Friday, January 05, 2007

Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting

"It's getting late, have you seen my mates
Ma tell me when the Boys get here
It's seven o'clock and I want to rock
Want to get a belly full of beer."

It's that time of year again. This weekend and next, with four games each, give us the best that the NFL has to offer, with two games on both Saturday and Sunday. And if your team is lucky enough to gain entry into the "tournament," as it's now all too often referred to, that makes it all the more sweet.

Now, you'd have to be a cockeyed optimist to have a good feeling about advancing if you're a Dallas Cowboy fan, given how they finished the 2006 campaign, and I've been called many things, but optimist is usually not one of them. Cockeyed, yes, but optimistic, cheery, jaunty or just plain sprightly? Let's say rarely.

And when the unpleasant facts are laid on the table, anyone can make a strong case for pessimism, considering the Cowboys lost three of their last four games to close the season, have to travel to one of the loudest stadia in the country (like how I used the Latin there, eh?), and are sporting a "defense" that has given up an obscene amount of points (132) and touchdown passes (try 15: 5 to Drew Brees, 4 to Michael Vick, 2 to Jeff Garcia, 4 more to Jon Kitna) in that same four-game span. Ouch! That's as many points as the defense had given up in the previous eight games!

But then you look at the other side of the ball and you have to be, well, somewhat sanguine about our chances, and by our I mean the collective Dallas Cowboy nation, because "we" scored 425 points, good enough for third in the league, only two points behind second place Indy and Chicago. Not bad, considering "we" changed quarterbacks in midstream.

It has become suddenly fashionable to bash Tony Romo in recent weeks. But if Sunday's loss was a bad game for him, then we look for more of the same; 23-32 for 321 yards, 2 TDs and a pick, despite a constant pass rush that caused Romo to lose a fumble at a crucial point in the game.

Also, Julius Jones is just simply due for a big game, and he returns to Qwest Field in Seattle, the site of his career-best 198-yard, 3 TD performance two years ago in a wild 43-39 Dallas win. Another positive is what I heard this morning on ESPN, that last year in the wild card round the road team won 3 of the 4 games. I see only one road team victory this year, however, the aforementioned Cowboys prevailing on Saturday night 34-24, with the Colts prevailing over the KC Chiefs, the Eagles handling the visiting Giants, and the Patriots doing the same to the upstart New York Jets.

At one point of course the Cowboys stood at a heady 8-4, with Romo-mania in full effect, before dropping those last 3 home games. Winning a 10th game this year would have given the franchise an amazing 25th 10-win season; our 24 such years are already an NFL record, as are the 8 Super Bowl appearances -- not bad considering we came into the league as an expansion club in 1960, some 30 or 40 years behind established teams like the Packers, Bears, Giants, Redskins and Pittsburgh.

Bill Parcells' record stands at 34-30 for the four years he's been Cowboys' head coach, with two playoff appearances. Considering he inherited a team that had gone 5-11 in each of the 3 seasons under Dave Campo before he took over, I'd give him a B, with the chance to move up to B+ if we advance at least one round in this year's playoffs. Now, the Cowboys have lost the final regular season game in each of Parcells' four years, which is disturbing, but the personnel outlook is still much, much brighter than it was going back four years. As long as we don't go the dreaded "one & done" route, I will consider the year an overall success, taking into account that I believe we have our QB of the future.

Now, perhaps Romo did hit a wall toward the end of the year, but the backlash and resentment over his Pro Bowl selection was wholly unmerited. Just whose place did he take to make him undeserving of the honor? A homer-istic Chicago writer last week tried to make that very case, saying that Bears QB Rex Grossman should have joined Marc Bulger and Drew Brees on the NFC squad, and that Romo has come crashing back to earth. Then Grossman unfortunately had to go out and play, where to say he stunk up the joint would be an insult to malodorous performances throughout the ages. The man went a horrendous 2-12 passing against the Packers, for a putrid 33 yards, somehow managing to sprinkle in 3 interceptions -- giving Grossman the never-good distinction of completing more passes to the other team than to his own designated receiving corps. Yikes! By the time the afternoon was finished, Grossman limped off the field with a 0.0 QB rating; in fact, so absolutely futile was his stat line that I think he ended up owing the league points. Grossman finished the year with a mediocre 73.9 passer rating (24th in the NFL, behind Eli Manning, Michael Vick and Alex Smith), with 23 TDs but 20 INTs.

In contrast, my boy Romo finished at a celestial 95.4, good for fifth in the league, completing 65.3 percent of his passes, with 19 TDs and 13 picks, and 2,901 yards in his 10 starts plus one half of relief versus the Giants. In somewhat of a cross-sport, inter-generational stretch, I like to compare Romo's year in 2006 with the one Yankees' great Don Mattingly had in his first season in 1983, when he hit .283 but finished the year in a slump after staying well above .300 for most of the year. The next year he came back to lead the AL in batting at .343 and the next year, 1985, was MVP. I expect history to repeat itself.

Getting back to the Dallas defense, it's obvious now that we should have scrapped the 3-4 defense when Greg Ellis was lost for the year after 9 games and returned to the traditional 4-3 front. The pass rush was atrocious from that point on, the only positive being DeMarcus Ware's 11.5 sacks. With the secondary looking as lost as it has in the last 4 or 5 games, we needed to get DEs Jason Hatcher, Kenyon Coleman and fellow Hofstra product Stephen Bowen on the line of scrimmage with a hand on the ground and their ears pinned back, as they say in the business. Bowen may have something going on and could be an X factor in this week's game. You heard it here first.

How about the success that Hofstra players have been having recently in the NFL? When I went there back in the day, the football and basketball programs were nowhere, man, while the wrestling team was ranked just outside the top 20 in the nation and had just produced an NCAA champion, Nick Gallo; at 142 pounds, he used to kick my ass on a daily basis in practice despite giving up almost 20 pounds. But ever since WR Wayne Chrebet literally came out of nowhere to make the Jets as a free agent in 1995, there have been quite a few Flying Dutchmen, as they used to be called before the PC police quashed their overly ethnically descriptive nickname (changing it to the generically inoffensive Pride), making their mark in the league, including the Saints' rookie sensation Marques Colston, who finished second to Vince Young in rookie of the year voting.

I don't recall if a Hofstra University player has ever been chosen in the first round of the NFL draft, and I guess I'm not interested enough right now to look it up, but I heard a mind-blowing stat during a college bowl game the other night: football powerhouse Notre Dame has not had a #1 pick taken since 1993, when Jerome Bettis was picked by the Rams! And not uncoincidentally, the Fighting Irish -- another potentially offensive moniker -- haven't won a bowl game during the same stretch. It goes to show that their soft schedule in recent years, for instance scheduling games with all three service academies this year (Army, Navy, Air Force) and other tomato cans, has probably hurt them more than helped them in terms of being labeled overrated.

My new go-to source for Cowboys info,, had what I thought was a funny take on the answer Bill Parcells gave to a Seattle writer asking him whether he was a dog or cat person. He revealed he and his girlfriend had a cat, a 16- or 17-pounder named Cody. Bill went on to say how athletic the cat was, and how he "can do stuff you wouldn't believe." Which inspired the following hilarious parody of NFL coach-speak: Parcells went on to say the cat "has qualities that you just can't see. He's a diligent worker, studies hard; he comes in on off-days and catches mice. I like the cat; I think he's coming along nicely. He gets it, he knows when to eat the cheese or when to put it out to attract mice, he has a good grasp on where the litter box is. When he got here he paid attention to a veteran tabby down the road named "Mr. Chips", that was a good influence on Cody. Now he's starting to understand, he knows when it's OK to cough up a fur ball and when it's not. He's got a future in this house."

Somehow the Redskins managed to finish next to last in the entire league in overall defense. Anyone who watched them totally shut down the high-powered Saints a few weeks ago would have trouble processing that statistic. And when you add to it the fact that Washington has the highest paid coaching staff in the league, with defensive coordinator Greg Williams, at almost $3 million a year, earning more than most head coaches, you have to shake your head at the direction the Skins are heading. Sure, they had key injuries to players like LB Marcus Washington, but that team closed out 2006 with a dreadful display of tackling against the Giants, making Tiki Barber look more like Jim Brown or Earl Campbell in their power-back primes than the speed back he is. In other words, you can live with Barber running around your defense, but when he runs through it and shreds you for 200-plus yards, there's something rotten in the nation's capital -- and this time at least it has nothing to do with the stench of misguided, messianic, inept incompetence emanating from the bowels of the White House. Let's end it on that uplifting Bush-bashing note.

Ciao for now!

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