, he reminds himself that McDaniels' fate could have been his own. After all, the Bucs and Morris tried to trade for Jay Cutler, so he knows a little something about getting mixed up in the Cutler saga.

"Josh has his own issues right now,'' Morris said, laughing. "I'll let him deal with that. He's taking a lot of heat off me. I shook his hand the other day and I'm happy to see him. I'm just slipping around here incognito in this place. It's nice.''

• Morris got the job in Tampa Bay in part because he has great relationships built with players in the Bucs locker room. That's something that ex-Bucs head coach Jon Gruden couldn't claim. But he was ready for my question Wednesday when I asked if there were any downside to being close to his players.

"There's a potential downside to anything,'' he said. "It's like too many Cheerios. Eat too many Cheerios, it's going to be bad for you. For me, we're in a relationship business. Who we kidding? I don't think I can go wrong having relationships with people.''

Is that true, about eating too many Cheerios?

• 49ers head coach Mike Singletary basically promised he won't be dropping trou at halftime of any of his games this season. Sounds like one preseason prediction that has 100 percent chance of coming true.

"The biggest thing I learned my first year was that at halftime, you have to be a little more careful with the things you do, that you're not always by yourself,'' Singletary said, pointing his sense of humor at himself. "That's the biggest thing I learned, and I learned that quickly.''

• I don't know about you, but I can't listen to Singletary, with that deep, baritone voice of his, without feeling like I'm watching NFL Films. I think I could listen to the guy read a phone book. And even better, I loved what he said when I asked him about the pressure that's on new NFL head coaches to win now, thanks to all the first- and second-year success of so many new hires the past two seasons.

"It should be [a win-now league],'' he said. "It should be. If that's what it is, that's what it is. To me, I'm not thinking about hopefully they understand we don't have this, or hopefully they understand it takes time. I'm not there.

"I want to get there yesterday.''

• Speaking of new Bay-area head coaches, I came away impressed from my first chance to talk with Raiders coach Tom Cable, although I would quibble with his sense of sports history. In discussing what it would mean to be the guy who returned the Raiders to relevance, Cable showed some selective memory.

"What would it mean? It'd be a thrill,'' he said. "But I can see it happening. I really can. It's just a matter of continuing the path that we're on. The team, they're ready for it. Football is ready for it. I think Oakland is ready for it.

"There's really three storied teams in the history of sports: the Celtics, Yankees, and Raiders, and the Raiders have been not very good for six years now. But I think it's time. I think the sports world is ready for the Raiders again.''

I'll give you the Celtics and Yankees. But the Raiders might just get a little competition from the Steelers, Cowboys, Packers and 49ers when it comes to claiming the title of most-storied NFL franchise.

• I think everyone in my business is going to love covering Jets coach Rex Ryan, who churns out colorful quotes at the same rate Eric Mangini churns out bland ones. Asked about Brett Ratliff's chances to win the Jets' three-man (for now) quarterback competition, Ryan cited his 122.5 passer rating in last year's preseason, which led the AFC.

"People say, 'Well, it's against second or third teamers,' but that would be good against air. If he can do that here, he'll probably win the quarterback job.''

And for the record, I don't think it's a good sign for Kellen Clemens' chances in New York's QB race that when one reporter asked Ryan if it was important to let it be known that the Jets were Clemens' team now, Ryan responded: "It's not fair to say that it's his team, so to speak, because this is going to be competition. We've got to do what's best for this football team, and if that means Brett Ratliff is our guy, or Erik Ainge is our guy, we owe it to our football team to put the best guy out there.''

One more Ryan zinger is worth relaying, in response to a question asking him what qualities he's looking for in a quarterback: "We want a guy that's going to lead the league in wins. We don't care about leading it in passing yards, or any of this other stuff.''

• Stay with me on this one, but the way I see it, the Jay Cutler saga is all Bernard Pollard's fault. If the Chiefs safety hadn't plowed into Tom Brady's left knee early in the Kansas City-New England Week 1 matchup, knocking Brady out with a season-ending injury, then there would have been no emergence of Matt Cassel.

If Cassel didn't take over and play well in Brady's absence, then there's no big push for anyone to trade for him this offseason. If there's no big push for anyone to trade for him this offseason, then Denver doesn't even consider trading you-know-who.

So don't blame Josh McDaniels. Blame Pollard.

• Nobody has the Lions picking USC quarterback Mark Sanchez first overall, but coach Jim Schwartz still has done his due diligence, meeting with Sanchez at last month's scouting combine.

"The first thing I said to him is you look like that dude from Entourage,'' Schwartz said. "You guys [in the media] watch Entourage? And he said, 'Yeah he stole my look.' And then I saw a picture of Mark maybe a year or so ago, and I think it might have been the other way around.''

• Quote of the day: From Panthers head coach John Fox, when asked if it was mind-boggling to him that Julius Peppers' $16.6 million franchise-tender cap number this season works out to $1 million-plus per game:

"I don't get into salaries. I don't know what Elton John makes or Bono makes. I'm sure they make pretty good numbers too.''

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