- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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Facing some harsh realities, and the possibility of falling too far behind the Giants and Redskins in the NFC East, the usually mild-mannered Phillips took his team by the throat last week. On Wednesday he told Jerry Jones that practices were going to be different, and he was going to be different. "I've worked so hard helping make other head coaches great," said Phillips, who has served on staffs under Marv Levy, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Buddy Ryan. "Now I'm going to do it for me, and for this team."
First, Phillips told the defense it had to be more aggressive. As defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers a few years ago, Phillips was a gambler, rushing the passer with linebackers and safeties from all over; in Dallas he'd mostly played it safe because he didn't have an option other than Ware. Against the Bucs, though, veteran safety Ken Hamlin left his centerfield job four or five times to chase Garcia; also releasing was linebacker Bradie James, and they combined for one sack and four hurries. The added aggressiveness paid off: Dallas, which had a total of 39 QB pressures in its first seven games, had 13 against the elusive Garcia. Also, Phillips showed faith in his young defensive backs. On that make-or-break final play of the Tampa Bay game, the corners were Jenkins and 2007 seventh-round pick Ball. Scandrick played the nickel, and Courtney Brown, another '07 seventh-rounder, played safety alongside Hamlin. Just a few minutes earlier, James had said to each of the four untested defensive backs, "You're no rookie anymore! You're a player!" For the entire second half, the four Bucs wideouts combined for only 47 receiving yards.
Second, on Wednesday and Thursday, for the first time in his 25-game tenure with the Cowboys, Phillips ordered full-speed, full-pads inside running drills for the offense and the defense. The scout-team offense, led by practice-squad running back Alonzo Coleman, bashed into the defense for two straight days. Defenders considered it penance for the 190 yards the Rams had run up on them a few days earlier. Practice was as spirited as some games. Bruising Tampa Bay back Earnest Graham's output on Sunday: 42 yards on 17 carries. "Brilliant move by Wade," said middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "We needed it bad. These were no brother-in-law practices, where you're just tapping the guy. We were pummeling each other. It proves the old saying in football: You don't win on Sunday. You win on Wednesday and Thursday."
Finally, Phillips, again for the first time in Dallas, sent the players home after their brief Friday practice and told them he'd see them on Sunday. Never under Phillips had the Cowboys not had a short practice and skull session on Saturday at Valley Ranch. "He knew it would be an emotional game, and he knew we'd be tired," Johnson said. "I was so beat. I went to bed at six Friday night."
After the win over Tampa Bay, Phillips smiled for what might have been the first time all week. He accepted a bear hug and the game ball in the locker room. "I know I speak for everyone in this room," said Jones, holding a football in the air and nodding to Phillips. "Nobody ever deserved this more." Like Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and the Buffalo Bills' Dick Jauron, Phillips never raises his voice to his team. Last week he showed the players and a skeptical public that he didn't have to yell to get a great week of practice, and a clutch win, out of the Cowboys.
So, for now--and, Jones swears, for the rest of the season--the owner isn't going to resort to the wow factor and fire the coach. "I think it'll take 10 [wins] to get into the playoffs," Jones said. "The real tragedy would be if this was one of those years where a team like us would be playing the best football of anyone at the end of the season and then didn't make the playoffs."
Dallas still has miles to go to be playing that well, and not even the return of Romo can guarantee 10 wins. The 5-3 Cowboys go into the second half of the season with a 50-50 shot at making the playoffs. After what they've been through over the past month, they'll take those odds.