Cowboys face bittersweet start in $1.1B palace

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

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Dallas will play its first regular-season game at the new Cowboys Stadium on Sept. 20 against the New York Giants.
(Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

ARLINGTON, Texas – Jerry Jones had the best seat in the house – not surprising, given that he spent $1.1 billion to build the joint, effectively securing the mother of all personal seat licenses – as he peered out at the shiny, spectacular stadium that will soon house the NFL's most polarizing team.

The owner of the Dallas Cowboys couldn't be prouder of his brand-spanking-new facility, and with good reason. Don't buy into the hype that Cowboys Stadium is the most impressive place where football will be played in America, for that doesn't come close to doing it justice.

It is, quite simply, the finest athletic venue in the world, the new millennium's answer to the Roman Colosseum.

Last Tuesday afternoon, as Jones, from his perch in the club seats above the 50-yard-line, stared down at a wooden stage being prepared for a Jonas Brothers concert later that night while sipping an iced tea from a tall, thin glass, he by all rights should have been flashing a Texas-sized grin. However, in one of those cruel cosmic twists that seems to have been conceived by a formulaic Hollywood screenwriter, the owner and everyone in his organization are beset by a bittersweet sadness.

As the Cowboys prepare to move into the Taj Mahal of stadiums, they're conducting offseason practices at a local high school venue after last month's chilling collapse of their indoor practice facility. Twelve people were injured in the scary incident, brought on by a storm with winds of up to 64 miles per hour. Most brutally, 33-year-old scouting assistant Rich Behm's spinal cord was severed, and he was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

Last Monday Behm lifted spirits when he showed up to watch a pair of minicamp practices at Standridge Stadium in Carrollton. It's heartening to see the father of three young kids back at work so quickly, but his wheelchair serves as a constant reminder to Jones and his employees that this is not a time for unmitigated joy.

"If it weren't for the obvious – the injuries to our people, and especially [to Behm] – we'd be focused on the new stadium and the excitement surrounding it," Jones said. "We just absolutely have not tied the two [events] together in any way. But it's very sobering. I'm so happy he's alive, but the empathy you have for his entire family is about as deep as you could think about."

Jones has been advised by lawyers not to get into specifics regarding the accident, but the way he chokes up when discussing it is an indication that he's affected on an emotional level. While it's unclear whether the team will end up having any culpability, I'd bet a lot of money that Jones will make sure Behm is taken care of financially and professionally for the rest of his life.

From that nauseating moment when Bob Costas delivered the news of the accident to Jones on the Churchill Downs infield – the NBC announcer was minutes away from conducting a live interview with the owner on the network's Kentucky Derby broadcast to hype the Sept. 20 Cowboys-Giants Sunday Night Football telecast, the first regular-season game at the new stadium – the chief Cowboy's world has been marked by a sense of upheaval. The rest of Derby Day was a blur: Jones left Churchill seconds after Mine That Bird crossed the finish line, got special clearance to take off immediately for Dallas in his nearby private jet and went straight to the team's Valley Ranch training facility to commence the healing process.

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Owner Jerry Jones, participating in the stadium’s ribbon-cutting ceremony in May, gets emotional when talking about the injury suffered by scouting assistant Rich Behm.
(M Matt Slocum/AP Photo)

Amid the trauma, there were moments of inspiration. At the time of the collapse, 27 players were inside the facility for a rookie minicamp, along with roughly 45 others (coaches, various team staffers and their relatives, and some media members). Even amid the confusion, many of the people affected risked further harm to search for victims and to help one another escape.

After exiting the fallen bubble, players and coaches, including head coach Wade Phillips, ran back in to try to help those who might still be inside. Dallas Morning News beat writer Todd Archer, who was trapped under a door frame, escaped after defensive back DeAngelo Smith(notes) and linebacker Brandon Williams managed to lift it a few inches upward.

In a football sense, the Cowboys' 2008 season ended in relative turmoil. A team that had been a trendy Super Bowl pick going into the season lost three of its last four games, the last by 38 points to a division rival, and missed the playoffs entirely. The prime deficiency seemed to be an alarming lack of chemistry, all of which played a role in Jones' decision to cut controversial wideout Terrell Owens(notes) in early March.

I'm not suggesting that a horrible incident like the bubble collapse, and the bonds forged by the way people rallied around one another in its aftermath, could cure a reeling team's dysfunction. That would be an oversimplification, and an insensitive way of viewing an event that left a young father permanently disabled.

However, I've been around football long enough to recognize that shared sacrifice can translate into feelings of togetherness and trust that seem to manifest on the field. Because it is such an emotional game, one which essentially requires its most committed participants to put themselves in rationally dubious physical positions, motivation tends to spring from poignant sources.

One example: Before the 2001 AFC championship game, Jerome Bettis and numerous other members of the Steelers told me of how their visit to Somerset, Pa. for a prayer service honoring Flight 93 victims a few days after Sept. 11 had served as a bonding experience that, they felt, fueled the team's success.

Obviously, there are other examples of teams that haven't prospered after their exposure to tragedy, and Dallas could well end up being one of them. Still, if the Cowboys were looking for an excuse to forge an "us against the world" mentality, the displacement caused by the building's collapse might have provided it. Because the bubble's debris scattered across the team's outdoor practice field at Valley Ranch, the Cowboys have bused to and from the high school stadium for the last several months and don't plan to start practicing at their facility until after training camp.

"We've had to go through a little bit of adversity here," quarterback Tony Romo(notes) said after last Tuesday's minicamp practice in Carrollton. "Having to bus out here every day, it's kind of like we're in high school again. But it's good for us. It has forced us to hang together and focus in on ourselves as a unit and realize that it's all about us, and nothing else."

It's a strange prospect: A group of players and coaches attempting to fixate on their internal challenges while so many of us on the outside poke and prod in search of every potential flaw. Remember, this is still 'America's Team,' and while that decades-old tag is surely an exaggeration of the franchise's large-scale appeal, there's no denying that this is an organization flush with glitz, from the star on the helmet to the one dating the quarterback.

Moving into the grandest, newest, most luxurious stadium in the land only adds to the Cowboys' sheen. When Jones gave me a personal tour of the facility last week, the pride in his voice was palpable, and with good reason. He could have shaved hundreds of millions off the building's $1.1-billion tab but chose not to scrimp, and the resulting touches will make his customers very, very happy.

There are three levels of expansive, plaza-like areas pushing back from each end zone in which fans can congregate in front of portable bars in Heinz Field-like droves while looking up at one of the four high-resolution video boards, all of which will feature separately filmed views of the game from the appropriate angle. The building is buffered by twin steel arches, each larger than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, and the retractable roof is the exact same size as the iconic opening in soon-to-be-demolished Texas Stadium. The glass end-zone doors are retractable, too, opening to form virtual parks where live entertainment will continue during the game for fans that don't have tickets but still want to be part of the party.

The stadium is even resplendent on the outside: A frit treatment was applied to the rectangular glass panels to create a reflective sheen that changes with the weather.

"When it's cloudy outside, it looks silver," Jones explained. "When it's clear, the sky is reflected, and you see a royal blue. Those are our team colors. You couldn't do that for the Green Bay Packers."

Jones smiled, gesturing to the field below. It is there that, in a couple of months, the 2009 Cowboys will emerge from an emotional offseason and begin to define themselves for all to see, without any tricks of the light to impact anyone's perception.

Only then will Jones decide whether the best seat in the house is a blessing or a curse.

TRIPPIN’ ON E(MAIL)

Silver, great article! From a die-hard Cowboy fan's point of view, this is the best coverage of this story yet. Hopefully, people will finally understand why and how this happened and how the Cowboys will be better without T.O.'s production. Thank you.

Thomas Dettloff
Grapevine, Texas

That's the plan, anyway. Personally, I'm not sold that T.O.'s production will be so easy to replace, but it'll be fun to watch them try. Note to Roy Williams: This might be a good time for you to start fulfilling your immense promise. Now, regarding my coverage, as I hinted a week ago and again on Friday, there's a new, cutting-edge way to keep tabs on the NFL in real-time: Come join the "Silver Channel" and sample the other compelling offerings on Mogotxt, where I'll be checking in at least twice daily for the foreseeable future. The NFL page launches Tuesday, and you'll be pleased to see that a certain former Buffalo Bills receiver has joined the party, too. Before long all the beautiful people will be there, and we'll all be a few finger-taps on the mobile-device keyboard away.


Good article Mike. As much as I dislike your "dislike" for the Eagles, I dislike Owens even more. The whole situation with Owens and Dallas was so déjà vù regarding the Eagles and 2005.

David Tomar
Hobbs, N.M.

OK, for the record: I DO NOT DISLIKE THE EAGLES. I simply wasn't as convinced of their excellence last season as many of their fans (and some non-fans) were, especially after games like the tie in Cincinnati and the listless December defeat in Washington. And then the Eagles proved me wrong, and I had fun writing about them in the playoffs and in the very exciting NFC championship game. That said … Next question.


Want people to read your article, start talking about T.O, right? Amazing he is not even in Dallas and now you are writing about the reason for T.O's exit … no other news, huh? Seriously, lets move on man … Write about him that relates to his current team. I personally think you guys (media) just love hating on him though …

Muk
Baltimore

The purpose of this article was not to hate on T.O. but to explore the real reasoning behind one of the NFL's most significant and highest-profile offseason transactions. So, while I appreciate your advice on news judgment, let's make this clear: You're Muk, I'm the Muckraker. Thank you.


That was great insight on what probably was a pivotal decision in the Cowboys' future. How do you feel the changes made on the defensive side will affect the team that seemed to tire out down the stretch?

Michael
Boaz, Ala.

I think one key change will be that coach Wade Phillips is now doubling as the defensive coordinator. On one hand, he might find this overwhelming. More likely, I believe, he'll reenter the same kind of comfort zone he did as the popular coordinator of the Falcons' and Chargers' defenses in recent years, and he'll field a loose, aggressive unit that enjoys his guileless approach. I think that, in the end, this could give the Cowboys' defense a decent boost.


Hey look you guys can sit and talk about T.O. is this and that in the locker room but the game is played on the field … as far as Romo goes in my opinion he will always be an average QB … his decision making sucks, he holds the ball too long … that is why he gets sacked a lot. He had other wideouts he could have thrown to but he ate the football. There is no way Jerry or his Son could blame all of that on T.O.

Al Williams
Long Beach, Calif.

I don't believe that Jerry and Stephen Jones are blaming the team's deficiencies in '08 on Owens. Rather, I think they came to view getting rid of the receiver as the most logical and least messy way to address the overall problem, while (they hope) enabling Romo to become a more influential leader. While I disagree with you about Romo's abilities and potential, he's definitely under a lot of pressure to deliver.


Mr. Silver, Why do you continue to harp on the negative concerning the Cowboys? How about a story about the good? For example … … … Well, OK, I'll get back to you on that.

Dan Rodriguez
McKinney, Texas

Scarily, this was a team that finished with a winning record last season. (Wait, what's that I hear in my earpiece? Oh, right, the Cowboys had a chance to make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season and lost … 44-6. Forty-four to six!) Scratch that, I completely hear what you're saying.


In Friday's Take it to the ATM, you wrote "The NFL will waive its provision against cross-ownership of teams in competing markets to allow minority owner Stan Kroenke to purchase a controlling interest in the St. Louis Rams." Is it too much to hope that the NFL not waive the cross-ownership provision, thus paving the way for Chip Rosenbloom to sell his 60% of the team to someone else – say, Ed Roski?

GB
Los Angeles

Like you, I'd be excited about a legitimate buyer who could return the NFL to L.A. after all these years. (The Rams wouldn't necessarily be my first choice, but it would obviously make some sense given their history.) However, I believe the league will try to ensure that St. Louis doesn't lose its team, and here's one reason why: For all the talk about wanting to fill the L.A. void, I think NFL owners LIKE having a vacancy in the nation's second-largest market. That's because every time a franchise wants a new or upgraded stadium in its current locale – often with outright public assistance or, at the very least, considerations from voters and lawmakers that improve the financial terms – the team's owner can explicitly or implicitly threaten to move to Los Angeles, and it seems entirely believable. Once the L.A. market is filled, that blackmail option won't be as viable. Not that I'm cynical or anything.


Silver, The best ice cream in America is it at Icy in Berkeley, CA. Plus they have the best homemade cones on the Planet. If you haven't tried it you are really missing out."

Paul Choi
Mountain View, Calif.

Surprisingly, I haven't tried it. I definitely will, and soon. But I really have a hard time believing it can compete with McConnell's.


Hey Michael. Visit Cincinnati, Ohio and try out our city's pride and joy, Graeter's Ice Cream. You may change your mind about O'Connell's. In fact, get a hold of me and your first double scoop cone is on me!

Joe
Cincinnati

Now you're talking – I've heard the Graeter's hype for many years, and from some pretty good sources. The next time I cover the Bengals, I'm all over it. (Note to self: Pack pants with elastic waistband for trip to the 'Nati.)


Michael, sorry, bud, you're wrong. Everyone knows Andy Roddick is contracted as the Stiffler stand in.

TJ Jones
Glendale, Calif.

Until you've seen Kris Brown(notes) in person, you should withhold judgment. Put it this way: When my then-SI colleague Josh Elliott introduced me to him at Chuy's in Houston a few days before Super Bowl XXXVIII, I immediately asked the waiter for a new glass in which to pour my Dos Equis.


Mike, to be honest, I'm just not sure who is to blame on the Brandon Marshall(notes) situation. Granted, both Marshall and Cutler have done things to exacerbate their situations with McDaniels. But, then again, maybe McDaniels should get some of the blame as well. If Bill Belichick wasn't so successful with his leadership model, McDaniels' style of coaching would probably be viewed very differently. If he tells Marshall to shut up and ends up trading him, it sends the message to the rest of the Broncos that there is no room whatsoever for difference of opinion, that they are not living, breathing, passionate players, but mere contracts that can be moved. Both sides need to find a resolution that keeps Marshall in Denver. Because the real issue isn't contracts, hands through TVs, or broken hips. It's about McDaniels getting the Broncos to care for how much he knows by showing them how much he cares for them as players. By the way, Cutler had an outstanding individual season before the trade, not to mention salary issues. If you were looked over in spite of your performance or felt like you weren't paid a fair wage (Maybe not a top-10 contract, but still a raise), you'd probably be a bit ticked off, too.

Vince G.

You're correct about McDaniels' culpability, and remember, I haven't been especially complimentary toward his handling of the Cutler situation from the get-go. I think trading Cutler was a disaster. My point with Marshall is that, in the wake of this disaster, appeasing a player with severe off-the-field issues and a somewhat concerning health issue probably isn't the best call right now.


Please don't call Brandon Marshall underpaid. His salary next to others in the league? Maybe. Why do people always ignore the fact that guys make money to catch/throw a ball? I know that by buying the merchandise we are enabling them to get paid this much but it doesn't mean we have to call them "underpaid."

Matthew Hofmann
Michigan

How about if I call him "underpaid relative to his peers"? Wait, I did …


What up with the Broncos telling Brandon Marshall his hip was fine and then him eventually needing surgery on it? Seriously, would you want to play for a team that lied to you about an X-ray and the possible need for surgery. And if they didn't lie, then they're incompetent. Either way, any player in his right mind should want out of Denver. They are going to suck for a long, long time, I believe.

John Villanueva
Houston

This issue – Marshall's belief that the team did not have his best interests at heart when it came to the hip injury – certainly seems to have played a significant role in his desire to leave Denver. I still think it's something that money could easily cure, but at this point he probably shouldn't hold his breath.


I absolutely agree with you about Brandon Marshall … they should dig in their heels … (snicker … snicker) and make him stay in Denver … and oh yeah … trade Knowshon to … say … San Diego? Go and get Larry Johnson(notes) … yeah … that's it … and I hear that Lawrence Phillips and Maurice Clarett want to play again … HAW HAW … and fire one of the winningest coaches in Pro Football oh wait … they already did that … oh stop! You're killing me!! What a trainwreck!! K A R M A … go Chargers.

Gordon Felthauser
Tallahassee, Fla.

I have a lot of friends who are Chargers fans – and employees and they all seem to be reacting similarly. Can anyone blame them?


Whoa … when did you flip-flop on your pro-jackass stance? You have always publically supported jackasses in past articles (Cutler, Favre-the first few times he retired, Plaxico, 49ers), why is Marshall so different? You are confusing me. I actually agree with you on this matter and it scares me. Am I turning "Granola" or are you using common sense for once?

BAM

Hmmm … maybe your carefully constructed theory (based on, what, five articles of the thousands I've written over the past two decades?) about my absolute love of people you deem jackasses isn't holding up the way it once did? Then again, I'm pretty sure if you read my old SI pieces on Barry Switzer and Andre Rison, among others, you'd be even more dug in on your stance.


In regards to your brandon marshall story, i think it was best said with adam sandler in "mr. deeds." Background – the "star" quarterback comes in and demands more money or he's not playing or going to another team if he doesnt get more money in a better contract. mr deeds (sandler) tells the disgruntled player, can we give you LESS money if you had played POORLY last season. the quarterback replies "no!" then fires the quarterback. though im aware its a bit more complicated than that, i think 'punks' should be taught a contract is a contract.

Steven H
Hebron, Md.

Except that, in the NFL, a contract is NOT a contract from a team's perspective, and the scenario you just mentioned happens ALL THE TIME.


So is it okay if a right-winger that is not sensitive and finds you funny continues to read your column? I hope so. I like reading your articles. I mean, we all have different opinions, but you tend to have insights that others seem to overlook.

Daniel Bogle
Springfield, Mo.

It is more than OK – it's fantastic.


Michael, As a Denver Bronco fan in exile I am absolutely sick about the Bronco's offense being dismantled piece by Pro bowl piece. Say what you will but I lay this entire debacle at the feet of Bowlen and the wonderboy McDaniels. I don't blame Brandon one bit for wanting out of Denver! McDaniels' offense was not going to suit his style of play and Kyle Orton(notes) does not have the arm or cohones to sling the ball into the locations Marshall is use to seeing from Cutler. I will always be a Bronco fan and McDaniels won't last long in Denver! In the meantime I will have a rooting interest in the Bears and I will predict that Marshall ends up in Dallas! The next one to go will be Ryan Clady(notes) when his rookie contract expires! Keep up the great work! I enjoy your insightful writing and disagree completely with your politics! LOL!

Scott
The Colony, Texas

God Bless America, and thanks for reading.