IRVING, Texas. -- Leadership, or lack thereof, was a hot topic -- again -- with the Dallas Cowboys this week. The perception is that the preseason Super Bowl contenders were seemingly back to their rudderless ways as they uncharacteristically sputtered out of the gate at 0-2.
Emotion(less)-steady coach Wade Phillips is already under the gun for not inspiring his team. Once again, quarterback Tony Romo is not galvanizing his teammates, in contrast to what Drew Brees brings to the defending-champion Saints -- and he's been questioned for not getting his team into the end zone as much as he could/should. The defensive-hype man, linebacker Keith Brooking, was imported from Atlanta last season and took control of the unit, but his message might not be fully resonating.
"I'm not big on ordaining leaders or captains," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "Everybody on the football team has a place to step up and say something if need be. When you have that type of relationship within the locker room, you get a lot farther. Sometimes the guy that you ordain the leader might not have the answer, so what do you do then? I'm not real big on leadership, taking the responsibility, getting the ship right, putting it in the right direction.
Tale of two teams in Texas
"Everybody has to do their part. If everybody does their job and pays attention to detail and technique, we'll be fine."
That's all well and good if the locker room is made up of players and coaches who hold each other accountable. Dallas' players say that's the case.
Monday, a players-only meeting was called. Brooking said it was more of a venting session than a problem-solving gathering. Several players said they don't know if they got much out of it, but in the locker room Wednesday, there was a lot of talk about players putting up or shutting up.
Phillips, who snapped at a reporter on Monday for questioning the team's discipline, was leading the charge.
"I know everybody realizes it but we have just as high expectations as everybody else has had about us and we haven't lived up to those," he said. "We feel bad about that, too, and we're working on it. I've never been around a team that has any better attitude, that's worked any harder to get it on the right tracks. Those are good signs. We've had some individuals that have played well but we need to play better as a team. We're the only ones who can do anything about it and we're going to try and do something about it this week."
Phillips said some things were changed -- he wouldn't elaborate other than saying he changed how some of practices were structured -- so we'll have to wait and see. But staying status quo wasn't an option. Give Phillips credit for recognizing something had to be done.
Leadership isn't the real issue, according to a team source. The slow start stems from a sluggish trudge through preseason. Things weren't crisp, some players didn't play much or well, and the overall feeling of just getting through it to get to the regular season is now biting the team.
Instead of fine-tuning things then, the Cowboys are trying to do it now when things matter -- against teams that were more serious about getting things in order when nobody outside of the locker room was paying much attention. That's why there have been so many breakdowns and miscommunications, the source said. Cornerback Mike Jenkins believes too many players bought into the hype.
At 0-2, the hype is now criticism.
The feeling among coaches and players is that the mistakes hurting Dallas are easily fixable and they have something in store for Houston, if, and only if, the players stay disciplined and prepare like they say they need to.
Poor preparation -- self-admitteded by the players -- has been the most glaring flaw. Brooking said his teammates are sadly mistaken by thinking they can show up Sunday and be OK. He's not the only one who thinks diligence needs to be a priority.
Recognizing the need for player accountability shows some maturity -- maybe not leadership -- but maturity. Coaches are easy scapegoats and some of the things we've seen from the Cowboys make Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett deserving targets. They're not being hung out there by players, though, even in off-the-record whispers.
Do all teams need leaders? Maybe not in the Ray Lewis way, but at some point someone has to be able to pull things together. Be it a coach (Rex Ryan, Mike Singletary, Bill Belichick, Jim Caldwell), a proven veteran (Lewis, Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning), or an emerging talent with trustworthy magnetism (Matt Ryan, Aaron Rodgers).
It's questionable if Dallas has anyone like that other than owner Jerry Jones. There are a boatload of good players, but it's difficult to tell if anyone would listen if they stood in the middle of a room and pleaded for attention,.
But at least it sounds like they're trying. Ware, who admitted poor practice habits have been a major issue, was among a handful of players to step up in practice Wednesday. The players insist miscues were addressed on the spot as opposed to waiting for a film session or the next day's practice, which has apparently been the way things have been done.
Then again, Spears made as valid as a point as any: Leadership rarely is an issue during good times; great execution, great performances and great coaching are the reasons for winning, not leadership. So if we keep hearing about leadership in Dallas, then it's probably because things haven't gotten any better.