Before he won a game as the Dallas Cowboys' new coach and turned a talented but inconsistent team into the clear-cut favorite to win the NFC, Wade Phillips was introduced at a kickoff luncheon in a North Dallas hotel ballroom to a hearty round of applause six weeks ago.
Surveying an audience that included some of the area's foremost business and community leaders, Phillips leaned into the microphone and deadpanned, "I don't need a standing ovation, but you can go ahead and take this time to adjust your underwear."
You can bet that somewhere in New Jersey, as he reads this column, Bill Parcells has his panties in a bunch.
The Cowboys' body language has resembled that of a close-knit college team since the whimsical, self-deprecating Phillips replaced the uptight, egomaniacal Parcells in February, and if you think it's a coincidence that Dallas is 5-0 heading into Sunday's showdown with the 5-0 New England Patriots at Texas Stadium, I've got some oceanfront property in Plano to sell you.
As cornerback Terence Newman told me Thursday night, "We love playing for Wade. He is so laid back and approachable, and he's even funny as hell."
I'll tell you who loves the coaching change even more than his players: The man who gave the 60-year-old native of Orange, Texas, his unlikely third shot at being the dude in charge. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is one of the more gregarious souls in a notoriously uptight world, and he is as thrilled with the change in mood around Valley Ranch as he is with the strategic wrinkles defensive specialist Phillips and first-year offensive coordinator Jason Garrett have introduced.
For all of his aggressive spending, keen sense of showmanship and risk-taking chutzpah, Jones' defining quality as an NFL owner might be his relentless zest for the joie de vivre – or, for us non-French-speakers and Texans, having a hell of a good ol' time. He was happiest in the 1990s, first when ex-college teammate Jimmy Johnson was his audacious coach, and later when the social and charming Barry Switzer, his old freshman coach at Arkansas, took over after the JJs started feuding.
Winning had something to do with that, of course, just as it does now under Phillips, as the Cowboys prepare for one of the more compelling mid-October NFL matchups in recent memory. But there is no mistaking the fact that the delirium has returned to Big D now that the eternally grumpy Parcells is gone, and Jones didn't even try to hide the excitement in his voice when I asked him on Thursday about the mentality of his players and the man he chose to coach them.
"Bill's style as a coach was very rigid, and it's a lot lighter around here with Wade," Jones said. "And Wade's style, as opposed to Bill's, is causing players in a positive way to really give the most of themselves. You saw that on Monday night, when guys like (outside linebacker) DeMarcus Ware were dead tired at the end but rose up and made plays."
In the wake of Dallas' thrilling comeback victory against the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football, it's easy to credit Phillips' personality for having spurred the Cowboys to their best start in 24 years, just as it surely would have been cited as a negative had Dallas stumbled through September. Even now, it remains to be seen how Phillips and his players will respond to the first sign of sustained adversity. If the team hits a rough patch, how long will it take before someone blames the coach for being too soft and questions his hold on the locker room?
But whatever goes down, there is little doubt that Phillips' style is better suited than was his predecessor to the team's biggest stars, quarterback Tony Romo and wideout Terrell "Getcha Popcorn Ready" Owens.
Romo, the no-name backup whom Parcells reluctantly inserted into the lineup last October after losing faith in veteran Drew Bledsoe, is his generation's answer to Brett Favre in terms of temperament (he's cocksure, ebullient and unflappable) and gall. The kind of game Romo had against the Bills, in which he threw five interceptions and lost a fumble, would've made Parcells hotter than the spiciest wings at the Anchor Bar.
With Phillips in charge, coaches and players remained supportive and upbeat, and Romo ended up pulling out the victory on Nick Folk's 53-yard field goal as time expired.
"We are having more fun and the quarterback is instigating that," Jones said. "It's a serious business being the quarterback of the Cowboys, but he's having a good time doing it. He exudes a lot of confidence, but he does it in a way that brings the game element back to it."
Were Buzzkill Bill still around, he'd constantly be reminding Romo of his flaws and warning him not to get caught up in his success.
"Not many people psychologically approach a quarterback the way Lou Holtz and Bill Parcells do, by choosing to put additional pressure on him," Jones said. "That doesn't make it wrong – Lou Holtz is a friend of mine, and both men are great coaches – but it's different. The quarterback already deals with so much pressure, and not many coaches would choose to embellish that."
As for T.O., one of the league's more combustible locker-room personalities? Don't even get me started. Parcells wouldn't even refer to Owens by name, faithfully describing him as "the player."
In doing so, Parcells came across as "the ass."
We've all had bosses who think such pettiness is amusing and who believe that playing mind games and power-flexing is an effective management strategy. And we've all gone home at night and gotten down on our knees and prayed that the boss in question would be replaced by someone who resembles an actual human being.
"Wade is a better personality fit for Terrell," Jones agreed. "Terrell's more confident and comfortable around Wade than he was around Bill, and Wade's more comfortable around Terrell than Bill was."
It's not just the stars who've warmed to Phillips' style. "We all have fun together on this team," Newman said as he and many of his teammates headed to a downtown hotspot as part of their weekly 'Defense Night Out' ritual. "It's been that way since I've been here, but not necessarily on the field, because of Bill. You can actually have fun on the field now; you can even do some celebrating."
It's early, of course, but Jones should already be celebrating his decision to hire Phillips rather than presumed frontrunner Norv Turner after Parcells stepped aside in January. Phillips, who'd previously coached the Denver Broncos and Bills (he also had short stints as interim coach for the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons), stressed his record as both a head coach and coordinator during his interviews with Jones, which surely caused the owner to compare it with Turner's.
Phillips, 48-42 as a head coach before this season, was the popular defensive coordinator for the 14-2 Chargers last year. Turner, the Cowboys' offensive coordinator under Johnson, was 59-83-1 (including a playoff loss) as a head coach before 2007. That Turner has struggled to a 2-3 start after taking over for the fired Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego undoubtedly serves as confirmation to Jones that he made the right choice.
"When I made my mind up was when I saw how much it would mean to Wade to establish himself as a successful head coach, and to do it here in Dallas," Jones said. "He told me, 'Anytime I've had a chance to do something, I've produced,' and he was right."
Yet there was something beyond Phillips' desire and production at play here. After four years of straining to make his optimistic management style mesh with Parcells' prickly skepticism, the Cowboys' owner saw a chance to bring in a coach who didn't view laughter as a sign of weakness.
"I do look for a very positive person," Jones said. "I want a guy who sees the glass as half-full, rather than as half-empty. Bill was the exception."
Phillips, at least so far, has proven to be the perfect antidote. Whatever happens on Sunday, give the man some credit – no standing ovation required.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Romo and the Cowboys will bring their 'A' game on Sunday, but so will the Patriots, and we know what that means. … Enjoy it while it's here, because that timeout-just-before-the-field-goal rule won't survive next spring's NFL owners' meetings. … The Washington Redskins will deal the Green Bay Packers their second consecutive defeat at Lambeau Field.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
This one's not too complicated: Randy vs. T.O., Brady vs. Romo, 5-0 vs. 5-0-. It'll all be going down at Texas Stadium, and I'm expecting a game that lives up to the Texas-sized hype.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. After asking his players to fill out anonymous suggestion cards as to how to improve the team, San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan balled up and threw away the note requesting that he "never again be allowed to wear a headset in crucial situations."
2. Told that Minnesota Vikings coach Brad Childress won't reveal whether Tarvaris Jackson or Kelly Holcomb will start Sunday's game at Chicago, Bears coach Lovie Smith rolled his eyes and said, "Whatever."
3. Special master Stephen B. Burbank ordered Michael Vick to pay the Falcons lunch money that he received from his mother in junior high school.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
As if picking the Saints to win the NFC before the season wasn't embarrassing enough, my faith in Sean Payton's team knocked me out of the pool after five splendid weeks. Thanks to New Orleans's last-second defeat to the Panthers at the Superdome, I'll be turning things over to some of my (hopefully) more prescient friends, beginning with U.S. soccer legend Brandi Chastain. You may recall that Chastain had plenty to say about her former team's effort in the recent World Cup. She's pretty sharp when it comes to the other football, too. "I am going to select Baltimore over St. Louis," Chastain says (via instant message). "This wasn't an easy choice, but after looking at the W-L column, checking out points for and against (scoring 70 points but giving up 137?), and lastly, the who-is-actually-playing list (Bulger's listed as limited and Torry Holt, who is for REAL, did not practice), Baltimore will win. Even the Ravens will find their way into the end zone. I hate to go against a team that hasn't won – that's incentive enough to get your act together and play for something, your self-esteem, your livelihood, YOUR TEAMMATES, your city, SOMETHING – but I don't think it will happen this week."
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
"Is there any doubt that I am the Bill Belichick of fantasy football?" my buddy Malibu asked after his first-place team, Beat the Gypsy, improved to 4-1 with an eight-point victory over the Los Angeles Coltz. "Think about it: I had a lousy draft spot but uncovered some gems, I make the key moves that keep my team at the top – and I dress like (expletive)." He had a point, though considering the advice I supplied on draft day, that would make me the Scott Pioli of fantasy football, and I'm not sure how I feel about having Bill Parcells as my fantasy father-in-law. But I digress. Malicheck truly was brilliant last weekend, making a last-minute waiver claim of the Redskins' defense, which proceeded to score a ridiculous 22 points (offsetting kicker Josh Brown's unseemly zero). Why Washington? "I had seen them play on TV and liked their toughness," Malicheck explained. "And I knew Detroit was a fraud." With stars Adrian Peterson and Carson Palmer on bye weeks and Andre Johnson still injured, the supersub who stepped in and put Beat the Gypsy over the top was Michael (Burner) Turner, whose 23.7-point eruption in Denver helped offset the Coltz's one-two combo of Ronnie Brown and Marshawn Lynch. This week, Beat the Gypsy shouldn't have much trouble against Shadongers, a team whose four biggest projected producers (Philip Rivers, Laurence Maroney, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Chris Brown) strike fear in the hearts of absolutely no one. "It is what it is," Malicheck said of the matchup. No, he didn't really say that. But he was wearing a ratty sweatshirt at the time.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Aside from being able to taunt SC fans – and it has been a rough week for the Trojans – here are the three coolest things about your alma mater being No. 2 team in the polls for the first time in 56 years:
1. Virtually all of your games are guaranteed to be televised (though Saturday's clash with Oregon State at 4 p.m. PT is on Versus, which I believe is available only by putting one of those old rabbit-ears antennae on top of the microwave).
2. When you're in a bar and need a score, you can look up at the TV without having to wait until your school comes up alphabetically on the crawl.
3. After flashing the "We're No. 2" hand signal while spilling out of Memorial Stadium, you'll get no grief from the tree-sitters or the cops who protect them, as they'll all think you're giving the peace sign.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
The good people of Mexico, who are being subjected to the invasion of a certain fast-food franchise that does to its native cuisine what Pat Boone did to Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame."
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
"Gundy Coors Light"
IF CAL WINS A FOOTBALL GAME I'LL …
OK, kids, the Bears now have their highest ranking since 1951, and we're no longer messing around. For this week's offering, I've called on one of the most golden of Bears, Jim Hanifan, the former Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons head coach and, back in the day, an All-American and national receiving leader for Cal in 1954. When I asked "Hanny," 74, what he'd give up until Jan. 1 if the No. 2 Bears defeat Oregon State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, his first response was, "I won't pole vault." Sorry, coach, that's not enough. "I won't eat hummingbird wings." Keep going. "Ah, to hell with it, I won't have any sex." That's what I'm talkin' about. In other words, if the Beavers go down … ah, well, you get the picture.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
For all my fellow Golden Bears and our archrivals on The Farm, in celebration of last Saturday's stunner at the L.A. Coliseum and the goodwill it generated, to the tune of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's insufferable duet, "Ebony and Ivory."
"Cardinal and navy
Live together in perfect harmony
Cause forever we vow to hate SC
We all know that Tommy Trojan works for the Gestapo
You almost made us No. 1
We learn to cheer, we raise a beer
And another till the goodwill is done
On December 1
Cardinal and navy
Live together in perfect harmony
Cause forever we vow to hate SC
We all know that there's hope for me and Jason Cole
Though we once sparred in the Ink Bowl
That bloody nose, was long ago
And the red that spurted out all over his face
I now embrace"
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"You have got to be kidding me … Titans sending a message to the rest of the league for beating a pathetic team despite their own really strong attempts to give the game away? Someone needs to check the Kool Aid they are drinking in Tennessee because if that is the message that they are sending out as a warning, I have the feeling that there are at least 10, maybe 15, teams that would loooooooooove to take that call and maybe give them a reality check. Nice way to rise above your own self-inflicted wounds against a team that everyone and their sister said would be the bottom feeder of the league. Really beat your chest and talk about how amazing you are when you beat someone who no one thought you should beat. Do that in an impressive fashion and then shot off your mouth. Sleep well for making a serious amount of coin for squeaking by the worst team in the league, jackass. Hey Micheal how could you right this column through the fits of laughter?"
The quote from Keith Bulluck was in reference to the defense's performance, which was pretty impressive given the circumstances. And, for the record, he was drinking water when he uttered it, rather than Kool-Aid (or, for those of you who recall the previous Monday's column, sauvignon blanc.)
"Mike Nolan … [y]ou are also, how shall I say this gently? … COACHING LIKE A COMPLETE WUSS." And this is somehow a surprise? The apple has not fallen far from the tree, and Son of Dick is just doing what comes naturally. Dick Nolan was big on sending Ken Willard into the pile on 3rd-and-4, even when it had been years since Willard's last run longer than two yards (the distance he covered by falling forward from the line of scrimmage). Give your old colleague Dr Z a call and ask him about his John-Brodie-audibles-to-a-winning-play-and- deadpans-bench-call-when-interviewed story. Son of Dick's top end is five straight years of 10-6 and early playoff exits (of course, 10-6 is looking pretty good right now)."
Mountain View, Calif.
Mr. Mulder, it's good to see your conspiracy theories and obsession with fathers haven't waned since the X-Files went off the air. (No, seriously, I appreciate the perspective, though I do seem to recall Gene Washington going deep with some regularity.)
"As a die-hard 49ers fan, I feel the need to thank you Silver. I like Mike Nolan as a coach and talent evaluator, but ever since he has come here, he has continued to make wimpy game decisions that have cost us games time and time again. (Like going for the field goal from the 1-yard line and allowing the Rams to come back last year instead of going for the TD and putting them away for good.) I've been trying to get this out for a long time and really appreciate that someone finally said it. Keep up the great work."
Thanks. And trust me, some of his players are saying this, too.
"Michael, two questions: 1. Is it just my paranoid imagination, or does the 49ers' offensive play-calling bear an eerie resemblance to that of the Buddy Teevens-era Stanford teams? (I know, I was there for all of them). Third-and-9, game on the line, let's run the draw play for no gain! You'd think running off tackle was a trick play, watching this crap. 2. I have a friend who went to Stanford and is now dating a USC grad. It's bad enough that his AOL away messages every other weekend now read 'at USC game with Kathy,' but he refuses to rib her about Saturday's upset at all. In fact, he ordered all of his friends to keep quiet as well. I say it's time for him to be a man, show some loyalty, and live it up, and if she's gonna flip out, as he claims, that's her problem. Am I right or wrong?"
Tell your friend he bears an eerie resemblance to Buddy Teevens. Then again, a lot of USC grads are hot, so it's a tough call.
"I was just watching your segment on the Cowboys and Bills game and all I have to say is, Cal? Cal is overrated and will lose within the next 2-3 weeks and the Buckeyes will be No. 2. And look who just beat USC. Stanford! I pick your California Golden Bears to lose two games this year. The given loss will be to the Trojans and the other will be a shocker. Probably Oregon St or possibly UCLA."
You'd better hope so, Buckeye Boy. Because the more Cal wins, the louder and more unbearable my fellow alums and I are going to get.
"OK, as a San Diegan and Berkeley grad, I pose this question (which hopefully won't be answered by the next time you write this column): What's more likely? The Chargers winning out and having a shot at a bye in the playoffs, or Cal winning and having a shot at LSU? (Or will Mack Brown show up and convince the computers that even an undefeated Cal isn't worth a shot at the title)?"
If the Chargers win out and get a first-round bye, I'll wear an SC sweatshirt to their playoff game with an "I Love Mack Brown" button. Does that answer your question?
"I just wanted to say congratulations to Cal for taking the No. 2 spot, and I'm glad you could find it in your heart to at least give a nod (however slight it may have been) to Stanford for dropping U$C. I can guarantee that all of us here at UCLA are pulling for Cal. Well, as best we can, at any rate, considering our upcoming game. I'm looking forward to it, despite how one-sided it might end up being."
Wow. There's nothing like hatred of all things Trojan to bring foes together. I was told that when the Stanford-USC score was announced at the Rose Bowl last Saturday, it was the loudest cheer of the day (what with UCLA and Notre Dame fans celebrating in unison).
"Mike: Finally stumbled upon you over here on Yahoo! Congrats on the move. Re: Stanford beating USC, thanks for the gracious post. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, or something like that. Here's hoping Cal runs the table, resulting in … a Big Game for all the marbles (for Cal)? Holy crap. Sorry, not my normal smarmy, loquacious self. When your backup QB completes a 4th-and-20, then executes the lob in the end zone to a guy who's just lost his father … well, in times like that, one tends to lose one's edge. Keep up the good work."
Palo Alto, Calif.
Thanks, and I'll see you in that charming little breadbox of a stadium you guys have down on The Farm, with about 15,000 of my loudest, most loquacious friends.
"Mr. Silver: I have been reading your column for a while now and enjoy it immensely, even if your political viewpoints make me want to (puke) into my morning coffee or better yet, jam a red hot poker into my brain, i.e., there is nothing worse then an 'enlightened democrat.' I just wanted to tell you that I am glad Yahoo! gives you more online articles than SI because you are certainly a talented sports writer. I also respect the lessening of the political viewpoints which are irrelevant, trivial and of course, wrong. Sincerely, Eric"
I think I just got a left-handed compliment from a righty, and at this point, I'll take it. As for the red-hot poker reference, all I can think of is Robby Benson in "One On One."
"Michael, what is your deal with poking fun at Matt Schaub for wanting to meet President Bush? Before you answer that, this is a sports section and there is no room for politics, especially when the tone is negative in nature at one of the greatest Presidents this nation has ever seen. Don't get me wrong, I like some good humor as much as the next guy … but I'm tired of the constant misguided beat down that various individuals provide towards our president. Lord knows, I don't want to see us go back to the days of (Bill) Clinton … that guy and his partner are horrible and I shudder to think of what else will happen if or when more of those terrorist libs get into various government offices. As a note, I would love to meet Fred Thompson … .hopefully after he wins the White House."
Whoa. 'Greatest' is the new worst? How did that happen? Good luck with Fast Freddie. As for the "terrorist libs," here's what happened the last time a Democrat was in the White House: peace and prosperity.
"The term is 'champing' at the bit. Horses don't chomp. Come on, man, you work with words for a living …"
Yes, I do. But I don't write headlines. Blame it on my editor, Funny Cide. And, to be fair, Mr. Cide is one step ahead of you and the others who wrote in: Pacman, he of video-game fame, chomps for a living, if I'm not mistaken.
"Nice try with the grammar critique of the Raiders. I believe the Raiders are referring to their team, singular, not the individual Raiders themselves. Not that I would ever call the Raiders a team, but they are correct."
Actually, no, they're pretty damned far from correct. The sentence is, "The Greatness of the Raiders Will Continue In Its Future." Given the structure of this sentence, "Its" can only be referring to one of two things: The Greatness (singular, but nonsensical) or "The Raiders" (plural, regardless of whether or not you think it's meant to be a reference to the team). That concludes today's lesson. Class dismissed.