As the Dallas Cowboys make one last push to get into the NFL playoffs this year, they have a big obstacle to overcome: themselves.
Mistakes and Injuries
For the 2011 Dallas Cowboys, though facing formidable opponents at times, the biggest challenges have been untimely penalties, questionable coaching decisions, inconsistent quarterback play, a defense that has lost its edge against the run, and injuries.
In the early part of the season, the Cowboys put themselves at a disadvantage by having many more turnovers than their opponents, attributable in large part to bad communication between Tony Romo, the Dallas quarterback, and his receivers. In the past several games, however, Romo has minimized the mistakes while connecting with receivers Dez Bryant and Laurent Robinson for some big pass plays.
For several games, the Cowboys were missing their number one wide receiver, Miles Austin, and their number one running back, Felix Jones. Receivers, Bryant and Robinson, have performed very well, and Miles Austin was not missed a great deal. The story is also true of Felix Jones’ absence from the lineup. Rookie DeMarco Murray, Jones’ replacement at running back, performed extraordinarily well, setting the rookie one-game rushing record for the Cowboys when he rushed for 253 yards against the St. Louis Rams.
Some Cause for Optimism
A few weeks ago, with five games left to play, the Cowboys were coming off of a four game winning streak, finding themselves with a two-game lead in the division. At 7-4, they looked as if they would take over the NFC East. My prediction of a season record of eight wins and eight losses appeared to have been pessimistic.
Going into the final three regular season games, the Cowboys are now tied with the New York Giants for the lead in the NFC East with the Giants holding the tiebreaking advantage after defeating the Cowboys at home last week.
Dallas still holds its own destiny in its hands. If the Cowboys win their final three games, one of which is in New York, against the Giants, they can finish the season at 10-6 and win the division. A division championship is still within reach.
But, there are some big problems ahead. DeMarco Murray is out for the season after breaking his ankle in last week’s game against the Rams. Leading pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware, while expected to play, is suffering from a neck injury. He was forced to sit out during a good portion of the game against the Giants.
What is more troubling than the injuries and the upcoming opponents is the recent trend toward the early season antics of penalties, bad decisions, a leaky offensive line, and a defensive secondary that appears confused in every game.
But, there is something even more troubling, something systemic that was mentioned for the first time in years by people who know what they are talking about.
A Leadership Problem
This week, former Cowboys defensive end, Charles Haley, a five-time Super Bowl winner, along with his former teammate, pro-bowler Russell Maryland, appearing on an ESPN Dallas talk show, criticized the Cowboys openly and candidly.
To the surprise of some people, their criticism was not levied in the direction of the coaching staff, the most popular targets. Head coach, Jason Garrett, and defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, have been taking a verbal beating by the media and fans. They were critical of the Cowboys, the players, and their lack of leadership on the field.
Haley was particularly critical, saying that in the successful days of teams past, players did not limit their time on the practice field to those times designated by the coaching staff. Instead, long after much of the team had gone to the showers, in previous days, if players had a problem with something in the game plan or in their technique, they stayed on the field, or in the film room, as long as it took to get it straightened out.
It was not forced on them by the coaching staff, but it was an expectation that the players had of each other. It is a work ethic that is missing, according to these former stars. And, many old-timers in Dallas will agree.
It is fair to mention, however, that the coaching staff in those days, namely, head coach Jimmy Johnson, had ways of lighting a fire under players. Under Johnson, players such as Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Charles Haley rose to the occasion, setting standards of field leadership that have not been seen in Dallas since.
Finishing the Season
No one knows what to expect for the remaining three games. Some Cowboys fans have ridden the season’s roller coaster long enough and have already bailed out on the season, that is, until the Cowboys play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend.
I am holding to my prediction of 8-8. There are too many things going wrong, things that are mental, not to mention the key injury to Murray.
A team that does not have the leadership to overcome the mental errors and to police themselves on the field, and off, will not rise above the mediocrity that Haley and Maryland alluded to.