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Thursday, November 5, 2009
Cowboys return to scene of the crime

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com


 
 Howard Smith/US PRESSWIRE
 Jason Witten and the Cowboys will return to Lincoln Financial Field for the first since last year's devastating 44-6 loss there on the season's final week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

IRVING, Texas -- In a span of about five minutes on Dec. 28, 2008, the Eagles' and Cowboys' seasons took completely different paths. There was a good chance heading into the final game of the regular season that the Eagles would not have anything to play for in terms of making the playoffs.

But shortly before the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff, everyone at the Linc found out that the Oakland Raiders had done the Eagles a remarkable favor with a comeback win over Tampa Bay. Suddenly, the Eagles and Cowboys were in a winner-take-all situation -- and we all know what happened next.

In one of the most regrettable performances in franchise history, the Cowboys suffered an embarrassing 44-6 loss. Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown intercepted Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo late in the first half, setting up a Brent Celek touchdown catch that gave the Eagles a 24-3 lead. The rest of the afternoon is still a blur for some Cowboys players and coaches -- and they'd prefer to keep it that way.

In the postgame locker room, Romo delivered his now infamous "life goes on" speech. Romo made some critical remarks about offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but that wasn't the worst part. He tried to offer some perspective at a time when Cowboys fans weren't ready for it by saying that if he never reached the Super Bowl, he'd still end up having a pretty good life.

It's something you might be able to get away with saying a few months later, but it was an awful miscalculation at the time. It fed the perception that other things were more important to Romo than winning football games -- and it's something that will linger until he wins his first playoff game.

Moments after the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones delivered the message of continuity, saying he would stick with head coach Wade Phillips. He also promised that he would take some of his employees "to the woodshed" in an effort to find out what went wrong. Based on their 13-3 '07 season, the '08 Cowboys had been a popular Super Bowl pick. An extremely disappointed and angry Jones set out to change the culture in his locker room, although he never phrased it quite like that.

Jones shut down his reform school that had housed Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson. And then he made one of the toughest decisions of his career in releasing Pro Bowl wide receiver Terrell Owens. It shouldn't have been a difficult decision after watching T.O. splinter the locker room, but it was because it required Jones to admit that he'd made a mistake in giving Owens a lucrative contract extension.

Jones fired defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and gave that title to Phillips. He also replaced special teams coach Bruce Read with Joe DeCamillis, perhaps one of the most underrated moves of the offseason based on the Cowboys' immediate improvement in that area.

 
 Tim Heitman/US Presswire
 Miles Austin's emergence has been a boon for the Cowboys' receiving corps.
Now seven games into the '09 season, there doesn't seem to be as much sense of entitlement in the Cowboys' locker room. The one minor controversy -- Roy Williams' lack of chemistry with Romo -- doesn't seem to faze the other players. I'm sure it's embarrassing for Jones to see Williams go for about 19 yards per game, but that is offset by the remarkable rise of former undrafted wide receiver Miles Austin.

I almost laughed in Jones' face when he told us at the owners meeting that Austin had the potential to make people forget about T.O. -- but that's exactly what's happened. The only time you hear T.O.'s name in Dallas is when someone's joking about his lack of production in Buffalo.

The Cowboys return to the Linc on Sunday a confident team. They're well aware of their reputation for falling apart in December -- and that's why they need to stack wins in November. It helps that their new emotional leader on defense, inside linebacker Keith Brooking, doesn't give a rip about last season's 44-6 loss. He was a member of a Falcons playoff team at the time, and his refusal to buy into the Cowboys' past has been an important part of the culture change at Valley Ranch. Players such as linebacker Bradie James certainly haven't forgotten how their '08 season ended, but they don't seem obsessed with it.

"We know what happened last year," James told reporters Wednesday. "This is a different team, a different season, but we haven't forgotten. The only way we can right that wrong is to go out there and win, whether it's ugly, sexy, it doesn't really matter. We've got to go out there and find a way to win. We'll definitely know where we are as a team after we play this game."

Williams said Wednesday that Phillips hasn't even brought up the Cowboys' last trip to the Linc. And the receiver said he didn't intend on reliving his two-catch, 4-yard performance in the game.

I think it's a good sign for the Cowboys. This team appears to have a different approach. It should be enough motivation that the winner of this game will be in the driver's seat in the division race. And you know what they say about crippling 44-6 losses.

Life goes on.