Tuesday November 9th, 2010

In the wake of Wade Phillips getting fired, I keep thinking: what if Wade Phillips had been fired?

Perhaps I should explain.

As everybody has heard by now -- even, finally, Wade Phillips -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Phillips a pink slip this week. Phillips immediately grabbed the pink slip, took out a pen and drew up a play with 12 men on the field. He has had that kind of year.

But what if Phillips had been fired in January? How good would Phillips look right now?

Last year, after the Cowboys won their division and a playoff game, Phillips's future was uncertain. He had one year left on his contract. There were rumors that Jones would fire him. Actually, rumors have swirled around Phillips ever since he got the Cowboys job in 2007. As I recall, after the press conference to introduce him, the media stuck around to see if Jones would walk back into the room to say he had changed his mind. Nobody ever got used to the idea of Wade Phillips, Dallas Cowboys head coach. Everybody figured Jones would make a change at some point.

So last winter, Jones gave Phillips a "two-year extension." But it was really a one-year deal -- the Cowboys had an option to keep Phillips for 2010, so they just added a year.

Well, what if Jones had whacked Wade after last season? Or, even better, what if Phillips declined the extension, said he needed a longer deal than that, and Jones let him go?

This year's Cowboys would still be bad -- whatever you think of Phillips, there are a lot of reasons the Cowboys are 1-7. It isn't just coaching. Even with the right coach, how good would they be? Maybe 4-4?

And people would see these disappointing Cowboys and look back at Phillips' record and see this:

2007: 13-3, NFC East champs, lost to the Giants in the playoffs. (The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.) 2008: 9-7, missed playoffs. 2009: 11-5, NFC East champs, beat Eagles in wild-card round, then lost to the Vikings.

And they would say "Wow, Wade wasn't quite the boob we thought he was."

And if the Cowboys had replaced Phillips with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett last January, people would say "See? Jerry keeps shuffling coaches, looking for his own guy. He has been doing this for 12 years and it hasn't worked yet."

I am not absolving Phillips of blame here. To the contrary: I think he deserves plenty of blame for the Cowboys' collapse, the team's indifferent attitude, Tony Romo's injury, the Vikings' slow start and anything Christine O'Donnell regrets saying. He has had an awful season. This went beyond Phillips losing the team. The way this was going, in another week Phillips wouldn't even be able to find the stadium -- and the stadium has one-trillion-watt lights and is visible from Neptune.

But timing is everything in life, or everything that is not money, health, good looks and a decent therapist. And if Jones had fired Phillips last year, Phillips would look like a genius right now. The Cowboys still would have come into the season with overinflated expectations, a mediocre offensive line, an overrated quarterback (who has since gotten hurt) and way too much money tied up in wide receivers. A lot of coaches could have done a better job than Phillips this season. But I don't think many (or maybe ANY) would have led the Cowboys to the playoffs.

This is the tricky, underappreciated part of a professional coaching career. Timing. It's not something you study in a film room or at summer camp. It doesn't get ripped apart on sports radio on Monday mornings.

But even the best coaches can only control so much of their fate. And for a guy like Phillips -- who clearly is not among the best coaches, but has been more successful than people realize -- circumstances can make or break a career.

The coach who appreciates this more than any other is probably Rick Pitino. He left Providence after making the Final Four. He went to Kentucky when expectations were extremely low -- and expectations are NEVER low at Kentucky. He took the Celtics job when the franchise was in the dumps -- whatever he did there had to be an improvement. (At least, that was the theory.) And when he returned to college coaching, he did so at Louisville, which had a history of success but had been struggling. There is a pattern there: Pitino goes to places where winning is possible but hasn't happened much lately.

Pitino has implored his assistants for years: don't take the wrong job. Why make the profession harder than it already is? One of his former assistants, Jeff Van Gundy, apparently learned the lesson: Van Gundy left the Knicks 19 games into the 2001-02 season, when the team was 10-9. Van Gundy had put together five straight winning seasons. But I think he could see that the team was about to fall off a cliff -- the infamous Patrick Ewing trade had started to destroy the franchise.

The Knicks, of course, have been bad ever since. That probably would have happened whether Van Gundy stayed or not -- that's why he left. But Van Gundy is remembered much more fondly in New York than if he had stayed on that sinking ship.

Van Gundy got another chance, with a Houston team that seemed poised for big things at the time. I don't think Wade Phillips will get another NFL chance as a head coach -- this season exposed his lack of discipline, his inability to manage egos, and his failure to rally a team that was down. Right now, he is surely upset that he was fired. But the problem isn't that he was fired. It's that he was fired too late.

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