Struggle Between Sentiment & Fact Is One Of Life’s Tragedies
They remembered him as a hero, a three-time champion gunslinger who could do no wrong. But what NFL Films revealed to the world in his Football Life documentary last year was that Troy Aikman retired as a Hall of Fame quarterback beaten and broken by frustration.
As competitive as they make ‘em, Aikman had run out of reasons to believe that the Dallas Cowboys could recapture even a semblance of the glory that he had helped bring the franchise and the city during the 1990s. He could have played another year or two, but simply didn’t want to. Retirement was easier to handle than the losing.
After the release of the film, Aikman’s inbox was flooded with truckloads of letters from sympathetic fans who had no idea how much he had suffered during the backend of his 12-year career. They had forgotten about Barry. About Jerry. And about a front-office bent on self-destruction.
Aikman took all the attention in stride, saying little and explaining even less. Such behavior seemed befitting of a former player who waged a constant struggle in finding the right balance between pessimism and optimism. As he once said, “Things are never as good as you think they are and never as bad as you think they are.”
From a reflective position, it might be simply added that things are rarely as we remember them. At home. At the office. In the world. And especially within the golden hemisphere of America’s Team.
Without a doubt, the years have been kind to the Cowboys. Their trophy case has been put to good use, and heroes are counted daily by the dozen. It is with this backdrop of unavoidable glory that the passing of time naturally wears away the memory like waves upon a sandy shore, leaving only good and positive storylines to ponder upon, sometimes to the detriment of history and fact. From once a Cowboy, always a Cowboy, it so easily becomes once a Cowboy, forever a hero.
Consider the peculiar case of Don Meredith. It was only after he became a sensation on ABC’s Monday Night Football broadcasts that he was accepted by Dallas locals as one of their own. Yes, the same fans who once booed him so lustily at the old Cotton Bowl, now hold his name up as one of the franchise’s great signal-callers. Based on everything you’ve heard for the past forty years, who would have ever known that Meredith was once the Danny White of his day?
The modern fan hears tales aplenty about a quarterbacking bum named Craig Morton as well, the same Morton who was deemed the quarterbacking savior of the Cowboys after doing what Meredith could not – get the Cowboys to the Super Bowl. It was only after losing out in a nip-and-tuck QB race with Roger Staubach – and Staubach’s ensuing Hall of Fame career – that popular opinion decided that maybe Morton wasn’t so good after all.
Butch Johnson, an incredibly gifted wide receiver who replaced Golden Richards in 1978, made an incredible catch to help the Cowboys overcome Denver in Super Bowl XII, but who recalls the headache that he was to Tom Landry for the better part of five years?
A more modern collision between memory and reality was enacted this past weekend when Wade Phillips authored a highly successful return to AT&T Stadium as the defensive coordinator of the visiting Los Angeles Rams. In his first regular season game in Arlington since being fired as the Cowboys’ head coach in November of 2010, Phillips’ defense left Dak & Co. bumfuzzled, allowing a second-half Rams rally to nip Dallas at the final gun, 35-30.
To many out there, Phillips’ Cowboy legacy is inseparable from his legacy as a football coach, which has roots going three generations deep and spanning the length and breadth of Texas itself. What few have stopped to reflect upon in recent days are the terms and conditions that graced Phillips’ entrance upon football’s brightest stage, the same burden of circumstances and expectations, mind you, which provoked his abrupt departure a few years later.
History makes it very clear that Wade The Coordinator is not the same as Wade The Head Coach.
Consider: When Wade was hired to be the head coach of the Cowboys in 2007, it was viewed as the crowning achievement in a coaching career already full of them, and an opportunity of a lifetime. From one of the league’s outstanding assistants and premier defensive coordinators, Phillips had become the sideline captain of a team loaded with superstars and primed for a run to the Super Bowl.
Phillips was Mr. Fix-It, allegedly the perfect man to turn the Cowboys once again into the NFL’s perfect team. His style of communication was in stark contrast to his predecessor, Bill Parcells, a trait that made him all the more attractive for a locker room browbeaten by Parcells’ gruff, sarcastic nature. Compared to Parcells, Wade was an old softie, so soft-spoken and so laid-back as to be dubbed “Cupcake.”
The Tuna, as Parcells was known, had been a Profane Prophet of football wisdom. His replacement could be every bit as charming as a Southern Baptist pastor.
With Cupcake lighting the way, training camp practices took on a different shape, with less yelling, certainly less cursing, and positive encouragement aplenty. On the rare instances when Wade did huddle his troops and unleash a few expletives toward them, sportswriters treated it as a rare and valuable diversion, which had been admittedly cheapened in recent years under the scathing tongue of Parcells. As one writer observed during training camp in 2007, the Alamo Dome sounded “more like a church than a practice field.”
On paper, it may be supposed that Phillips had a good run in Dallas, winning 34 games in three-and-one-half seasons while leading the Cowboys to two division titles. But his lofty winning percentage will never be indicative of the Sunday failures he will forever be linked with in Dallas. And no amount of passing years can blot out his imprint upon those defeats.
With the 13-3 Cowboys having earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed and a bye week before their Divisional Playoff game in 2007, Phillips told his team to get away from football for a few days and unwind. His players did just that, scattering anywhere from the couch at home to the beaches of Cabo. It was only after the Cowboys turned in an uninspiring performance in a 21-17 loss to New York that fans began to wonder if taking a vacation during the playoff grind was really such a good idea after all.
The following December, Phillips lost control of a contentious locker room, and was little more than a helpless bystander as the Cowboys lost three of their final four games, including a 44-6 beatdown at the hands of Philadelphia on the final day of the regular season. It was then, while pundits and fans gleefully anticipated his dismissal, that Phillips was given a reprieve by team owner Jerry Jones. Rather than fire Phillips, Jones rid the team of locker room parasites like Terrell Owens and Tank Johnson, and gave his head coach one more chance to turn it around.
After the Cowboys enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2009, capturing the division and winning their first playoff game in thirteen years, Wade made perhaps his most critical mistake of his tenure by taking his foot off the gas and allowing his players to relax. The following summer in Oxnard, with experts excitedly anticipating a Cowboy march to the Super Bowl, Wade captained one of the softest training camps in club history, having his team practice in pads only three times during their West Coast stay.
The end result was a team which had lost their toughness and their competitive edge. Gone was the tough running game of the previous winter. Gone was the suffocating defense which could do no wrong. In its place was a mistake-prone offense, a noticeably gun-shy defense, and a head coach who had no answers.
Phillips was doomed by the Cowboys’ 1-7 start to that season, fired by owner Jerry Jones the morning after a 45-7 nationally-televised loss to Green Bay. Left behind him was a roster just past its prime, a team which had missed out on their best opportunities to make a significant push into January.
It can safely be said that, during the decade since, the Cowboys have not fielded a team as complete as that which Wade inherited in 2007. He did not build upon the foundation which Parcells had left him, nor did he use it to vault Dallas into its first Super Bowl since 1995. Instead, the Cowboys wasted one year after another, till finally Phillips was abruptly shown the door.
There’s not a person in Texas – or the football world – who doesn’t like Wade Phillips as a person. But it’s hard to make him a hero in Cowboys lore when so many of the facts so plainly insist that he’s not.