IRVING, Texas -- It would be easy to point to the removal of a certain wide receiver from the Cowboys' locker room as the impetus for this season's inspiring playoff run -- and it's not far from the truth. Quarterback Tony Romo wasn't going to reach his full potential as long as Terrell Owens continued to be a polarizing voice at Valley Ranch, and that's the main reason owner Jerry Jones bit the bullet and released the wide receiver last March.
I've talked to enough people within the Cowboys' organization to know that Jones' son, Stephen, is the one who finally got through to his father. Jones, who wasn't inclined to release T.O. at the end of the '08 season, listened to several voices. But I'm told that Stephen stubbornly fought to convince his father that Romo couldn't flourish until T.O. was extracted from the locker room. And once T.O., Tank Johnson and Adam "Pacman" Jones were gone, the owner introduced us to his catchphrase of the offseason, a "Romo-friendly offense."
I wrote in training camp that there was something different about this team, but it didn't matter unless the locker room chemistry experiment resulted in a playoff win. Now that the Cowboys head into Sunday's divisional-round playoff game in Minneapolis as the hottest team in the NFC, it appears that the experiment worked.
Against all odds and conventional wisdom, Jones retained Wade Phillips in the aftermath of a 44-6 beatdown in Philly. He soon announced that Phillips would be adding "defensive coordinator" to his job title, which is probably the way it should have been in the first place. Phillips made too many excuses for his players during his first two seasons and didn't hold them accountable at crucial moments along the way. But no one ever doubted the man's credentials as a defensive coach. Phillips' hands are all over a defense that has been dominant over the past four games and held opponents to 250 points during the regular-season, the second-lowest total in the league.
He also helped himself in the personnel department when he spoke on behalf of free-agent linebacker Keith Brooking, a player he coached when he was with the Falcons. The Falcons had a great young linebacker in Curtis Lofton and decided to move forward without the 33-year-old Brooking. The Cowboys' scouting department knew that Brooking was bigger than Zach Thomas and thought he'd be a much better fit at inside linebacker.
Thomas played well for the first six or seven games of '08, but his production started to fall off midway through the season. He never felt comfortable in Phillips' 3-4 and both parties were ready to move on. Brooking showed up for the Cowboys' offseason program and immediately started turning heads. Phillips said the linebacker tried to win every single sprint during conditioning drills and younger players such as Anthony Spencer and Bobby Carpenter began to notice Brooking's uncommon work ethic.
When I talked to Brooking on Tuesday, he said there wasn't one specific moment when he became a leader on this team. But other players have told me that he started to become more vocal as the season unfolded. During last Saturday's broadcast of the Cowboys-Eagles game, NBC's Cris Collinsworth told a story that Brooking had fought a defensive back in practice when the player was mouthing off after a play. Brooking confirmed the story Tuesday, though he chose not to add any details. But it's hard to miss the way players react to him when he breaks down the huddle before games. Running back Tashard Choice said earlier this week that Brooking reminds him of professional wrestler-turned-actor The Rock.
The Cowboys also added former Jaguars safety Gerald Sensabaugh during free agency. He solidified an area that had been in a state of flux since Darren Woodson retired because of a back injury in 2004. Sensabaugh has been a better player than Pro Bowler Ken Hamlin, who hasn't lived up to his big contract.
"When all hell breaks loose, you want Sensabaugh on your side," said one highly ranked member of the organization who asked not to be identified. "He's highly, highly respected by pretty much everyone in the organization. There's a toughness and a swagger to his approach that other guys just feed off of."
Of course, one of the biggest changes this season was the meteoric rise of Miles Austin. He's a younger, faster version of Owens -- without all the drama. And if you ever hear a scout say they knew Austin could be this good, they're lying.
Even when Romo was moving the ball down the field last season, it was always in the back of his mind that he needed to keep T.O. happy. I'm not sure that any quarterback can have long-term success with that type of scenario, and Donovan McNabb and Jeff Garcia would probably have my back on that statement.
With his words, Jerry Jones will still tell you that locker room chemistry is overrated. But his actions say something else.