America's Team gone bad

Last week, we took "First Take" to New York City, where fans turned our live shows into a can't-hear-yourself-talk version of Seattle's CenturyLink Field. Of course, I saw (and met) lots of Giants and Jets fans, and a growing number of Seahawks and Broncos fans as the Super Bowl approached, but every day our crowds were dotted with blue jerseys and blue caps.

Cowboys fans.

They are everywhere.

I often see Cowboys fans in New York City on weekends and often ask those who grew up in or around NYC why they pledged allegiance to a team in Dallas, Texas. Their dads were Cowboys fans, I hear -- or as kids they just loved the star on the helmet or the metallic-blue jerseys flashing across their TV or the Hollywood glitz of the Troy/Emmitt/Michael dynasty of the early '90s. Just think: A kid named LeBron James, growing up in Akron, Ohio, became a Cowboys fanatic.

Yet: Jerry Jones' Cowboys have won only one playoff game (while losing six and playing in only seven) in the past SEVENTEEN SEASONS! Just think: Since winning that third Super Bowl in four years after the 1995 season, the Cowboys are just 2-7 in the postseason with zero trips to even the NFC Championship Game.

"So, how," my debate partner Stephen A. Smith, lifelong Giants fan, often asks me with insulted incredulity, "are the Dallas Cowboys still called America's Team?"

The answers, I believe, are found in the first book I wrote about the franchise I grew up loving in Oklahoma City. It's called "God's Coach," and I hope Stephen A. will read it one day. It's about how a football team sprang to life on the North Texas plains and, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, began to captivate fans from sea to shining sea. Why? The Cowboys seemed like so much more than just a pro football team.

Cowboys games were like attending a religious crusade with exotic dancers in a stadium that looked as if it had just landed from a galaxy far, far away.

The coach was the Man in the Hat, the legendary Tom Landry, God's Coach, who preached silent sermons from the sideline each Sunday afternoon to millions of Bible Belters who had just returned from church.

The team's president and mastermind was a man from L.A. named Texas E. Schramm -- Cecil B. DeMille meets Steven Spielberg -- who put the equivalent of Playboy Bunnies on the sideline and called them Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, women who sometimes rivaled players in popularity.

The team's draft master was a fast-talking former baby photographer named Gil Brandt, who pretty much convinced the national media he had invented the computer and used it to identify hidden talent other teams couldn't find.

The Dallas Cowboys began to leap off TV screens from L.A. to New York -- to seize the psyches of kids who eventually became fathers and taught their kids to hero-worship at the Cowboys' altar. The Cowboys set a record that still stands of 20 straight winning seasons (1966-1985). They became America's most loved, hated and fascinating team and remain so to this day.

But "God's Coach" is about how this team slowly turned into "this thing, this monster," as former Cowboys public-relations director (and longtime NFL spokesman) Greg Aiello called it -- a media-crazed beast whose runaway expectations, built dangerously on illusion and delusion, finally devoured Tom Landry just the way they're starting to close their jaws on the Man Who Fired Landry, Jerry Jones.

"God's Coach" opens and closes with a wide-eyed wildcatter from Arkansas named Jerral Wayne Jones suffering a fateful hangover in Cabo San Lucas, soon stumbling headlong into buying the Cowboys and being stunned at what he found going on behind the curtain of the Great and Powerful Landry.

As Jones told me then: "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it from the inside out."

Why had previous owner H.R. "Bum" Bright chosen to sell to Jones, even though he almost certainly would've been outbid by several other very interested buyers? Because Jones, the naive outsider, was the one bidder prepared to immediately fire Landry ... who had always cold-shouldered Bright, who had come to despise one of the most respected men in sports.

Holy Cowboy.

I flashed back on all this just before the Wednesday "First Take" show in New York. The Super Bowl had momentarily been upstaged by news that Jerry Jones was at it again, this time allowing coach Jason Garrett to bring in yet another play-caller, Scott Linehan, the Cowboys' third in three years ... even though, in the past seven seasons, Linehan-coached offenses have ranked in the NFL's top 10 in scoring only once and have finished lower than 25th three times.

Wait, Bill Callahan, last season's play-caller, was still the "run-game coordinator"? Garrett would still have final say over plays called by Linehan, and quarterback Tony Romo was still supposed to have more input than ever into game planning and more leeway to change plays at the line? The Three Stooges had become Four?

And, with Rod Marinelli now elevated above Monte Kiffin to run the defense, the Cowboys were dealing with their fourth defensive coordinator in five seasons (with recent finishes of 8-8, 8-8, 8-8 and 6-10)?

The Internet was ablaze with outraged Cowboys fans. Had Jerry completely lost it?

Naturally, we debated the Linehan-to-Dallas topic at the top of that live-audience show. Stephen A. unleashed his usual disbelieving ridicule, and the crowd raised the roof. Everyone has an opinion about the Cowboys.

Mine is that Landry and Jerry finally have something in common. Yes, Jerry appears to be suffering the same fate Landry did in his final three seasons before Jerry pulled him off a golf course one February Saturday in 1989 and happily axed him after 29 seasons, five Super Bowl appearances and two titles.

In truth, Landry ultimately couldn't live up to being God's Coach as his Hollywood Rome went down in flames. His teams suffered racial issues, drug problems and finally increasingly overrated talent. In the end, Landry lost it.

Through a final 3-13 season in 1988, Landry began calling players by the wrong names during games and getting overwhelmed in key play-calling situations. He was 64, not 84. America's Team will do that to a mortal man.

Butch Johnson, whose diving Super Bowl XII touchdown catch was painted by LeRoy Neiman, told me that, through the '80s, the Cowboys became "reflections of reflections." Sound familiar?

History repeats: Now Jerry seems to prefer style over substance. Wildly entertaining losses are as important as boring wins. Making money and making "Jerry Says ..." headlines rival making the playoffs.

The rise and fall of Landry and Jerry also have this in common: Each benefited greatly -- even was made by -- one franchise-changing force. For Landry, it was the transcendent leadership and "Hail Mary" miracle-making of quarterback Roger Staubach, who created many of his most famous plays by changing Landry's play call. For Jones, it was coach Jimmy Johnson's rage to win.

Landry's teams began their slide after concussions forced Staubach into retirement. Jerry's descent began soon after he fired a Johnson who could no longer stand working for him.

Yet here's the painful irony: In the end, Jerry was the greatest thing that could have happened to Landry. He needed "Jethro" Jones from Arkansas to free him and turn him back into the celebrated martyr he deserved to be.

Jerry needs a Jerry to fire Jerry. But, even at 71, he is more dug in than ever, insisting that he won't even fire himself as GM, and he certainly has no plans to sell the team. So, generations of Cowboys fans remain Jerry's prisoners, still flaunting their blue caps and jerseys and vintage arrogance, even in New York during Super Bowl week.