Our man in the US - Week 11

Ever since the late 1990s, the market research firm Harris Interactive has conducted regular polls to determine which NFL teams have the most fans in the United States. Some have experienced wild fluctuations in their rankings – the Denver Broncos, for instance, leaping up from 17th to third in the two years since they signed Peyton Manning – but first place is always the same. The Dallas Cowboys show no sign of relinquishing their status as America’s Team.

And yet it has been some time since they dominated America’s game. The Cowboys last reached a Super Bowl in January 1996, beating Pittsburgh 27-17. Since then, they have embarked on a course of steady decline. Dallas have reached the playoffs just four times this century, and not at all since 2009. 

They were supposed to update that statistic this season. The NFC East was certainly there for the taking. After seven weeks, the New York Giants were winless, the Eagles were struggling to get the most out of Chip Kelly’s offense and Washington were going nowhere fast as Robert Griffin III struggled to get back into a rhythm after offseason knee surgery.

If Dallas were not exactly blowing the league away at 4-3, then they were at least the only team in the division with a winning record. Furthermore, they had beaten each of New York, Philadelphia and Washington already – a significant step towards obtaining tie-breakers over their division rivals later down the line.

Three weeks on, however, the Cowboys are still treading water. In fact, they might be beginning to sink. A defeat to New Orleans on Sunday Night Football pulled Dallas back to 5-5 – the same record that the Eagles now hold – but more worryingly also exposed the team’s flaws on both sides of the ball.  They had not just lost, but been humiliated by the Saints, 49-17.

It was the heaviest defeat that the Cowboys had suffered since Jason Garrett took over as head coach in 2010, and one that sent journalists scurrying for answers. The popularity of this team is well reflected in the coverage that it receives. While the Carolina Panthers’ rapid ascent to playoff contention had been widely ignored until their win over the 49ers this weekend, every Dallas defeat seems to bring a national media inquest.

As usual, many people chose to blame the man under center. On the Fox Sports Southwest TV channel, Dallas Morning News writer Barry Horn accused Tony Romo of having no faith in his running game, suggesting that the quarterback was changing plays at the line of scrimmage in order to keep the ball in his own hands.

“We talk a lot about the play calling on this team, but ultimately when they go to the line of scrimmage, who makes the call?” asked Horn, rhetorically. “It’s Tony Romo. He has the option of what to do. We asked [offensive co-ordinator] Bill Callahan last week out at Valley Ranch … ‘How many plays a game does Romo have the option to go run or pass?’ He wouldn’t tell us. So I think it’s more than you think.

“It doesn’t really matter if it’s Jason Garrett calling the plays or Bill Callahan’s calling the play because it’s Tony Romo who has his finger on the button.”

Others blamed Romo for not throwing the ball to Dez Bryant more, or simply not doing it right. At least it made a change from being branded a ‘choker’ – the criticism that is usually pitched his way. Earlier this season Romo was lampooned for throwing a late interception against Denver at the end of a game in which he had outperformed Peyton Manning. The fact that the Broncos quarterback had given up a worse pick in the third quarter was roundly ignored.

Then, as now, Romo was not the chief culprit in his team’s demise. Dallas lost to the Broncos because their defence gave up 51 points. Likewise, while Romo did a lot of things wrong on Sunday – putting in his worst performance of the season despite not turning the ball over – the greatest fault still lay on the other side of the ball. Against New Orleans, the Cowboys had given up a franchise-record 625 yards.

That would be troubling enough if they had not already allowed 623 to the Lions just two games earlier. Dallas had fired their defensive co-ordinator Rob Ryan in the offseason, assigning him the blame for two years of indifferent performances on that side of the ball. On Sunday night he stood opposite them on the Saints’ sideline, orchestrating Romo’s downfall.

But if Ryan had not been the problem in Dallas, then what is? It is a question that many have asked. Judy Battista presented the conundrum neatly on NFL.com when she wrote: “Year after year, Dallas creates the illusion of contending, only to have its disguise ripped away to reveal mediocrity. This is a team that sports plenty of expensive talent, but proves simply incapable, over and over again, of fulfilling its potential.”

Injuries have played their part, and the loss of linebacker Sean Lee to a hamstring problem on Sunday bodes badly for that struggling defensive unit. But they alone cannot explain everything. In the end the buck stops at the top, with Dallas’s owner and self-appointed general manager Jerry Jones.

“If the GM hadn’t had so many drafts rendered useless over an appallingly short period of time, then the Cowboys wouldn’t have all these free-agent, off-the-street backups trying to fill gaps for injured players,” wrote Tim Cowlishaw on Tuesday in the Dallas Morning News. “Jones’ tendency to keep the team in salary-cap jail along with his poor drafts have created a team void of depth …

“There’s no need to call out safety Jeff Heath for his tackling deficiencies, which could make a highlight reel for the Saints’ backs and receivers. When you’re starting undrafted rookies, it’s all about your failure to properly conduct a draft."

Jones was his usual engaging self after Sunday’s game, spending time with reporters and accepting that, with hindsight, axing Ryan might not have been the smart thing to do. But for this team to move forward then he is sooner or later also going to have to acknowledge his own role.

More than just drafting the players, Jones is the one who oversees all aspects of this team, including the hiring and firing of coaches. He was the one who pushed Garrett into ceding his play-calling responsibilities to Callahan before this season began. Even during Bill Parcells’s tenure in the mid-2000s, Jones still retained the final say on all personnel decisions.

His power to influence the fortunes of this team goes far beyond that of Tony Romo. More than any other Cowboys employee, it is Jones himself who needs a thorough performance appraisal.

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Making headlines

A couple more stories that have dominated the agenda over the last seven days:

• As if it wasn’t bad enough to watch Rob Ryan decimate their offence on Sunday night, Cowboys fans also had to put up with knowing that they missed out on free drinks, too. Not for the first time this season, Ryan celebrated victory by stopping into a local bar, and buying everyone a round. 

• The Miami Dolphins’ alleged bullying case continues to dominate the news agenda on this side of the Atlantic, with Richie Incognito giving his side of the story during an interview with Fox’s Jay Glazer on Sunday, before the team’s owner, Stephen Ross, shared his thoughts a day later. This whole ugly affair still has a long way to run, and doubtless there will be several more twists in the tale. In the meantime, it is providing ample material for TV comedians. "Has there ever been a less apt name for a person than Incognito?" quipped Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. “That's the kind of alias an undercover cop comes up with on the fly in one of those Police Academy movies."

• Is Calvin Johnson the greatest wide receiver ever to play in the NFL? Jerry Rice does not think so. "He still has a ways to go," Rice told USA Today this week. "We're just going to let this guy continue to develop, and if he should break the majority of my records or break all my records, I'll be the first one to congratulate him. But I know the sacrifice that you have to put into it. It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of hard work."

• Broncos head coach John Fox is on the mend following heart surgery to replace an aortic valve. His operation took place last Tuesday, and he was released from hospital four days later. Speaking to the press for the first time since, Fox explained that his had been a hereditary condition – one that he was born with and had known about since 1997. He insisted that the rigours of his profession were not responsible for the problem. "I'm very, very healthy. I think the normal length of (hospitalization after) open-heart surgery is five to seven days, and I was out in four,” he told reporters via conference call. “They said this wasn't due to poor lifestyle, or not being healthy, too much stress, not enough stress," Fox said. "This is basically something I was born with that I needed fixed. This is really not a lifestyle problem." Even so, he confessed to having to change channels  away from the Broncos’ game against San Diego at times this weekend as he felt his anxiety rising. No timetable has been set on his return, and that is as it should be. Here’s hoping Fox will do exactly what he would ask his players to do, and just focus on getting healthy before he starts worrying about what comes next.

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Quote of the week

“It’s disgusting. I’m disappointed. I’m embarrassed. A team that’s 0-8 comes in here and beats us? Beats us on our home field? [A team] that’s 0-8? The Jaguars?” – Titans tight end Delanie Walker holds nothing back in dissecting his team’s latest loss.

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Three-and-out

• Jay Cutler explains how a psychic communicated with his dogs.

• Someone keeps stealing Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee’s underpants. We’re assuming it’s gnomes.

• Yahoo give mid-90s Warner Bros movie Space Jam the 30 for 30 treatment. (OK, so that last one’s not NFL-related. Still funny, though.)