- Calvin Watkins, ESPN Staff Writer
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Some say being named to the Pro Bowl isn't a big deal anymore.
Being selected to the All-Pro team is more prestigious, but the nine players who are going to Saturday's Pro Bowl represent progress for the Cowboys.
The two best examples of this progress are first-timers in Wade Phillips, who will coach the NFC team, and wide receiver Miles Austin.
Phillips won his first playoff game in his head coaching career this season, and in the process ended a decade-long playoff drought for the Cowboys.
With no contract guarantee beyond this season, Phillips coached as a potential lame duck. But he didn't let that worry him, and his team responded. The Cowboys overcame a two-game losing streak in December to run off three consecutive wins heading into the postseason. They closed the regular season with consecutive shutouts, something that hadn't been accomplished in franchise history.
With about five weeks left in the season, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said he wanted a home playoff game and a playoff victory. He felt if those things occurred Phillips would retain his job.
Phillips delivered, and Jones responded with a new two-year contract for his coach.
"I really want to be with this team because they're a special group, and I think we've got more to do," Phillips said to reporters at the Pro Bowl this week. "I'm happy about being back, obviously."
And with Phillips coming back, expectations have risen. With two NFC East titles and a playoff win in his three seasons, Phillips knows goals are much higher now.
"I think we've got a great base," he said. "We're winning, which is the big thing. We've got to win some more. We all know that, and we're going to work hard in the offseason. We're going to change some things that need changing and go forward from there."
Austin provided the offense with a needed boost when Roy Williams struggled.
Despite not becoming the starter until Week 5, Austin led the NFC in receiving yards (1,320). In his first start, he set a franchise record with a 250-yard outburst versus Kansas City.
The fourth-year pro, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Monmouth University, used his ability to break tackles and make first downs to become a valuable asset for quarterback Tony Romo.
"I'm excited for him and I'm excited to see his progression," Romo said. "He just needs to keep going and keep working. He's got a great future ahead of him. He was raw a few years back, but he was getting better and better each year. It was just a matter of opportunity for him. When he got it, he grabbed it."
The 2009 season was an important one for Romo in terms of his development. Yes, he reached the Pro Bowl in 2006 and '07. But he didn't in '08, when he compiled his lowest quarterback rating as a starter (91.4) and saw his completion percentage drop to a career-low 61.3.
While he was a second alternate this year behind the Eagles' Donovan McNabb, Romo had one of his best seasons in 2009.
He set career highs in passing yards (4,483) and quarterback rating (97.6) and threw a career-low nine interceptions. He had a career-best streak of 143 pass attempts without an interception.
Jones said Romo is headed in the right direction and isn't worried about him so much. Nor is he worried about cornerback Mike Jenkins, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth in only his second year in the league.
Jenkins won the starting job in early September, beating out Orlando Scandrick, and didn't disappoint.
He led the team with five interceptions and 23 passes defensed. Jenkins gives Jones and Phillips the ability to feel confident that they have another player moving forward in his career.
So along with Pro Bowl teammates Jason Witten, Leonard Davis, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Andre Gurode, the selections of Austin, Romo and Jenkins show that the Cowboys have not only depth, but a future.
2dEric D. Williams
2dMel Kiper Jr.