Commentary

Players also should have to earn keep

Updated: January 21, 2010, 9:43 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones, as he bluntly put it, cut through the B.S. when discussing his head coach's two-year contract extension.

Wade Phillips has job security in the sense that Jones has guaranteed him two more years of seven-figure salaries. However, if the Dallas Cowboys fall apart next season, Phillips will probably get his paychecks mailed to him instead of picking them up at Valley Ranch.

Hey, it's a bottom-line business, as Phillips' father, Bum, once famously pointed out in his own folksy manner.

"Because we all know the paper doesn't stand in the way if for whatever reason that you don't have the kind of success and the uptick is going on," Jones said after announcing Phillips' new deal Thursday. "We know that. You've seen that here. The real world is how it's working."

It's time to introduce the real world to the Cowboys' roster.

Jones obviously believes that pressure motivates people. He made that clear by signing Phillips to a short-term deal and pointing out that it's easy to get rid of the guy if he doesn't get the job done. And Jones definitely believes the Cowboys have the talent to win championships, as does Phillips.

The key to the Cowboys approaching their Super Bowl goal is to pass that message on to the players, especially those who are overpaid. Make it simple: Produce or ride pine.

Ideally, that message would come from the head coach, not the owner. Either one would work for the Cowboys, considering the bizarre flow chart around these parts.

"That's always gonna happen in football, no matter what," Phillips said with a straight face. "I'm going to put the best players out there. I think that's what's best for our football team, and Jerry agrees with that. We've got to get our best players out there to help us win."

Really? Then why did Roy Williams keep his starting role this season? How about Marion Barber?

It can't just be coincidence that Jerry gave those two guys $45 million contracts within the last couple of years.

[+] EnlargeRoy E. Williams
AP Photo/Jack DempseyCoach Wade Phillips blamed himself for the lack of production by receiver Roy Williams.

Patrick Crayton came within a catch of matching Williams' total and had 24 more yards despite being targeted 19 fewer times. Felix Jones and Tashard Choice both had per-carry averages more than a yard better than Barber, who limped a lot for the second straight season because of various leg injuries.

Yet Phillips consistently dismissed the thought of either of those players losing his starting job.

Heck, Phillips went so far as to blame himself for Williams' paltry production. Never mind that Phillips, who doubles as defensive coordinator, might as well have country music piped into his headset when it comes to contributing to the offensive play calling.

"I'm disappointed more in myself than I am with him," Phillips said. "We've got to -- I've got to -- find a way to help him get better within the whole scheme."

Terrell Owens and Miles Austin have had Pro Bowl seasons in the same scheme, with the same offensive coordinator, with the same quarterback. Stop making excuses for Williams, who ranked among the league leaders in drops. Start making him earn his playing time.

Jones, who would be admitting a colossal failure as a general manager if he didn't publicly support Williams, stated that the receiver earned his starting role by showing up a couple of weeks early for voluntary offseason workouts. Never has a player with a reputation for laziness been patted on the back so much for his work ethic.

The Cowboys have seen the benefits of healthy competition. Orlando Scandrick's presence helped push second-year cornerback Mike Jenkins into his emergence as a star.

That should be a common theme at Valley Ranch this offseason and the Alamodome during training camp. The No. 2 receiver role should be wide open, with Williams battling to win the job over Crayton, Kevin Ogletree and perhaps a rookie draft pick. At running back, it's Felix Jones who ought to have the lead to be the starter, with Barber and Choice competing to be the complementary back. Alan Ball (or a rookie) ought to be given a legitimate opportunity to unseat Ken Hamlin at free safety. Offensive tackles Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo ought to have to fight off Doug Free (and maybe a first-round pick) to remain starters. And so on.

Who cares if the millionaires get mad? They'll be motivated. So will the men trying to claim those jobs.

Phillips vowed to get tougher after the embarrassing finish to the 2008 season and followed through on his word. After the front office cleaned out the locker room, Phillips upped the fine total for infractions of team rules and demanded more accountability.

He can take the next step using playing time, which is the only thing NFL players care about as much as money.

Jerry Jones forced Phillips to earn the right to represent the Cowboys and will continue to do so. There's no reason the players, particularly those paid more than their head coach, shouldn't be held to the same high standards.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.

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