Commentary

Jones: Cowboys have learned from hex

December struggles offer several excuses, but solutions must start against Giants

Updated: December 2, 2009, 4:52 PM ET
By Calvin Watkins | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- December is the monster under the Dallas Cowboys' bed.

It's the bogeyman in the closet.

Like a kid using a night light because he's afraid of the dark, Dallas has all sorts of excuses as to why it hasn't posted a winning record in December since 1996.

The Cowboys' first game in the biggest month of coach Wade Phillips' tenure is Sunday at the New York Giants. He's in the last year of a three-year contract, and if he wants a team option picked up for 2010, or an extension, his team must solve its December woes.

Dallas is 19-34 in December/January since 1997. The mark spans five different head coaches, and in the last two seasons the Cowboys have been outscored 182-123 in December.

Finishing well late in the season can push a team to clinch a playoff berth or make a deep playoff run.

The last time the Cowboys finished with a winning mark in December/January was in 1996 under Barry Switzer. His team went 2-1 and won a playoff game, knocking off the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC wild-card round.

That, incidentally, is the last time the Cowboys won a playoff game.

Even the man who finished December 5-0 in 1993, the season the Cowboys won a Super Bowl, doesn't have a clue as to why Dallas can't win late in the year.

"I don't know," Jimmy Johnson said last week. "I think a lot of things enter into it. I don't know if you can blanket a team from one team to the next. I think every year is different. You have injuries, you have different opponents, I don't know if you can say, 'Well a team does win in December or doesn't win in December.' Depends on a particular team and the opponents."

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones believes this 2009 team is different. For one, it holds a one-game lead over the Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the NFC East, and that has given it confidence.

The distractions of last year -- Terrell Owens fighting with Tony Romo, Pacman Jones' and Tank Johnson's antics in the locker room and Greg Ellis' bickering about playing time -- are gone.

From the opening day of training camp, the Cowboys players talked about putting petty things aside and worrying about business on the field.

Miles Austin didn't complain when Romo wouldn't admit he threw a bad pass his way leading to an interception in a loss at Denver. Tashard Choice hasn't complained about his lack of carries when Marion Barber and Felix Jones kept playing through injuries. DeMarcus Ware didn't say he wasn't getting any sacks early in the season because Anthony Spencer was not putting pressure on the quarterback.

Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick kept working hard when Phillips said the starting cornerback job was up for grabs. It was eventually won by Jenkins.

Patrick Watkins, with more experience, didn't voice any concerns in public when the team elected to start Alan Ball over him at free safety with Ken Hamlin hurt.

The mini-controversies, if you will, came when Terence Newman pushed secondary coach Dave Campo on the sidelines during a game and when Roy Williams said he wasn't getting good throws from Romo.

"You can get caught up, just with expectations and what people might want to talk about," Romo said. "This is a reality show every week, it's a new story that gets written every time, and if you want to get caught up in that, you can."

Learning from the past helps.

Inside linebacker Bradie James said the 2-3 December mark in 2006 was a result of the team's fatigue under former coach Bill Parcells. Phillips gave the team Mondays off following victories in late October to keep them fresh.

Romo said injuries toward the end of the 2007 season, in which the team was 2-2 in December, led to issues. The Cowboys have used more players, such as Stephen Bowen and Junior Siavii at defensive tackle, Scandrick as a third corner, John Phillips as the third tight end and Doug Free as an adequate backup with starting right tackle Marc Colombo out for the rest of the regular season because of leg injuries.

"I tell you this, I feel like we've been forewarned by what happened to us last year and what happened to us [in the past], and that's the whole point," Jones said. "Let's learn by the events of the last two seasons and have a little focus and work on that, and I think that's what everybody agrees [on]. That's the attitude to have."

There is no clear answer as to why the Cowboys have late struggles.

You can talk about the schedule and the type of team they've had in the past. The reality show that Romo likes to talk about is controlling how you do things on the field and not worrying about everybody else.

"I couldn't tell you to be honest," Ware said. "At the end of the day, I think you have to play some good defense in the latter part of the season, we have to."

Said Patrick Crayton: "Man, I don't know. But that's the month where we're judged around here."

The Cowboys have no choice but to fix this. Romo is 15-2 in November but 5-8 in December, the only month in which he has a record below .500.

"I would say December, if history tells you it's been bad, I'm sure it has been," said Romo, who noted the team has to finish strong. "It's one of those things too if you're playing different teams in December, it plays a role. You've got to beat them. You've got to beat them anyway to accomplish your goals.

"For us, I know it will be something people want to talk about and will be there, but December, November, September, October, it's all the same to us. And I know that may not be whatever that is to certain people but it's all about improving each time you're out there and if you do that consistently, December will take care of itself."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com.

Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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