The One Player Who Could Have Saved Wade Phillips’ Job In Dallas
There was a long list of problems that plagued the Dallas Cowboys during the 2010 season, of which complacency and entitlement reside at the top. For Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, the problems would prove to be too many to overcome, as Phillips was fired at the season’s midway point. But if owner/general manager Jerry Jones felt any consolation in dismissing a head coach in early November, he needn’t have, for he was as much to blame for the team’s collapse as anybody. He was the one, after all, ultimately responsible for leaving Phillips short of his most precious defensive commodity: linebackers.
In Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, the inside linebackers were supposed to stop the run first and foremost, but also had responsibilities in pass coverage, which often included covering tight ends and running backs one-on-one. The Cowboys were a team enamored with pass-rushing outside linebackers, almost to the point of forgetting the necessity for quality play from the inside backers. No, despite popular opinion, the Cowboys did not forget, but only because they were reminded in the harshest of fashions.
From when the Cowboys shipped Akin Ayodele to Miami in a package deal in April of 2008 to the spring of 2010 a total of four quality inside linebackers (Ayodele, Kevin Burnett, Zach Thomas, and Bobby Carpenter) were waived out the Valley Ranch door. Of the four, Ayodele and Thomas were the only actual starters and shared similar strengths in that both shined best when asked to tackle the running back in the hole. Neither would have helped the 2010 team in any unique role other than simply an added veteran presence for roster depth. Carpenter was a unique talent in that he was more than capable of covering receiving options while moving vertically, but seemed to get lost when asked to change directions. With his run defense shoddy, at best, the Cowboys were more than glad to part ways with him after the 2009 season. Of the four, Burnett was the most well-rounded player, and one who shined in the Cowboys’ nickel defensive packages from 2006-08. But the Cowboys thought better of offering him a contract after the 2008 campaign, and watched him sign a free agent deal with San Diego where he earned a starting role and set career numbers in several categories. More than any other, the decision to part ways with Burnett without so much as an effort to negotiate with his agent caused some people around Valley Ranch to shake their heads at the time. It wouldn’t take long before Cowboys officials and coaches were publicly doing the same.
By the time the summer of 2010 rolled around, their replacements (Jason Williams, Brandon Williams, and Sean Lee) were either wallowing in the defensive playbook or dealing with injuries. Lee barely saw the field in training camp while dealing with a host of nagging injuries, and wasn’t even on the nickel defense when the regular season commenced. Brandon Williams was still getting his feet under him from an ACL injury that robbed him of his entire rookie season in 2009. He was on the team in 2010, but wasn’t expected to contribute much defensively. Jason Williams’ play, on the other hand, was so unimpressive that Calvin Watkins of ESPNDallas.com ranked him 40th on the team’s final roster of 53 players, behind No. 3 running back Tashard Choice and even backup offensive tackle Alex Barron.
With no other alternative, Phillips was forced to leave veterans Keith Brooking and Bradie James on the field in the nickel defense on obvious passing situations. Both Brooking and James were instinctive and savvy when close to the line of scrimmage, but by this point in their careers had little of the athleticism needed to cover receiving options downfield. The result was maddening for Cowboy fans, who only a year before had watched the Dallas defense finish No. 2 in the NFL in yards allowed while carrying the franchise to its first playoff victory in thirteen years. Now, with the middle of the field virtually wide open, opposing quarterbacks were gutting the once-mighty Cowboy defense with regularity. First Jay Cutler in Week 2. Then Vince Young three weeks later. Then Eli Manning in the seventh game, followed by David Garrard and Aaron Rodgers. The result was a 1-7 start, and the removal of Phillips from his head coaching perch.
History has revealed that neither Jason or Brandon Williams belonged with the Cowboys. By the beginning of the 2011 season, both had been released.
One has to wonder what the difference might have been in 2010 had the Cowboys still had Burnett on the roster at the time.