For nearly half an hour, in the humid and cramped confines of the postgame locker room at Cowboys Stadium, Jerry Jones stared directly into a swarm of media. Every camera and microphone was fixed on the Cowboys owner in the wake of another crippling defeat, and all anyone was concerned about was coach Wade Phillips' status.
The particulars of the game itself, in what has fast become a lost season, was of marginal importance now, as were those who had actually played in this lopsided 35-17 defeat to Jacksonville. Only the fallout mattered.
Jones, adroit at this drill, answered each and every question, no matter how pointed, carefully and thoughtfully, accepting full responsibility for this 1-6 mess in Big D, while players showered and headed home.
All the while he gripped a towel to wipe away the sweat forming as the media horde grew and the lenses and mics crept forward -- Jones was facing the heat quite literally, too. He maintained his belief that firing Phillips now was the wrong move each time the question was framed in ever-so-slightly a different way. It's a decision I agree with, for many of the same reasons as Jones himself.
"You well know I am not in any way for making changes," Jones said of his head-coaching situation. "I have always thought that our best chance to win -- when you've got three-day weeks and you've got to get ready to play a team -- is to continue to be coached and do some of the same things. There is not enough time to change."
Few owners would submit themselves to such an immediate postgame inquest, but as we all know, Jones is no ordinary owner. While his front office structure appears to be flawed, with ownership in charge of personnel, give Jones credit for readily accepting culpability as the general manager in such a high-profile way.
The issue of Phillips' job security isn't going away anytime soon. Alas, these types of impromptu sessions are becoming a part of the normal media cycle in Dallas. I don't see Jones firing his head coach unless there is no recourse -- for instance, they sit somewhere around 1-10. And even then, given the uncertain labor situation, I would not fault an owner for staying the course.
Don't mistake staying the course for complacency, though. Jones must have used the words "embarrassed" and "disappointed" at least 10 times during his remarks Sunday. He is taking this personally. And don't confuse change with improvement. Phillips isn't the guy to take the Cowboys to the promise land, but midseason, with a possible lockout on the horizon, at the bottom of the NFC, there is only so much constructive change that can come from a coaching switch in a sport like football.
There is no hot-shot coaching prospect on the staff. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was once that guy, but his star has long faded, and his play-calling was again baffling at times in Sunday's ugly loss. His offense continues to lack balance -- one of the tenets ownership badly wants reasserted.
There is also a reason teams require a six-month offseason to implement systems, and a reason why it often takes new coaches until a second full season before all of their philosophies and mantras take hold. Jones explained that he has thought long and hard about a "Plan B" in terms of a head coach and studied it thoroughly; it's just that these kind of changes generally just increase the malaise, while creating more confusion and distractions and, simultaneously, can take the players off the hook. That's the last thing Jones wants to do here.
Furthermore, a coaching search in this offseason -- one in which OTAs might be sacrificed during a lockout, in which free agency might happen in a late-summer whirlwind, and in which training camps could be truncated to a few weeks in August/September -- could easily end up causing more damage beyond 2011.
Jones and his son, Stephen, have thought this all through, constantly recalibrating the near-and-long-term potential risks and rewards that would come with making a change in this murkiest of labor situations.
Jones referred to the "serious challenges" faced by changing coaches midseason, and the need to avoid any "emotional" or "knee-jerk" thinking. He admitted that CBA issues played a role, speaking about 2011 as "a year where we've got ambiguity as far as our season."
Looking at the past, since 2000, there have been 15 in-season coaching changes, and the improvements have been miniscule at best. Those 15 teams were 42-92 at the time of the change (.313 winning percentage) and went 36-71 after the change (.336 winning percentage). Only three of those 15 teams had a winning season the follow year, and none of those clubs was led by the interim coach when they did so. (Shout out to NFL Network researcher Shaun Horrigan for compiling this research).
It makes sense that fans, who spend big money on tickets and merchandise, want someone to pay for all this, and Jones understands that.
"I'm very, very sorry to our fans," Jones said. "You should have better than this."
It's no secret Jones has an affinity for experienced coaches, and that Sean Payton and Jeff Fisher are two of his favorites. Given where the Cowboys sit, and the fact that 2011 could be such an unusual season, sticking with Phillips -- or finding a way to run a similar system with a coach on a one- to two-year deal -- might make most sense of all, while Jones can wait for the chance to bid on Fisher or Payton.
It's going to take another culture change to establish better chemistry and a winning mentality in Dallas. Ultimately, no matter who becomes the next head coach, it may require the addition of an elite personnel man to the front office as well. In the meantime, Jones is shirking none of the blame for the team's current state. I give him a hearty tip of the (Cowboy) hat for that, if nothing else.
Shanahan creates bad buzz in D.C.
Mike Shanahan hasn't done much to endear himself to his players this season. And in reality, he probably doesn't much care.
Shocked... just shocked
But his quest to establish dominance and authority has left that team in a precarious position at its bye week, and could set off locker room fireworks. Several players I spoke with bristled at the way the Albert Haynesworth situation was handled, and his fourth-quarter benching of Donovan McNabb has undermined him further with many veterans.
Shanahan is decidedly old school, and issues with player interactions and being stuck in his ways were things you heard whispered when the Broncos fired him. He's come back with a vengeance in Washington, with some players believing he favors those with prior ties to him, and of over-thinking/micro-managing things.
It's often a circus around this team, and the potential for a tumultuous second half is high. The once-obvious long-term marriage between McNabb and the franchise is now to a point where a contract extension could be a long shot.
I continue to hear there is friction between McNabb and coordinator Kyle Shanahan (Shanahan poo-pooed that to the media this week), and inserting Rex Grossman -- a player with ties to Shanahan -- over McNabb with the game on the line Sunday in Detroit shocked players. It simply made no sense.
"If Donovan gets benched it's going to cause problems," one veteran told me. "We need him."
During the entire Haynesworth ordeal, there was an almost daily discrepancy between Shanahan's version of events and those of the player. By giving varied and contradictory explanations for McNabb's benching, those players already inclined to disbelieve their coach will have more fodder to continue doubting him.
It's taken a good bit of fortune to stand at 4-4, given how statistically poor the Redskins have been in many categories on both sides of the ball. Shanahan has assembled the oldest team in the league, and Washington has a major deficiency at running back, along the offensive line and at wide receiver. Now the potential solution to a long, gaping hole at quarterback might be favoring free agency a few months after the Redskins dealt a second-round pick for him (as I said at the time, don't discredit the Eagles' braintrust; they're right a lot of the time).
Undoubtedly, the organization has made strides in its stability and front office acumen. They don't have to worry about another 4-12 disaster. But the Redskins may have much, much further to go to be a legitimate contender than their record would indicate.
Rookie big uglies deserve their due
Interior linemen on both sides of the ball are overlooked far too often. Yet, if there is justice this season, two rookies will get their due.
Suh asserts dominance
Center is the second most cerebral position on the field to quarterback, and for Pouncey to have made Justin Hartwig expendable by dominating at his position is something to marvel at. During the preseason, he was projected as a guard, but he mastered all the calls, displayed tremendous maturity and athleticism, and should be the next in a long line of superb Steelers centers. Pouncey has shined despite a revolving door at QB (Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, and Ben Roethlisberger have all started games), and helped usher in a renaissance in the Pittsburgh running game as well, anchoring a vital role for what could be a Super Bowl team.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Lions' Ndamukong Suh has been as good as anyone in the NFL at his defensive tackle position. He already has 6.5 sacks and a touchdown. He absolutely dominated Washington's offensive line last week -- it's becoming commonplace -- and possesses a fierce combination of size, speed, power and explosion. Suh is a full-blown, game-changing force already, and is opening things up for Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch to run some combination games and attack opposing quarterbacks. The Lions are close to being something to be reckoned with.
Would he really go back to Bruce Gradkowski, his security blanket, after Jason Campbell has led the team to 500-plus yards of offense in two straight weeks ahead of a monster divisional clash with the Chiefs? For years you could blame the players in Oakland for these kinds of self-destructive tendencies, but if Cable goes through with this, you can put it all on him. Campbell is more accurate, more athletic, more mobile and has a bigger arm (heck, he even woke up Darrius Heyward-Bey from his career slumber).
» I'm 5-foot-8 on my best day, with insoles, so with that in mind I hand out my midseason Danny DeVito awards:
I'm mentioning Brandon Banks again, because he deserves it. He is listed at 5-7, which means he may be 5-6. He is 149 pounds. And he is shredding people in the return game. He came a block and a penalty away from having three return touchdowns a week ago. Watch him go nuts in the second half of the season.
And who doesn't love watching Danny Woodhead, from "Hard Knocks" until now? Listed at 5-9, 200 pounds, he is a ball of energy. He is fearless, and he is the Wes Welker of New England's running backs, filling in for Kevin Faulk. His third-down catch-and-scamper to help the Patriots put away the Vikings on Sunday was something to behold.
The picks are in
I finally went a robust 11-2 with my picks last week, bringing me to 72-45 for the season. This week I like the Texans, Lions, Saints, Falcons, Ravens, Bills, Vikings, Patriots, Giants, Eagles, Raiders, Packers, and Steelers. And I'm done with the suicide lock of the week. I'm a terrible 5-3 with those picks. No such thing as a lock in this season. I give up at the midway point.