Commentary

Camp Confidential: Cowboys' Phillips stays cool on hot seat

If Cowboys coach Wade Phillips is feeling the pressure after last season's playoff disappointment, he isn't showing it, Matt Mosley writes.

Originally Published: July 30, 2008
By Matt Mosley | ESPN.com

Wade PhillipsWesley Hitt/Getty ImagesWith high-priced assistant Jason Garrett waiting in the wings and a roster full of Pro Bowlers, the pressure is on Wade Phillips to win now.

OXNARD, Calif. -- It's not often that a coach goes 13-3, sends 13 players to the Pro Bowl and begins the next season firmly on the hot seat. But that's exactly where Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips sits after his team's divisional playoff loss to the New York Giants in January and the $3 million retainer fee that owner Jerry Jones paid offensive coordinator Jason Garrett.

It took one day of training camp for local columnists to write that there was nothing Phillips could do to save his job. According to their theories, even a Super Bowl appearance wouldn't do the trick because then the Cowboys certainly would risk losing Garrett's services.

Ever since the loss to the Giants, the media have been begging Phillips to display anger and take full responsibility for what happened. But he hasn't taken the bait.

"The blame goes on me anyway. I was stupid last year," he said sarcastically. "I balk when people try to ask a question that they already know the answer they want. I did the best I could do. If a coach is hard-nosed, he'll be labeled as too tough on players. If he's not tough enough, then people complain, too."

Phillips said he definitely would have said something if he felt he could have done better in that loss, but he thought he had put his team in the best situation to succeed.

Now as expectations soar once again, you have to wonder whether Phillips is in a no-win situation.

Key questions


Could this be former first-round pick Roy Williams' last year with the Cowboys?

Once among the most-feared players in football, Williams has become an enigma on this team. He flourished under the guidance of former free safety Darren Woodson, but he hasn't been the same since Woodson retired in 2004. He has become a lightning rod for fans and for the media, and caused a lot of drama this past offseason. He went on a local radio show and talked about his fear of one-on-one coverage, then veteran teammate Greg Ellis publicly wondered why Williams was working out at 6 a.m. and avoiding his teammates. It didn't help that another teammate, cornerback Terence Newman, went on a local TV show and talked about how Williams had a "deer-in-the-headlights look" when he was in coverage.

When defensive coordinator Brian Stewart finally had heard enough, he summoned Williams to Valley Ranch for a meeting to clear the air. Williams, not known for his thick skin, had been reading reports that he could be cut in training camp. Stewart says that nothing is further from the truth and that Williams will play a large role in the defense.

"I had to let him know that I didn't want his first child," Stewart said Tuesday. "I just need him to play within our system. He looks great, and he's doing exactly what we wanted him to do."

There was the perception among members of the organization that Williams didn't always do what he was told because he didn't have any fear of being replaced. Owner Jerry Jones had basically instructed Phillips to make Williams a dominant player again. Now, the approach has changed. The Cowboys want the best 11 players on the field, and in certain passing situations, that won't include Williams. This year, Dallas hopes to use cornerback Anthony Henry on some of the top tight ends.

The Cowboys are admitting that players such as Chris Cooley and Jeremy Shockey have been Williams' kryptonite, and they're going to limit his exposure to one-on-one situations.

So will Williams be back in 2009? It's certainly not guaranteed. And that's a pretty big change in philosophy for Jones.

How will the Cowboys deploy Marion Barber and Felix Jones?

[+] EnlargeMarion Barber
James D. Smith/Icon SMIThe Cowboys are hoping to give running back Marion Barber 15 to 18 carries a game.
Dallas gave Barber a lucrative extension and took Jones with the 22nd pick overall in the draft. Barber's punishing style is what defines him, but the Cowboys don't want to ask him to carry the ball 20 times per game. They hope to use Barber and Jones the way Sean Payton used Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush in the Saints' playoff run two seasons ago. They've devised plays in which the backs line up together and Jones goes in motion to the slot or to the outside. The main purpose is to put elusive Jones in space and let him use his speed.

In a perfect world, Barber would carry the ball 15 to 18 times and Jones 10. The Cowboys would like to get Jones at least 12 to 15 touches per game. Right now, they're trying to figure out whether Jones can pick up blitzes. He's definitely a willing blocker, but at 6 feet, 212 pounds (very generous), he doesn't need to be in those situations much. At Arkansas, Jones didn't catch many passes, but he has shown nice hands so far in camp.

Can Tony Romo win a playoff game?

Romo was superb in big regular-season games against the Chicago Bears (at the time), the Giants and the Green Bay Packers. He loves the big stage, but he desperately needs to get the playoff monkey off his back. Like it or not, the Cabo trip with Jessica Simpson and family will follow him around until he knocks down the door in the playoffs.

His teammates and coaches aren't concerned about his "celebrity quarterback" status, which is something former coach Bill Parcells told him to avoid at all costs. When reminded of Parcells' golden rule, Romo laughed and said the rule was instituted before camera phones became available.

For better or worse, Romo has never cared about the perception people have of him, and he doesn't apologize for how he conducts his business off the field. On the field, teammates and coaches know that he works harder than anyone. He's the player who sets the tone in the locker room with his charismatic nature, and everyone follows. He and Garrett have a great relationship, and this season, Garrett has felt comfortable adding several new wrinkles to the passing game. (Hint: The skinny post to T.O. will have a few variations.)

Market watch


Cowboys fans will have their eyes on cornerback Henry and defensive end Marcus Spears this season. Spears, a former first-round draft pick who has been somewhat of a disappointment, has two years left on his contract. Sort of under the radar, former Grambling defensive end Jason Hatcher is starting to challenge for Spears' starting spot.

Spears is a solid run defender who actually makes more plays behind the line of scrimmage than people realize, but he's not a difference-maker in the pass rush. Phillips' defense had 62 sacks in his last year in San Diego, and he covets those types of numbers in Dallas. The Cowboys already take Spears off the field in the nickel defense. He might start to see more time inside.

Henry is one of those players who sort of limps around but always seems to find the ball. Despite a nagging injury, he had six interceptions last season. Most believe that Adam Jones eventually will take his job, but you can't find any Cowboys coaches who will say that. Henry is a versatile player who might spend the last few years of his career at safety. But don't put him there yet. Coaches have said there's no way Jones will beat him out at starting corner in camp.

Newcomer to watch


Adam Jones and linebacker Zach Thomas have a chance to make the most immediate impacts. Thomas isn't showing any ill effects from the concussions that ended his 2007 season in Miami. He has changed from No. 54 to No. 55, but his aggressive style is still the same. The Cowboys' coaches chart who has the most tackles (bumps) in each training camp practice, and Thomas is the leader by far. He looks fast, and it hasn't taken him long to figure out his role in the Phillips 3-4. He and Bradie James will be competing to see who gets the most tackles.

Jones is obviously the talk of camp. He does something memorable almost every practice -- even if it's getting burned deep by T.O. The other day, Jerry Jones was bragging about his new cornerback's ability to field six punts. That's right, he caught six consecutive punts without ever putting one of the balls down.

"I've seen five before," said the owner, never short on hyperbole. "But I've never seen six."

Observation deck


This offensive line came together under current Miami Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, but it has really taken to new offensive line coach Hudson Houck. Pro Bowl center Andre Gurode, a huge Sparano supporter, said that Houck is more laid-back than Sparano. Gurode also said he could barely talk to anyone for three weeks after the playoff loss to the Giants because, "I just kept asking myself what I could've done differently." One other offensive line note: Flozell Adams made weight for the second consecutive training camp, a record for him. … The only positive thing to come out of Terence Newman's groin injury (out three weeks) is the opportunity for the Cowboys to get a closer look at several young players. Cornerback has become a position of strength for the team after it almost held Dallas hostage last season. First-round pick Mike Jenkins could make an immediate impact, but young players such as Orlando Scandrick and Alan Ball also are having strong camps. The toughest decisions will come at this position. … Phillips said he's leaning toward keeping Brad Johnson as the primary backup to Romo. He loves the fact that Johnson has led a team to a Super Bowl and thinks people make too much of his lack of arm strength.

Matt Mosley covers the NFL for ESPN.com.