It will be 11 days, but as we recap the week, we will stick (mostly) with the on-field discussions about the Chicago Bears and the ghosts of December past.
Jean-Jacques Taylor is ready to believe in quarterback Tony Romo.
The Cowboys know they have to finish the season strong to make a playoff push, unlike in 2011 and 2012 when they didn't get it done.
Calvin Watkins says there's a lot on the line for Monte Kiffin this month too.
Since last year's game against the Bears, things have been different for receiver Dez Bryant.
Adrian Peterson has wondered about coming back to Texas to play out his career. Tim MacMahon offers up the Herschel Walker deal in reverse to bring him back.
JJT remembers the loss of defensive end Jerry Brown and how it has affected the Cowboys.
ESPN's Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and I bring you this week's Double Coverage.
There was a terrible three-game stretch where the Cowboys couldn't convert a third down play regardless of who was on the field. Dallas went 8-for-36 on third downs before going 4-for-11 at the New York Giants than then 7-of-13 on Thanksgiving Day against the Oakland Raiders last week.
The third down improvement for the Cowboys against the Raiders is something they need to build on for Monday's game at Chicago.
"We thought in the last two games we certainly got better and they were more manageable," offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said. "And I had said a couple of weeks ago that was the key. If we could stay in those manageable situations that helps us execute, convert drives gives us another chance, another opportunity to extend the plays."
When Callahan means manageable he's talking about what the Cowboys are doing on first-and-second downs. Dallas averages 5.1 yards per play on first downs, while it's just 12th in the NFC, Callahan knows if you operate out of shorter down and distances it helps finish third down plays.
"Right, you always want to win first and second down to stay out of (long) third downs," Callahan said. "And if you can do that and I think we did that a few times in the Raiders game I really believe it lends to a better rhythm. Lends to a better flow not only for the players but for the play-caller and everybody else involved. Again, we really worked hard on that aspect to improve and again, we've been fortunate to improve that and hope we can do it again on Monday night."
"He was available when I wasn’t, so that’s how I look at it," Wilcox said. "Like the coaches say, and I say, you have to be ready when your number is called. I'm just playing my role the that I can and to make plays when I can."
Heath is playing well and is making some forget about his struggles in the passing and run games against Detroit and Minnesota. In the last three weeks, Heath has 21 total tackles, a tackle for loss, fumble recovery and a pass breakup. In the last two weeks of his return, Wilcox has just three total tackles out of 51 defensive snaps in a backup role.
Wilcox doesn't appear irked that he's coming off the bench and said it's not in his "character" to complain to the coaches about not starting.
"I don’t want to disrespect nobody," Wilcox said. "I just want to be humble and be ready when my time is called. Heath is doing a great job in there and so far they’re rotating us in, and I guess (it's) let the best man win."
If he can play, then he would bring a boost to the return game. He is averaging 14 yards per punt return and has an 86-yard touchdown and is averaging 31.3 yards per kickoff return with a long of 90 yards.
Linebackers Sean Lee (hamstring), Justin Durant (hamstring) and DeVonte Holloman, defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (stinger), wide receiver Dez Bryant (back) and tight end Gavin Escobar (hamstring) are probable.
OK, so that didn't work out real well with Ratliff, who now plays for the Chicago Bears after a rather bitter departure from Dallas in October. But the other players in the exit lockers -- Tony Romo, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Doug Free -- set examples that Garrett wants the rest of the Cowboys to follow.
"An NFL locker room is a sacred place, and there are things that are controlled in there," said Witten, who is now Smith's neighbor in the locker room. "Tyron has earned that. That's something that he deserves. If you look around our football team, he's a guy that plays at a high level and expects everyone else to as well. I think that's a good thing to have him there."
Garrett has been effusive in his praise for Smith recently, saying the third-year tackle is performing at a Pro Bowl level. Smith's new real estate in the locker room is evidence that the coaches consider him a leader despite the fact that he's younger than every player on the team with the exception of most rookies.
"Ain't there yet," Smith said. "I'm trying to get there."
“Since I’ve never played there I’m going to have to figure it out when I get there,” Bailey said, “but I watch film and see what the wind does. I watched multiple games and kind of see what lines their guy takes. It looks like it’s been pretty windy there almost all the time. I do as much homework as I can from a film standpoint and ultimately I have to just go out there and see what it’s like the day of.”
Before the Cowboys played the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 24, Bailey and punter Chris Jones went through earlier and longer pregame warmups to get accustomed to the wind.
“It ended up coming down to a kick and I’m glad we put in the extra prep because we knew exactly where we needed to be and where we wanted to be in that situation,” Bailey said. “I’ll probably do the same thing in Chicago just to try and prepare myself the best way I can.”
But late in the fourth quarter, Dunbar suffered a left knee injury and the next day it was determined he would be missed for the rest of the 2013 season because he needed surgery.
Murray is hoping what's left of the run game, Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle, can build on what's finally been started this season: a run game.
"We got to continue to get our opportunities and run it," Murray said after Friday's practice. "I thought we did well, the offensive line blocked well. I thought we had good chemistry (against Oakland) so we got to continue (it), hopefully that will translate over to this weekend."
Monday night, the Cowboys face the Chicago Bears who have the worst ranked rush defense in the NFL. Opposing offenses are averaging five yards per carry and have scored 15 touchdowns against the Bears run defense.
The Cowboys will head into the game minus the speed of Dunbar, who was just coming along after overcoming nagging injuries and some fumbling issues. The offensive line has developed into something solid especially along the left side of the line where Tyron Smith, at left tackle, is having a Pro Bowl type season.
The Cowboys average 4.73 yards per game when running off Smith's side, the seventh-best numbers in the NFL. Running past left guard Ronald Leary has produced a 8.6 average, tops in the league. And when the team runs toward rookie center Travis Frederick, it's a 5.54 average, No. 2 in the league.
Producing these numbers while good the first three months of the season, need to remain consistent in the final four weeks.
"I think the running game is vital in the beginning of the season, middle of the season, any part you need to have a running game," Murray said. "And it's only going to help at some point and it's only going to help you in the play action and the passing game. So I think it's pretty important at all times."
“Great football player,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. “Just a fantastic football player. They hand it to him. They throw it to him. He’s a guy who makes people miss. Very good instincts for the game. He can catch the ball. He’s good in space. He’s good inside.”
In two games against the Cowboys, Forte has rushed for 81 yards and caught six passes for 34 yards and a touchdown.
The Cowboys are allowing 126.7 yards per game on the ground, which is 27th in the NFL. They have allowed three teams to rush for more than 200 yards and in three of their past four games they have allowed a 100-yard rusher (Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram and Andre Brown).
Forte is one of three backs with 900 yards rushing and 400 yards receiving, joining Jamaal Charles and LeSean McCoy. The Cowboys played against both already and limited Charles and McCoy to 55 yards rushing apiece.
“He is an extreme challenge,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “He is one of the best all-around backs in the NFL. There is not one area of the game he is not good at. He is a great pass protector, great runner, great out of the backfield catching passes, so it’s going to be a challenge for us to try to stop him.”
For rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams, who grew up in Dallas and played at Baylor, there have not been many cold-weather experiences. He has already picked up on a difference in Tony Romo.
“He has to throw the ball a tad bit harder so the wind won’t take it,” Williams said. “Dome-wise, he can put a tad bit more touch. Now with the wind blowing he’s got to put a little more heat on it so it can get to us quicker.”
Romo has dealt with wind in two games this year at Philadelphia and at the New York Giants. Romo completed 51 of 85 passes for 551 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in the wins against the NFC East rivals.
Romo and coach Jason Garrett said there is added importance of throwing a tighter spiral in the wind so the ball can fly more true.
Romo’s experience playing golf in the wind helps on the football field.
“You’ve got to play it sometimes,” Romo said. “If you’re straight down wind, a level 2 ball you might put at a level 3 and it will turn into a level 2. There are different, varying things you do with that. But I think if you’re good enough you can really use it to your advantage and help your football team.”
The Cowboys could have stayed closer to home by working at Coppell high school's indoor facility, but it's not 100 yards long. AT&T Stadium is unavailable due to the Baylor-Kentucky college basketball game on Friday night.
But offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said he was pleased with the Friday afternoon session.
"I thought practice was great," Callahan said. "When you get into an environment when it's closed and you're on FieldTurf it lends itself to a fast, fast practice and because of the travel, Coach cut down on the number of reps and periods we had today. I thought the players did a great job just executing. More than that, the tempo of the practice compared to yesterday, coming off a long break and coming into today's practice, I thought we came up a few notches so that was really encouraging to see. You need that type of timing obviously when you're getting ready to go on the road and play in a game like this on Monday night."
The Cowboys face the Chicago Bears at Solider Field on Monday night and the temps are expected to be in the teens with the wind at roughly 10 miles per hour. Coach Jason Garrett said he hopes to practice on Saturday at Valley Ranch instead of busing over to Highland Park.
Quarterback Tony Romo said the Friday practice session indoors was encouraging.
"It was good," Romo said. "Guys were moving. You could see everyone was committed to coming out and having a good practice and going full speed. It was great to see. Everyone was fresh and ready to go."
IRVING, Texas -- Tony Romo's 12-16 record in December and January regular-season games hangs around his neck, but as the Dallas Cowboys prepare to play their first December game of this season on Monday night against the Chicago Bears, the quarterback does not think much of the calendar change.
"You've got to be able to find a way to win those games," Romo said. "That is just part of a football team growing and getting good enough to go win in tough environments. I think our football is continuing to grow and having a great chance to do that. I don't think the football team cares about December. They care about winning this game. You could put this game in October, January, whatever, and it's going to feel the exact same to us. It's just a matter of going out and winning."
Speaking Wednesday on 105.3 The Fan, owner and general manager Jerry Jones did not dismiss the December woes.
"I think it's real and I don't mean to be trite," Jones said. "You can probably tie that [into] why we have had disappointments in December. It's hard to build up in this time of the NFL. It's hard to build up enough edge to play at that level during December, so you better be moving or having your arrow going up rather than going down."
Since 2009, Romo is 7-8 in December/January games, and the Cowboys have lost their last two season finales against the New York Giants and Washington Redskins that kept them from winning the NFC East and claiming a playoff spot. He was intercepted three times by the Redskins, including a fourth-quarter turnover with the Cowboys down three points.
Tony Romo has worn gloves once in a regular season. It came in the 2007 finale against the Washington Redskins, and he came out in the second half of the 27-6 loss with the Cowboys having clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs.
And he won't do it Monday at Soldier Field, despite temperatures expected to be in the teens.
"I think you feel comfortable throwing in the conditions or you need something to help you, I think guys wear a glove because they don't feel strongly with the grip that they have," Romo said. "That's just part of it. It can help some guys. Other guys might not need it as much."
Having grown up in Burlington, Wis., and playing collegiately at Eastern Illinois, Romo has history playing in the cold. With the Cowboys he is 2-4 in games colder than 40 degrees, beating the New York Giants on Nov. 24 at MetLife Stadium.
"I played a lot of our games in cold weather and I think you become comfortable with it over time," Romo said. "The more technically sound and fundamental you are with your throwing motion, you can neutralize that stuff and I think it can be an advantage for a football team."
“I’ll be ready to go,” said Lee, who took part in his second straight full practice. “If I’m going to play I want to play full go.”
Lee attacked his rehab the way he attacks breaking down game film. He spent time in a hyperbaric chamber. He had massages. He used active release therapy, extra stretching, acupuncture and just about anything else he could to speed up the recovery.
“I think it’s just a whole system of here working with the trainers, making sure I’m getting rest, making sure I’m on point with my diet, making sure I’m doing different treatments like hyperbaric chamber and different things that are going to help heal that muscle more quickly,” Lee said, “and I think it helped.”
Coach Jason Garrett told him to use some good, old fashioned Tiger Balm.
“I’m still using the Tiger Balm right now,” Lee said. “Yeah, we use it to warm up. I don’t know if it’s exactly Tiger Balm but it’s something to put a little heat on it and make sure the hamstring is ready to go.”
The schedule also helped. While he missed four weeks, he missed only two games because of the Cowboys’ Nov. 17 bye week and two games in five days thanks to the Thanksgiving Day game. He actually got an extra day of rest with the Monday kickoff versus the Bears.
Lee does not believe the cold awaiting the team in Chicago will be an issue for his hamstring.
“I’m sure you’ve got to warm up properly,” Lee said, “but the cold weather is part of the deal and I think I’m going to be fine.”