Prediction Time

IRVING, TX. -- Welcome to football's "forbidden exercise.'' This is an exercise that a member of the NFL does only in a clandestine manner. This is an exercise that is never discussed by them in public.

This is an exercise that, if you confronted ex-Cowboys luminaries like Troy Aikman, Dave Wannstedt and Michael Irvin, they would be obliged to deny any knowledge of.

The "forbidden exercise''? Scanning through one's own NFL schedule, assessing W's and L's as you go.

Yes, it's true; in blatant violation of the "take-'em-one-game-at-a-time'' NFL law, players and coaches privately do the same thing you do: They take educated guesses at who they will beat and who will beat them.

In my previous life as a Cowboys beat writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (you know, when dinosaurs ruled the earth), I occupied a small office at Valley Ranch. There was only room for three chairs and a Cowboys Cheerleaders wall calendar. Two of the chairs were occupied by me and my co-worker, Richie Whitt. The third chair was labeled by somebody -- Irvin, or maybe Dale Hellestrae, or Jay Novacek -- as "The Hot Seat.'' The chair became a sort of institution, complete with an identifying sign on the wall above it.

Truths -- on the record, off the record, innermost thoughts -- were shared in that chair.

And across from "The Hot Seat'': The Cowboys Cheerleaders wall calendar. In perfect position for players, after work, on their lunch break, whenever, to sit in the chair, scarf their lunch, discuss the news of the day, peruse the 2-D ladies, and pick through the team's schedule.

And pick they did. Much to my amazement, the "take-'em-one-game-at-a-time'' law fell by the wayside.

Aikman, as I recall, took his predictions very seriously, as if he was going to be held to them. And he actually wrote W's and L's on the calendar. Irvin, as you might imagine, took a highly confident approach; those 11-and-12-and-13-win seasons were never a surprise to him. And defensive coordinator Wannstedt? I'll just say this: I wish I would've had the corrupt wisdom to place bets on what Wannstedt had detailed for me, game-by-game. He was extremely astute, extremely honest, extremely accurate.

"That's a 'W.'''

"That's a for-sure 'W.'''

"Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.''

"They suck. That's a 'W.'''

Still today, it's really the best way to assess whether the Cowboys are going to be better than last year's 6-10, whether they're going to be contenders in the weak NFC at 8-8, whether they can push Philadelphia in the NFC East and be 9-7 or better: Go through the schedule with a red pen -- and let the quarterback or the defensive coordinator be the one at the business end of the pen!

You know you've done this yourself already. We'll do it here, without any "Hot Seat'' help, for the record:

At San Diego, Sept. 11? That's an 'L,' short for LT. Vs. Washington, Sept. 19? "They suck. That's a 'W.''' At least they do against Dallas, winner of 14 of the past 15 meetings, and here with Ring-of-Honor motivation. including nine consecutive wins at Texas Stadium. At San Francisco, Sept. 25? "They suck. That's a 'W.''' At Oakland, Oct. 2 -- "The Stay In The Bay.'' Randy Moss makes this a "Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.'' Vs. Philadelphia, Oct. 9? Thinking Terrell Owens' unhappiness makes this a win is wishful thinking; "Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.'' Vs. NY Giants, Oct. 16? The sort of game that means the difference between being a winning team and a loser. "That's a for-sure 'W.''' At Seattle, Oct. 23? Last year's 43-39 Dallas road victory is fuel for the Seahawks. "Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.'' Vs. Arizona, Oct. 30? My man Denny Green is building something there. Still, the Cowboys have won 13 of the past 14 meetings in Dallas. "That's a 'W.'''

(We're eight games in, if you're counting. And the Cowboys are 4-4.)

At Philadelphia, Nov. 14? Cowboys at Eagles usually means blowout. "Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.'' Vs. Detroit, Nov. 20? Right now, one team thinks it's on the rise due to offense (Detroit), one due to defense (Dallas). But by then, the Lions will have faded. "That's a 'W.''' Vs. Denver, Nov. 24? The Broncos might be better than the Cowboys. But they might not be while traveling on Thanksgiving Day. "That's a 'W.''' At NY Giants, Dec. 4? Again, the measuring stick of crappiness. "That's a 'W.''' Vs. Kansas City, Dec. 11? The loaded Chief will make Dallas' good defense look bad. "Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.'' At Washington, Dec. 18? Joe Gibbs will recognize how ugly his own team is. "That's a 'W.'''

(We're 8-6, with two games to go. Contention into late December!)

At Carolina, Dec. 24? On the road. On Christmas Eve. Against a legit contender. "Hmm, tough one. I'll put an 'L' there.'' Vs. St. Louis, Jan. 1? A playoff berth is quite likely on the line for both teams. A loss makes Dallas 8-8, with a two-game losing streak to end the year. A win means 9-7, a wild-card spot, and a nice payoff of a season.

Let's leave this game un-red-marked, shall we? Let's stop. After all, this entire column is "forbidden.''

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