The Cowboys are on heightened alert after a 1-4 start. Dallas, coach Wade Phillips in particular, needs to review my five-step plan for recovery to have any hope of saving itself from disaster.
Step 1: Be a leader, Wade
Owner Jerry Jones needs to call Phillips into the office and give him the Vito Corleone/Johnny Fontaine treatment. Jones needs to slap Phillips in the face and tell him to act like a leader at the press conference, not like some wimpy, beaten down puppy with the same old line about trying harder. Phillips is the leader of this team, the spokesman for the organization, and he must project a sense of confidence, not self-pity.
Off the track for a moment, but what kills me about NFL owners is that they hire and promote assistant coaches based on their offensive or defensive expertise, assuming they can become true leaders. In reality, a coordinator is a manager, not a leader; therefore to assume he can handle the leadership role is not prudent, which is why there is such a high failure rate among head coaches on every level. Coaching is leadership first and foremost. This topic deserves a column on its own sometime in the near future. Now back to the Cowboys ...
Phillips needs to show his players he is in command, and it starts with being assertive at the press conference. He does not have to mention anything about trying to improve. That is a given; everyone knows they are going to try. He must tell the fans, the owner and the players how they are going to improve -- with a serious "I'm in charge" attitude.
Step 2: Make players suffer consequences
One of my favorite lines of all times is, "Fear does the work of reason". Winston Churchill uttered those words as he was finally elected prime minister after being ignored all through the 1930s about the dangers regarding Adolph Hitler. Once the Germans were in the channel ports, the fear of Hitler from the English people finally placed him in the prime minister's office.
Phillips must place fear into every Cowboys player. At his Wednesday meeting with the team, he must announce that mental mistakes in practice will cost anyone and everyone their job. Bringing in the officials won't help the Cowboys cut down on their penalties, (they have been penalized 49 times in five games), but making players pay for their actions just might.
Mistakes at practice usually show up on Sundays, therefore there has to be severe consequences for players who continue to have mental breakdowns.
Step 3: Increase intensity
Raise the level of competition in practice. It is no longer correct, as many Cowboys coaches felt to start the season, that as long as this team stayed healthy they would win. A talented, healthy, unprepared team will always lose to a well-prepared team -- no matter the difference in talent level. Football is the ultimate team sport, which requires intense attention to detail and preparation. Winning teams pay attention to the fundamentals, like pad level and coming off blocks, which requires having a physical camp to work on these critical aspects. Tiptoeing in practice might keep the team healthy, but the players won't be prepared or tough enough to deal with the strain of the season.
The Cowboys have chosen to walk their way through camp and weekly practices, letting the details slip, the fundamentals fade and then removing the layer of toughness. This old approach needs to end this week. Phillips must work the players physically and competitively at practice and let everyone know that, since his job is on the line, so are theirs.
Practices will no longer be scripted -- meaning the offense runs certain plays against certain defenses and vice versa. This helps promote success and also takes away from the spontaneity of the game and the natural reaction time for the players. Forget striving for players knowing what to do in practice, but rather get them playing faster, harder and with more awareness until they hear the whistle.
Don't worry, Cowboys fans. The team won't leave its game on the field. Along with being much more intense, the practices will also be shorter.
Step 4: Shake up the roster a bit
Staying status quo has led to this rough 1-4 start. So Bench some players who aren't playing wel1 (guard Leonard Davis comes to mind) and move some people off the roster. Examine each player critically in the role they have been asked to perform, and if the player has failed to make a positive contribution, find someone else.
For example, maybe Jason Witten is not the same effective player on third down as he was in the past, so reduce his role and find someone who can become more effective. The alternative of not changing the starting lineup is to expect more of the same results.
There needs to be change, but before any change there must be a critical self-analysis done. Not by the coaches, but rather someone else. Oftentimes, losing teams are too in love with their own players to notice their faults. Phillips needs to find an independent source to help him evaluate his team -- perhaps a member of another coaching staff in the AFC that he knows well who will be brutally honest.
Step 5: Hold the coaches accountable, too
Phillips needs to demand more from the coaching staff, and he needs to demand more from himself. Make sure the players know that your wrath of placing fear into everyone extends beyond the players. The coaching staff is as much responsible for being 1-4 as the players. Force the coaches to become more creative; force them to think outside the box and attempt to find different solutions to the same problems.
When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied, "Only stand out of my light."
These words led former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare John W. Gardner (who authored numerous books on improving leadership in American society and other subjects and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964) to write, "Perhaps someday we shall know how to heighten creativity. Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light."
Make sure offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis understand that they must become more creative, that using the same solutions to old problems will produce the same 1-4 results. Force them to be sound, but also force them to be analytical in their thought process. Getting out of this mess will require a 10 percent increase in production from the players, the coaches and the staff.
These five steps require Phillips to embrace confrontation and to not be afraid of making tough decisions. There is no turning back now that the season is at a crossroads. These problems require showing the same mental toughness he is asking of every player.
And it all starts with Phillips being a leader, which has to start today.