Darlings to disappointments in a week. The story plays out in sports every season, particularly in the NFL playoffs, where one bad afternoon can erase four months of dominance. The Colts and Chargers played the role the past two seasons, Dallas stepped into the role this year – the first top seed in the NFC to lose a Divisional Playoff game since the current playoff format started in 1990.
The Cowboys demise began in December, long before the Tony Romo-Jessica Simpson Cabo getaway. After toying with Green Bay on November 29th, Dallas let up and it showed. Focus and preparation clearly dropped a notch, and it showed on the field - struggling to beat Carolina, losing to both Philadelphia and Washington. While attention shifts to playoff teams that rest star players after clinching playoff berths, but teams that backpedal into the playoffs are more prone to failure.
Anyone who points to Romo spending the bye week on the beach instead of in Jason Garrett’s offensive playbook prep class as the problem is misguided. Romo should use better judgment, realizing he now lives in the spotlight. Still, it was not exactly the night before the game, or even during game week - the vacation does not correlate with the performance.
However, Romo’s mental meltdown in the fourth quarter did hurt the Cowboys last Sunday. Akin to what we expect out of Philip Rivers, Romo lost his composure in the fourth quarter, outwardly displaying his frustration as the pressure mounted and the clock ticked. Instead of firing up his team, he channeled his emotions into complaints. It affected his decision making – failing to throw the ball away when facing a rush and then throwing it away while still in the pocket – and seemed to rattle his teammates, who committed a few debilitating penalties down the stretch.
If the Cowboys did not face enough pressure trying to comeback in the final minutes, the Fox camera showed Jerry Jones standing arms length away from head coach Wade Phillips. Like George Steinbrenner, Jones will build a team to win at any cost, top class facilities, free agent signings, whatever it takes. Simultaneously he can make the team lose. The owner looking over their shoulders is the last thing players, or a head coach already facing the pressure of losing his job to one of his assistants, needs to see in the final minutes of a playoff game. Does Garrett really want this job? Jones creates an untenable situation by showing up on the sidelines.
Throw in the Tony Sparano to Miami and Jason Garrett to any team with a head coaching vacancy rumors, and you have a recipe for disaster. Forget 13-3, the 2007 Dallas Cowboys go down as the upset victim in the playoffs, possibly remembered as a footnote in a Giants Cinderella story. Last year Indy bounced back to win the Super Bowl, this season San Diego won its first playoff games in over 13 years and finds itself in the AFC Title Game. What does 2008 hold for Dallas?