NFL Nation: Bruce Read


 
 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.
 
 Getty Images/US Presswire
 Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens will meet again Monday night.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

IRVING, Texas -- It seems a little early in the season for an NFC East showdown, but that's exactly what we have with the Eagles and Cowboys on "Monday Night Football."

Despite their lack of success in the playoffs over the past 12 seasons, the Cowboys have been penciled in on many ballots as the eventual NFC representative in Tampa. The Eagles, a team that began this decade by winning five of seven division titles, appear back on track after a disappointing 8-8 campaign in 2007.

The health of 31-year-old quarterback Donovan McNabb has been an issue for this franchise since it reached the Super Bowl in 2004. However, he appears to be in top form. McNabb is not the same quarterback who orchestrated one of the most iconic plays in MNF history in November 2004 (the 14-second scramble), but he thinks injuries forced him to become a more complete player.

The last time the Eagles visited Texas Stadium, the defense badgered Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo into three interceptions and McNabb evoked good memories for Eagles fans with nine carries for 53 yards in leading the Eagles to a 10-6 victory.

The win was part of a four-game streak to end the season and it's the reason the Eagles feel confident heading into Monday's game.

"If anything, it let us know we could get the job done," starting weak-side linebacker Omar Gaither told me via phone Saturday. "But that game has no bearing on what will happen Monday. We have to go down there and handle our business again."

The Eagles watched a few clips from last December's game to remind them why they had so much success against one of the top offenses in the league. Gaither said he watched the entire game because it is part of his weekly routine. So, what was the Eagles' secret to slowing Romo?

"We were able to get pressure on him," Gaither said. "You have to bring the heat with him, and I think they got in the red zone three times and didn't come away with any touchdowns. That was big for us."

Rest assured that Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson won't borrow the Cleveland Browns' defensive game plan from last Sunday, which allowed Romo to loiter in the pocket throughout much of a 28-10 victory.

The Giants and Eagles have shown what can happen when you throw Romo out of rhythm. Johnson will blitz him from all over the field, and the fact that Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett rarely calls for screens and extra blockers makes Romo vulnerable at times.

 
 AP Photo/Robert E. Klein
 Andy Reid holds a 13-5 edge in this series since taking over as head coach in 1999.
Since Andy Reid took over as head coach in 1999, the Eagles have dominated this series (13-5), and they don't mind going on the road. Since 2000, the Eagles are tied with the Patriots for the best regular-season road record (43-21), and they're riding high after the most lopsided season-opening win in club history.

Eagles fans didn't need any more reasons to hate the Cowboys, but their former wide receiver, Terrell Owens, has become an easy target. His messy divorce from McNabb and the organization in 2005 is still a topic of conversation in both cities. McNabb expressed regret last month that he and Owens weren't able to work things out, and on Thursday, the wide receiver responded.

"It became too overwhelming for Donovan," Owens said. "Other than that, I think at one point in time, I will say that we had a good relationship. I think I got too big for Philly, too big for him. But here, Tony and I have a great relationship."

Owens went on to say that Romo "gets me" like no other quarterback he's ever played with, a statement that belongs on "The View", not in a sports section. No matter who was at fault for the breakup, McNabb and Owens should play key roles in Monday's game.

On the injury front, Reid said Saturday that he's encouraged by the progress that starting wide receiver Reggie Brown made in practice and is hopeful that he'll play. Brown is listed as questionable for Monday.

For the Cowboys, Pro Bowl cornerback Terence Newman has indicated that he'll be ready to go against the Eagles. On Saturday, I was told that the Cowboys coaches thought there was a "75 percent" chance Newman would play, but that he won't start.

Newman's replacement in the starting lineup, Adam Jones, played well against the Browns, but he's still annoying his coaches by refusing to focus on the little things that will make him successful. The Cowboys will keep a close eye on Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson -- both at receiver and in the return game.

Last season, Bruce Read's special teams unit struggled in coverage, but Dallas had a nice effort against a Browns team that was playing without the dangerous Josh Cribbs.

This is a good measuring-stick game for both games. For the Cowboys, it's an early test to see if the team can live up to its immense hype. For the Eagles, it's a chance to serve notice that last year was an aberration.

McNabb told me during trai
ning camp that the Eagles were the best team in the NFC. On Monday, he'll have an opportunity to back that up.

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