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The Dallas Cowboys are a joke. The Minnesota Vikings are a mess. But which struggling franchise qualifies as pro football's most dysfunctional outfit?
There can be only one.
As we argued last year, the NFL isn't just home to teams with lousy records; it's also home to utterly fouled-up organizations whose systemic bumbling and chronic ineptitude makes them the league's answer to failed geopolitical states.
Oh, and also pretty amusing, in a rubbernecking sort of way.
Think the Oakland Raiders, once tabbing a retired bed-and-breakfast operator to run their offense. Think last year's Washington Redskins, summoning a retired bingo caller to do the same.
Better yet, think this season's Cowboys and Vikings. Herein, a Page 2 report card to determine which is the most dysfunctional team in the NFL:
Rot starts at the top. Crap rolls downhill. If you absolutely, positively need to kill a zombie, shoot them in the head -- OK, you get the idea.
Cowboys: Owner Jerry Jones says he has a plan. And he does, given that he's the driving force behind both the Cowboys and the pleasure dome they call home. Thing is, this only makes Jones akin to a reform-minded, third-world dictator who builds a luxurious, Versailles-shaming parliamentary building, then wonders why his hand-picked government of cronies, kleptocrats, stooges and local warlords can't carry out his vision for a 21st century free-market democracy.
Honor roll moment: The Cowboys are paying roughly $19.2 million for their entire embattled offensive line (starters and backups), approximately $2.4 million less than they're paying for starting receivers Roy Williams, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Bear Stearns wasn't that negligent.
Extra credit: Following the Cowboys' uninspired home loss to the resoundingly mediocre Jacksonville Jaguars, Jones said he was "dumbfounded" that his team was 1-7. Of course, Dallas was only 1-6 at the time.
Grade: For better or worse -- mostly the latter -- the Cowboys are a team built in Jones' surgically reconstructed image: defensible on paper, disconcerting in motion. D-minus
Vikings: Like Jones, Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf will spend whatever it takes to
get taxpayers to buy him a new stadium win. And like Jones, some of his recent moves have been questionable. Exhibit A? Handing head coach Brad Childress a four-year, $16 million, no-buyout-clause extension midway through the 2009 season, the equivalent of hitting the $160.00 BUY NOW button for an eBay item that has zero bidders and an opening price of $0.20.
Honor roll moment: Following the Vikings' 2005 "Love Boat" sexcapade scandal, Wilf said "this behavior will never be tolerated again." In August, Minnesota welcomed Brett Favre back with a three-man recruiting party, a private jet and hand-fed grapes, even though the sports blog Deadspin broke the first news of Favre's StergerGate sexting scandal nearly two weeks earlier.
Extra credit: Wilf was reportedly furious when Childress decided to waive receiver Randy Moss without first talking to the owner. Who gave Childress contractual authority to shape the Vikings' roster as he sees fit? Wilf. Oops.
Grade: In some ways, Wilf is a perfect storm of ineffective ownership styles: meddlesome where he should be hands-off (circumventing Childress by talking directly to veteran players), and passive where he should be hands-on (the Childress-Moss situation). On the other hand, it's hard to run a tight ship when you're busy comparing moving van rates between Eden Prairie, Minn., and Los Angeles. C
If high-priced corporate pep talks and quick-publish motivational books have taught us anything, it's that football coaches are akin to our best and brightest CEOs. Such as Jeffrey Skilling, Ken Lewis and John Thain.
Cowboys: Pop quiz! On the final play of the first half in a season-opening loss to Washington, Dallas could have taken a knee. Instead, the Cowboys threw a short pass that was promptly fumbled and returned for a touchdown, giving the Redskins a 10-0 lead in an eventual 13-7 Dallas loss.
After the game, Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips blamed the call on:
The correct answer? "A." And yes, we had to double-check.
Honor roll moment: Prior to a humiliating 45-7 loss to Green Bay that dropped Dallas to 1-7, Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking told NBC that the team wasn't "playing to save Wade's job." You think so, Sherlock?
Extra credit: Hours before Phillips was sacked, the columnist for the official Cowboys team website called for his ouster. In literary circles, this is known as foreshadowing.
Grade: Dallas replaced Phillips with Garrett, the same guy who actually called the short pass that was fumbled in the Washington loss. Attention, Cowboys fans: If you have any warm memories of the Dave Campo era, now is the time to cocoon yourself in them. F
Vikings: The bad news? Childress reportedly is on thin ice, having irritated Wilf, sparred with Favre, blown off the press, antagonized much of his own locker room and nearly exchanged blows with receiver Percy Harvin. The good news? The Vikings head coach has never -- never -- said a discouraging word about team catering.
Honor roll moment: Childress traded a third-round draft pick for Moss -- a notorious diva -- then waived Moss less than four weeks later for diva-like behavior, which is like buying a super-sized order of french fries and cola before throwing away your meal because it's not good for you.
Honor roll moment II: During a 28-24 loss to Green Bay, Childress failed to challenge a touchdown by Packers tight end Andrew Quarless, who appeared to never have possession of the ball.
Extra credit: Speaking to ESPN, Vikings sources described the environment Childress has created around the team facility with the phrases, "we're walking on eggshells," "the air has been sucked out of the building" and "nobody's having any fun." Now get out there and win one for the Gipper!
Grade: At the time this sentence was typed, Childress had yet to be fired. Win one for the no-buyout clause! F-plus
You can't lose without players.
Cowboys: Little-known fact: The George Orwell-inspired expression "doublespeak" -- that is, language that deliberately disguises, distorts or reverses the meaning of words -- was coined before people began referring to the Cowboys' roster as "talented."
Honor roll moment: In an August radio interview, Jones said that "on paper," this year's Cowboys were the most talented team he's had since Dallas' 1990s Super Bowl-winning squads. Is Jones getting his assessments of his offensive line, running back and defensive backfield from happynews.com?
Extra credit: Since the 2007 season, Dallas has sent 36 players to the Pro Bowl -- more than any other NFC team -- yet won exactly one playoff game. Discrepancy? Not if you're a Cowboys Pro Bowler who wants to make sure he's fresh for Hawaii!
Grade: No matter how good Dez Bryant looks, at some point a club goes from being a group of talented underachievers to an untalented group that previously overachieved. And that point is 1-7. C-minus
Vikings: An optimist would note that Minnesota returned all 22 starters from a team that went 12-4 last season, sent 10 players to the Pro Bowl and came within a boneheaded Favre interception of possibly reaching the Super Bowl; a pessimist would note that the calendar reads 2010 and that time does not move backward.
Honor roll moment: In Minnesota's 14-10 loss to Miami in the team's home opener, Favre threw three interceptions -- two on the goal line -- lost a fumble in the end zone and finished with a JaMarcus Russell-like 44.3 passer rating, his lowest as a Viking. This never would have happened in 2009.
Extra credit: On a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line during the same game, star running back Adrian Peterson ran behind star lineman Steve Hutchinson, only to get stuffed by a gang of Dolphins defenders just short of the goal line. This never would have happened in 2009.
Extra-extra credit: During a loss to New England, Moss appeared to give up on a catchable touchdown pass after getting bumped by a defender and earning a pass interference flag. This never would have happened in 2009, except at a Patriots practice.
Grade: Like their quarterback, the Vikings are older (average age: 29 years), beaten-up (see Rice, Sidney) and not as sharp as they once were; like Favre -- who just threw for a career-high 446 yards -- they may still possess enough residual muscle memory and cortisone shots to compete. Incomplete
Some teams fail with a whimper, others with a bang of fury on sports talk radio.
Cowboys: Dallas sports the NFL's second-worst scoring defense, rushing offense and giveaway/takeaway ratio. So there's actually room to get worse.
Honor roll moment: When Cowboys defensive end Igor Olshansky publicly ripped his team's offensive game plan, right guard Leonard Davis subsequently agreed with him and both men were correct.
Honor roll moment II: During a home loss to the Giants in which Dallas surrendered 497 yards of offense -- 200 rushing -- Olshansky celebrated a pair of meaningless fourth-quarter tackles with a Dirk Diggler-style high kick and a jig, then noted that he "takes pride in stopping the run."
Extra credit: The Cowboys' lone victory this season came against the Houston Texans. Too bad in-state bragging rights only matter in college football.
Grade: As of publication time, no UFL teams have issued a public challenge to the Cowboys. F-minus
Vikings: Minnesota has lost five games by a combined 32 points. In other words, the Vikings are just good enough to tease their fans with false hope before ripping out their still-beating hearts, "Temple of Doom" style, with inopportune miscues.
Honor roll moment: When Metrodome fans went from chanting "Fire Childress!" to "Let's go, Vikings!" during Minnesota's two-touchdowns-in-four-minutes miracle overtime comeback victory over Arizona, conveniently forgetting that their team needed a two-touchdowns-in-four-minutes miracle overtime comeback victory against a club quarterbacked by Derek Anderson.
Extra credit: Heading into the Arizona game, Favre's 11 interceptions and four fumbles led to 58 opposing points. And you thought Jenn Sterger's lawyers were the only ones poised to benefit from Favre's poor decisions.
Grade: Statistically speaking, the Vikings are ranked in the top half of most NFL team categories. They also play in the same division as Chicago and Detroit. Perhaps there's hope yet. C-minus
The 12th man gets a share of the credit, so why not a share of the blame?
Cowboys: During the Cowboys' home loss to the Giants, a female fan gave her boyfriend an impromptu lap dance, which was recorded and posted online. In related news: Somebody felt something approaching actual human excitement while watching the 2010 Dallas Cowboys.
Honor roll moment: Google the video mentioned above.
Extra credit: Dallas fans have broken out the paper-bag-over-the-head look. What, no Quincy Carter jerseys?
Grade: Dallas Morning News columnist and "Around the Horn" talking head Tim Cowlishaw called on Cowboys fans to boycott the team's home games -- but honestly, we just can't find fault with in-stadium lap dancing. A-plus
Vikings: No fan base should have to suffer this.
Honor roll moment: According to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune online poll of more than 40,000 Vikings fans, 77.6 percent want Childress fired immediately, 13.2 percent want him fired at the end of the season and 9.1 percent aren't paying attention.
Extra credit: On the Minnesota fan website purplepride.org, the "Official Fire Childress" message board thread is 209 pages long. Also, fans attending an NBA game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks broke into chants of "Fire Childress!" Well played.
Grade: A podcast on www.firechilly.com -- active since 2008! -- argues that Childress isn't cool enough to have a nickname like "Chilly." Good point. A
All the dysfunctional stuff that didn't quite fit the other dysfunctional categories.
Cowboys: During the club's Green Bay debacle, Dallas fan LeBron James tweeted that "something has to change around Cowboy land. Some furniture moving asap ..." and "my Cowboys are officially the worst team in the NFL right now even thought the Bills are winless!" Who knew James' Twitter account was a source of cogent pro football analysis?
Honor roll moment: Psychology Today -- no, really! -- published an online article entitled "Why the Dallas Cowboys Suck," concluding that the team is a victim of misplaced confidence and negligent parenting. Hey, their guess is as good as Jones'.
Extra credit: In fairness to Jones, he hasn't publicly slagged Bill Parcells and Tim Tebow in more than six months.
Grade: Buck up, Dallas backers: no matter how far the Cowboys fall this season, they'll always be rated No. 6 on "Madden NFL 11's" release day rosters! F
Vikings: Between StergerGate and Moss, it's amazing Psychology Today decided to instead psychoanalyze the Cowboys.
Honor roll moment: Moss complaining about free food, even though he's an athlete and not a sportswriter.
Extra credit: The NFL banned Jared Allen's calf-roping sack dance, even though Allen has only 3.5 sacks this season.
Grade: Take away Favre and Moss, and Minnesota's dysfunction is all football-related. Then again, that's a lot to take away. C-minus
The most dysfunctional quotes of the season.
Cowboys: Said Phillips after a loss to Jacksonville, "The biggest thing I noticed overall is the fundamentals -- running, blocking, tackling, catching, covering, throwing." In other words, everything.
Honor roll moment: Said receiver Roy Williams after the Cowboys' 1-6 start, "We can go nine in a row." Williams wasn't talking about losses. We think.
Extra credit: Said Jones when asked if Phillips would be Dallas' coach for the rest of the season, "Yes." Three days later, Phillips was fired.
Grade: Said Jones after indicating that major changes were coming in the wake of the Green Bay loss, "Don't imply that my role is going to change at all. Don't do that. You'll get something stuck." Yes, like the Cowboys in mediocrity so long as Jones is the team's on-field architect. F
Vikings: Said Moss about team catering, "Who ordered this [expletive] stuff? I wouldn't feed it this to my [expletive] dog." Well, unless Bill Belichick prepared it.
Honor roll moment: Said Favre about the same catering, "I thought the food was pretty good." Almost as good as someone else's dubious behavior sucking up all the media oxygen.
Extra credit: Said Moss after the Vikings lost to his former team, the Patriots, "I'm going to leave the New England Patriots, Coach Belichick, man, with a salute. Man, I love you guys. I miss you. I'm out." Prescient!
Grade: Said Moss before his Patriots love-in, "This is no disrespect to the Minnesota Vikings and their organization." Randy, Randy, Randy -- you had us at your pledge to only answer your own interview questions. F
Cowboys: On the plus side, Dallas' next coach and the agent for the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NFL draft should have great seats for the Super Bowl. F-minus
Vikings: By eking out a victory over Arizona, the Vikings didn't just keep their dimmed hopes alive -- they ensured that the Cowboys are 2010's most dysfunctional pro football franchise. D-minus
Arizona Cardinals: Has any professional locker room ever been more riveted by "Dancing with the Stars?" Grade: C-plus
Buffalo Bills: The worst kind of dysfunctional: bad and boring on and off the field. Could use a catering scandal to spice things up. Also, cutting starting quarterback Trent Edwards just three weeks into the season made Arizona's handling of Matt Leinart seem downright rational. Grade: D
Carolina Panthers: If you're not a hard-core fantasy football player, there's no way you can name more than five players on Carolina's roster. Grade: D
Chicago Bears: Bears are 5-3, but would be 3-5 if: (a) the Bills weren't still paying off their soul mortgage for the K-Gun era; (b) the NFL rulebook wasn't dumb. Chicago also features a coordinator duo in Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli who last led the Detroit Lions to the only 0-16 season in league history -- so in a sense, the Bears already are ahead of the game! Grade: C-minus
Cincinnati Bengals: With Carson Palmer, Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, this would be an entertaining, relevant franchise in 2005. Grade: C-
Denver Broncos: Since starting the 2009 season 6-2, head coach Josh McDaniels has skippered the Broncos to a 4-12 mark. In a word: Zorn-esque. Grade: D
Detroit Lions: Nothing new to see. Move along. Grade: D
San Francisco 49ers: After the 49ers slipped to 1-5, Mike Singletary said of his team, "This is their finest hour." Hey Mike, you realize you're not coaching the Cowboys, right? Extra credit for being undefeated in Europe. Grade: D-plus
San Diego Chargers: Special teams only. Grade: F
Washington Redskins: From Albert Haynesworth's grumbling to Donovan McNabb's benching to bringing JaMarcus Russell in for a workout, there's no dysfunction the Redskins can't mend via Mike and Kyle Shanahan's obsession with cardiovascular fitness. Grade: C-minus
Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.
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