For Dallas Cowboys, it's not just Wade Phillips' job that's at stake
03:36 AM CST on Saturday, December 19, 2009
NEW ORLEANS – The clock is ticking on Wade Phillips.
He's not the only one who can't get that annoying sound out of his head.
The final 16 days of the regular season will likely determine whether or not Phillips returns for a fourth season as the Cowboys' head coach. Chances are you've read or heard speculation on the topic in recent weeks. In the hours leading up to tonight's game against New Orleans, owner Jerry Jones went on his weekly radio show and spoke of how games at this stage carry more weight in key decisions than those at the beginning of a season.
Change isn't limited to a head coach. Many of these Cowboys were losing games in December and January when Bill Parcells was the coach. If the nucleus of a team continues to fall short late in the season, if it cracks under pressure, what does it tell you about that nucleus?
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The players aren't immune from the same pointed questions Jones must ask himself about his head coach.
Stephen Jones is the Cowboys' chief operating officer. He won't dismiss how a player performs early in the season in making his evaluation. But an argument can be made that you learn more about a player now than you do in September and October.
"One of the things you look at in a player is how he performs under pressure and clutch time," Stephen Jones said. "So I guess you do learn more.
"It's the full body of work you evaluate at the end of the day. But obviously, it's something you look at, can a guy finish?"
So far, the answer is no.
The season is a mental and physical grind that erodes talent. Age factors into the equation as well. And this is where it can get tricky.
It's easy to spot a veteran who doesn't have much left in the tank at the end of the season. But what about a young player who doesn't live up to expectations?
"People grow," Jones said. "A player may get in a certain situation, and he may not perform the first time, but he learns from that experience and gets better."
How many chances does the player get to prove that's the case? How long can the Cowboys keep losing in December and January with the same nucleus and believe it will get better over time? How long before Jones determines a coaching change isn't enough?
"I'm sure if things don't work out, that will be addressed," tight end Jason Witten said. "Every team has that.
"I don't think it's fair for us right now to be thinking about that. Our focus is so locked in on the opportunity we have. You can't play that game.
"Change happens. You have to be locked in and worried about the challenges you have. You can't worry about what happens if you're not successful."
In the words of defensive end Marcus Spears, those decisions are up to the powers that be.
"Things happen," Spears said. "Sometimes you know why, sometimes you don't know why. If you go around trying to figure it out and take yourself away from what you're supposed to be doing, you will probably be one of those changes. It's not something you think about.
"Players go. Coaches go. That's a part of this league. Whatever happens, you have to adjust to it. We've just got to play, man. We're not far away, but we have to start now. It is a sense of urgency."
Keith Brooking is new to the Cowboys and their tortured Decembers. He leans on the bromide that adversity doesn't build character, it reveals it.
"There are a lot of questions on the outside about what we're made of, and people are wondering what we're going to be," Brooking said. "I'm very confident in what we're going to be. I'm very confident in what we are, and I know what we're going to be down the road.
"We just have to go out there when all the odds are against us and play our best football."
The odds don't get much longer than trying to beat an undefeated Saints team in the Louisiana Superdome. Next is a road game against Washington followed by the regular-season finale against a Philadelphia team that smoked the Cowboys to end last season.
"We'll find out what kind of team we have here in these next three weeks," quarterback Tony Romo said. "It will show."
The clock is ticking.
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