- Ed Werder, ESPN NFL Insider
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The Dallas Cowboys are perpetually overrated and incompetently coached. Those are among the conclusions that critics have reached after a season-opening loss in which the Cowboys admittedly seem to have performed as though it were their sixth preseason game.
The ensuing panic is typical, although perhaps heightened because of the unthinkable form that accompanied this peculiar defeat. The far more talented Cowboys lost to the Washington Redskins because they allowed a defensive touchdown with no time left on the clock in the first half and then had a potential winning touchdown pass nullified by a holding penalty with no time left on the clock at the end of the game.
It was a series of mindless decisions transformed into a single defeat that was wholly unnecessary and has substantially increased the pressure on the Cowboys for Sunday's home game against the Chicago Bears.
Not to be a total contrarian, but I happen to believe the Cowboys will win at some point this season, probably against the Bears -- not that I think Kyle Kosier and Marc Colombo are that important. But the fact is that Tony Romo averaged nearly 36 points per game in three previous season openers -- all of which the Cowboys won. But on Sunday night, his side of the ball produced a mere six points -- and those came after a defensive stop and a shanked punt.
Following an uninspiring preseason with that performance is disconcerting, to be sure.
What seems to have arched eyebrows and inspired even more worry is the indefensible decision just before halftime. The Cowboys' coaching staff made a strategy decision that put its players in position to fail in such a way that it inspired memorable names and inglorious moments, notably Barry Switzer and Leon Lett.
Wade Phillips has apologized. Jason Garrett has accepted the blame. It was hard-earned and well-deserved.
It was inexcusable that Phillips was not mentally into the game on the final play of the half, as though he -- like Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco -- had left the sideline and gone to the locker room prematurely. And Garrett called a play that had zero chance of succeeding when he asked Romo to take a snap from the Cowboys' 36 and throw a Hail Mary into the far end zone.
The sequence of events has created the question of exactly who is in charge of what, and the various inquiries have served only to reveal what some have described as a systemic issue the Cowboys will never overcome: The possibility that Phillips and Garrett get along behind the scenes much like Romo and T.O. did.
The Cowboys have a unified locker room. But it seems there might be unavoidable chemistry and trust issues in the coaching offices because of the unique hierarchy created by Jerry Jones. He has a long-standing preference for forcing his head coaches to accept holdover assistants who were hired by their predecessors and loyal mostly to the owner. Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells were mostly spared this inconvenience.
It is a circumstance that is basically unfair to both Phillips and Garrett and could interfere with the Cowboys meeting expectations. It should be pointed out that while it is not an ideal system, Phillips and Garrett have worked together to win two NFC East titles and get the Cowboys' first postseason triumph in 12 years.
Here's how it reached this point. Before Parcells left, Jones decided that Garrett might be the next Dallas head coach and planned to return him to the organization to learn under Parcells for a year. But Parcells unexpectedly retired, disrupting Jones' time frame and his planned line of succession.
While he admired Garrett, Jones was not convinced he was prepared to be a head coach since he had never even called offensive plays. But Jones was under a deadline by the Miami Dolphins to decide Garrett's future, and so the Cowboys hired him to an undetermined position and then set about interviewing prospective head coaches. With Garrett now at Valley Ranch, Jones decided the ideal situation was to pair him with an experienced head coach with a defensive orientation so that the Cowboys could realize more benefit from all the high draft picks and big money invested on that side of the ball.
That is how Phillips and Garrett were thrown together. This week's opponents, the Bears, bring to JerryWorld their own unique chain of command. Coach Lovie Smith was once the defensive coordinator with the Rams under current Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Now the roles are reversed. But at least they worked together previously and, in fact, won a Super Bowl together on Dick Vermeil's staff in 2000.
Phillips knows that he has been perilously close to being fired twice already, understands that Garrett makes nearly the same money, and that Jones has frequently mentioned Garrett as a prospective candidate the next time the Cowboys' head-coaching job is vacant.
It is understandable with his own fate in jeopardy that Phillips would want an offensive coordinator with whom he's familiar and shares a philosophy. Following the 2008 season, Phillips showed his lack of faith in Garrett when he introduced to Jones the concept of hiring his own former mentor in Dan Reeves to supervise the offense since Phillips was too busy organizing the defense to be in those meetings.
Reeves and Jones eventually failed to reach agreement on a contract, and so Garrett was spared a diminished role. It is doubtful he could ever forgive Phillips, who was likely equally displeased that Jones was unable to finalize the deal with Reeves.
Given this dynamic, one of my first thoughts when Phillips took the blame for the halftime call in Washington was whether the head coach was using the error to create an opportunity to exert more regular influence over the offensive play-calling.
Garrett surely erred on his final call of the first half. It was curious that executing his game plan, Romo threw more passes to rookie Dez Bryant than he directed to Miles Austin, the most dominant player on the field. But Garrett is usually among the most capable play-callers and let's not diminish his role in developing talent, including that of Romo and Austin, two former undrafted free agents who are among the league's super-rich.
I have not seen the contracts Phillips and Garrett have with Jones, so I cannot definitively reveal where each man's authority begins and ends. While Garrett seems to have near complete autonomy, it seems logical that Phillips possesses some control over the general management of the game.
Eventually, somebody on the sideline has to be in charge.
It was noteworthy that Phillips and Garrett both took responsibility and admitted their mistake.
It would be far more beneficial to the Cowboys going forward if, instead of making and admitting mistakes, the coaches in charge could simply avoid making them altogether.
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.
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