DANA POINT, Calif. -- One playoff game in two years is hardly what Jerry Jones had in mind when he hired Wade Phillips to coach his Dallas Cowboys and invested millions upon millions of dollars to build a roster that could deliver the first Super Bowl run since 1995.
The common refrain from fans and media was to fire Phillips after last season's 9-7 record, which included a 1-3 finish that kept the Cowboys out of the postseason. He doesn't have what it takes to create and maintain the discipline necessary to take the team the distance, they said. He might know defense, but doesn't see the big picture as well as a head coach should, they insisted.
Jones heard the talk. Then the Cowboys owner/general manager proceeded to not only stick with his embattled coach but also to make moves during the offseason -- highlighted by the release of a highly divisive force named Terrell Owens -- that seemingly showed greater support than ever for Phillips.
It appears that Jones, a larger-than-life figure who has long thrived on flamboyance and controversy, has adopted more of the Phillips-type approach, which is laid back and works best in an environment where players play and coaches coach.
"I have a lot of respect and confidence in Wade," Jones said during a break at the league meetings. "I like his style. I know we have our critics, but one of the big pluses that I look to this year about is he knows our personnel better than at any time since he's been there. Everybody recognizes what he can do on the defensive side of the ball and I think he can work hand-in-hand with (offensive coordinator) Jason Garrett on offense.
"One of the things I feel good about this year is Wade Phillips as head coach."
There was time during the offseason when that seemed to be up in the air. A turbulent atmosphere had taken over at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters, much of it because Owens had managed (for the third time on as many teams) to pull apart the locker room.
The after effects of the disharmony Owens created last season -- he was dissatisfied over what he perceived as too cozy a relationship between quarterback Tony Romo and tight end Jason Witten, thus reducing his chances to catch the ball -- were lingering. Many observers assumed that the chaos went beyond what Phillips could handle. And that point seemed to be underscored when Jones invoked a gag order on Phillips and the entire coaching staff just before last month's NFL Scouting Combine.
Yet, based on a series of moves the Cowboys have made in the offseason, the tide clearly has turned in Phillips' favor. In addition to Owens, they have parted ways with two other players with trouble-filled backgrounds -- cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and defensive tackle Tank Johnson. They also have added a couple of key players that Phillips coached in previous stops as a defensive coordinator (linebacker Keith Brooking, from Atlanta, and defensive lineman Igor Olshansky, from San Diego) as well as free safety Gerald Sensabaugh, from Jacksonville, and backup quarterback Jon Kitna, from Detroit.
Now, the gag order has been lifted and Phillips, always a media favorite, is free to speak with reporters. Among the first things he was eager to share was how Jones' actions are speaking louder than anything the owner/GM could possibly say to reiterate his commitment to Phillips.
"Just him saying, 'Hey, Wade wants these guys for this team and thinks they're going to fit well' just reiterates his confidence that we're trying to get a team that all of us will be excited about," said Phillips, who is supposed to have his first full-scale media appearance during Wednesday morning's NFC coaches-media breakfast here. "That's what you're looking for, those kinds of people."
The departure of Owens is widely viewed as addition by subtraction.
First and foremost, it eliminated a locker room cancer. But equally important was the fact Owens, at 35, was on the decline and the Cowboys wanted to make their younger receivers, especially Roy Williams, a larger part of the offense. The idea, at least in theory, is to do whatever possible to maximize Romo's production.
|Jim McIsaac / Getty Images|
|The Cowboys figured that Terrell Owens' production on the field didn't match the level of distraction off the field. |
» Photos: Owens' days in Dallas
» Photos: Old faces, new places
"We've got a lot of confidence and feel good about our roster," Jones said. "Some of the changes we've made, specifically with Terrell, was to give Roy Williams and our younger receivers a chance to get on the field, and for Roy a chance to be our No. 1 receiver. And I think with everything we're doing, we're trying to take the skills of Romo and basically organize our personnel so that it best fits him."
It also looks like a pretty good fit for Phillips.
Rather than constantly dealing with the drama that Owens created, he is able to focus on doing what is necessary to lead the Cowboys deep into the playoffs and return them to the glory they last enjoyed in the mid-'90s.
"We have a lot of high-character players," Phillips said. "We hardly have anybody miss any days in the offseason as far as working together. We have hard workers, and I think they're going to continue to pull together."
As far as Phillips was concerned, the changes that have been made were necessary, but he and Jones were cautious not to go overboard with them. After all, the Cowboys have won 22 games in two years under Phillips.
"It's not a situation where you say we haven't won any games," Phillips said. "We need to win more, we need to win in the playoffs, those kind of things. That's our next step."
The Cowboys don't have a first-round pick in next month's draft. However, counting two compensatory picks they received this week as a result of free-agent losses, they have a total of 11 choices. The offseason signings have minimized the need to address a specific position in the draft, although Phillips did say the emphasis would be "more defensively than offensively," after the Cowboys slipped from seventh to eighth in the NFL in overall defense last season.
"We've got room for improvement," Jones said. "We're relatively young in a lot of areas, so it's more about a focus in the offseason of how to get better with the personnel we've got than it was about reshuffling the deck."
It was the same thinking behind Jones' decision to ignore the critics, keep Phillips, and adjust the roster accordingly.