Jerry Jones passes up an opportunity to speak his mind about as often as a casino junkie walks past a slot machine without giving it a spin. So here was Jones, in Atlanta last May for the spring NFL owners meetings, talking candidly to the NFL Network about the state of his Cowboys.
"Well, my window is getting shorter. Time goes by," the Dallas owner said. "I do feel real pressure because we do have players not only in [quarterback] Tony Romo, but [tight end] Jason Witten [and linebacker] DeMarcus Ware, to leave out several that are [also] in the prime of their career. And we need to strike and strike soon with those guys."
A lot of time has passed since the Cowboys last made waves in the playoffs, with two wins in the last 16 years. In the NFL, that's an eternity. They have gone two seasons in a row without getting to the postseason, which must have Tom Landry and Tex Schramm rolling over in their coffins.
Jones' point was that Romo, Witten, Ware, et al aren't going to be around forever. They each have only so much prime playing time left -- Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in the team's first preseason game that could keep him out of Wednesday night's NFL season opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants -- to help the Cowboys win a Super Bowl. Although Jones backed off the closing window analogy when training camp opened in late July, he still acknowledged that he felt a sense of urgency to win now.
The Cowboys hardly are the only team whose window of opportunity is shrinking. Here are five other teams that need to strike sooner than later.
The Eagles have gone to the playoffs nine times under Reid, but they never have been able to reach the mountain top. In their only trip to the Super Bowl, following the 2004 season, they lost to New England.
But you can never count the Eagles out, and that goes again this year. They have one of the most explosive offenses in the league with running back LeSean McCoy, wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, tight end Brent Celek, and quarterback Michael Vick. No other quarterback is as dangerous a dual threat as Vick, who can strike with his legs as well as with his left arm. His only problem is staying healthy (he has only once played a 16-game regular season). Vick missed three games with rib injuries last season, and two injuries (thumb, ribs) curtailed his preseason appearance this summer to all of a dozen plays.
A year ago, the Eagles came into the season as the so-called "Dream Team" (a moniker coined by then backup quarterback Vince Young) after acquiring such veterans as cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, defensive end Jason Babin and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The dream quickly faded into a disappointing 8-8 season.
The Eagles have the talent to go deep into the playoffs. And the time to do it is now, especially for Reid. On Thursday, team owner Jeffrey Lurie said that another 8-8 season would not be good enough to save Reid's job.
The best opportunity most recently came after the 2007 season, when they advanced to the AFC championship game against the Patriots. But with running back LaDainian Tomlinson sitting on the bench with an injury and Philip Rivers playing on a badly hurt leg, the Chargers lost, 21-12, in Foxboro. They went to the playoffs each of the next two seasons, but only won one game.
The last two seasons have been particularly galling for Smith and Bolt fans alike. The Chargers have compiled back-to-back records of 9-7 and 8-8, and have been postseason spectators.
On paper, the team always has looked talent rich. On the field, it hasn't quite panned out. While Rivers has shown flashes of brilliance, he still hasn't reached the elite status of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger. The offense has lacked a dominant running back since Tomlinson was allowed to leave in free agency after the '09 season. Antonio Gates, a premier tight end only a few years ago, is 32 and coming off two injury-riddled seasons.
That brings us to coach Norv Turner. While compiling a splendid 52-34 record in five seasons, he hasn't been able to get the Chargers to fulfill the expectations of Smith and owner Dean Spanos. Last year, San Diego finished second to Denver in the AFC West, which won out on a tiebreaker. Now, the Broncos have Peyton Manning at quarterback. Time is running out on Rivers, Turner and, possibly, Smith.
The Jets went 8-8 last year. By the end of the season, there were more questions than ever about Sanchez's ability to live up to expectations as a first-round draft pick, plus internal strife that became public appeared to be evidence of a seemingly dysfunctional locker room. Appearing on Showtime's
In the offseason, the Jets acquired Tim Tebow, and a new controversy reared its ugly head. How long would it be before Tebow supplanted Sanchez as the starting quarterback, fans asked. Jets owner Woody Johnson only added fuel to the debate when he appeared on CNBC recently and said, "I think you can never have too much Tebow."
As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are around, New England will rule the AFC East. Among the other three division members, the Jets may have the best shot at chasing a wild-card playoff spot, but it will be a stiff challenge this season. Sanchez needs to show he can lead an offense that failed to score a touchdown in its first three preseason games. With a lack of playmakers at the receiver position, the offense needs to return to its ground-and-pound M.O., which is one reason it brought in former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano to replace Brian Schottenheimer as coordinator. Finally, the defense needs to raise its performance from last year.
This will be a critical season for the Jets, who must switch gears and go forward again. Instead of offering brash talk, Ryan is trying new tactics. This week, he excused 19 of his players from practice, including Sanchez, Tebow, cornerback Darrelle Revis and receiver Santonio Holmes, so they could attend a leadership training seminar. That's exactly what the Jets need: Someone to lead them to the playoffs.
Since advancing to Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season, where they lost to the Colts, the Bears largely have been mediocre. They have gone to the playoffs only once, losing at home to the Packers in 2010, and have compiled a mediocre regular-season record of 42-38.
Windy City fans got stoked when the Bears acquired quarterback Jay Cutler in a trade with Denver in the spring of '09 -- some billed him as the franchise's best QB since Sid Luckman -- but circumstances have curtailed the strong-armed Cutler's effectiveness. He played behind a line that leaked badly, the offense of former coordinator Mike Martz wasn't a good fit for him, and he has had injuries.
Now it's time to stop the excuses. New coordinator Mike Tice has installed a Cutler-friendly offense, Cutler has recovered from a thumb injury that forced him to miss the final six games last season and he has been reunited with Brandon Marshall, who had been his go-to guy in Denver and should give the Bears their first legitimate big playmaker at wide receiver since Al Gore discovered the Internet.
The defense has carried the Bears for a while now, but linchpins Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman all are on the north side of 30, and Urlacher is coming off recent knee surgery. In addition to that, two NFC North teams now stand in the Bears' path to the playoffs. The defending division champion Packers have beaten Chicago in six of the last seven matchups between the teams, and the Lions have pulled even with the Bears, if not surpassed them, after going to the playoffs last year for the first time since 1999.
General manager Jerry Angelo wasn't able to survive the recent mediocrity in Chicago and was fired during the offseason. If the Bears don't produce a playoff team this season, coach Lovie Smith could be next.
The quarterback position has become a quandary. The Cardinals paid big bucks (as well as a second-rounder and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) last year to bring in former Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, but thus far he hasn't looked like the guy who can help Arizona close the gap on San Francisco. Last season, he made too many bad passes, didn't look instinctive in the pocket and played only nine games because of injuries. John Skelton, who is challenging Kolb, hasn't exactly turned heads either. That's why coach Ken Whisenhunt was waiting until after the final preseason game to name his starter.
Whisenhunt is going into his sixth season as the Cardinals' coach -- an accomplishment in itself given owner Bill Bidwill's famously thin patience -- but the team's record during his reign is a modest 44-42.
The Cardinals have a premier wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald, and coordinator Ray Horton's defense allowed only 12 touchdowns in the final nine games last season. It would be a shame if the quarterback situation stymies Arizona and perhaps costs Whisenhunt his job.