Cowboys' rebound trend put to the test
Final stretch will reveal if December ghosts have been shaken or if loser tag still haunts
IRVING, Texas -- The discussion about the Dallas Cowboys' disastrous recent December track record will approach a deafening level.
The schedule will be extremely difficult.
We'll find out over the next four weeks whether this Dallas Cowboys team is really different than the last two editions, which teased with fine falls and flopped in the winters.
Coach Wade Phillips, who repeatedly reminded reporters of the Cowboys' 8-4 record during his Monday news conference, dismisses talk of the franchise's recent trend of December downturns. He'd rather point to another trend as evidence of his team's mental toughness: The Cowboys are 3-0 after losses this season.
"I don't think we have a team of losers," Phillips said.
Scratching a bit beneath the surface of Phillips' baseball stat (to borrow his phrase for meaningless numbers) hardly inspires confidence that these Cowboys thrive in adverse situations.
The Cowboys did indeed respond to their three previous losses by beating the Carolina Panthers, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins the ensuing weeks. That trio of teams has a combined record of 11-25. The Cowboys needed overtime to beat the Chiefs and squeaked out a one-point home win over the Redskins.
Let's hold off on handing the Cowboys a bounce-back trophy to go along with the walkthrough championship hardware Phillips awarded his team last season.
To say the Cowboys face tougher competition down the stretch would be like calling Jimmy Johnson a more animated coach than Phillips. The Cowboys' schedule down the stretch -- road trips to play the undefeated New Orleans Saints and Redskins sandwiched between home dates with the San Diego Chargers (9-3) and Philadelphia Eagles (8-4) -- is the most demanding of any NFC playoff contender.
The Cowboys have their work cut out for them to make the playoffs, which will probably require 10 wins. For that to happen, they'll have to overcome their December/January demons, whether they're real or the media myth Phillips and many other key figures in the franchise think they are.
"The time's now. It really is, for everybody," tight end Jason Witten said. "That urgency has to be there. You can't talk about it, because the record is what it says it is. But we can't buy into that and we know that."
There is a different feel in the Valley Ranch locker room than last December.
There aren't as many egos or off-field distractions, thanks to an offseason cleansing of the roster. There isn't much finger-pointing, other than kicker Nick Folk blaming punter/admittedly struggling holder Mat McBriar for his sudden rash of inaccuracy. There isn't concern about the Cowboys tearing apart for the second consecutive season, regardless of the head coach's soft reputation.
"Wade was talking about sticking together," said linebacker Bradie James, who has been vocal about the Cowboys accepting the challenge of ending the franchise's December woes that have lasted as long as the 13-year playoff win drought. "We will stay together. We've just got to play well together."
If that doesn't happen, it'll be three strikes for Phillips, probably prompting owner/general manager Jerry Jones to search for a coach who can win in the season's most important months.
Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.