Holding Serve

Playing NFL games on Christmas Eve or Day is puzzling if not a bit troubling.

Ask any NFL spouse who has dealt with her mate on either date following a loss, especially a loss with playoff implications. No, this isn't some cheap promotion to ban Christmas or the NFL's participation on the haloed holiday. Like sugarplums dancing in the head (still haven't figured this one out after all the years), visions of angry Panthers surveying newly opened Play Station 2's, Dora the Explorer figurines and multi-faceted iPods came to mind. Thank goodness the Cowboys personnel were afforded the opportunity to wake up on the joyous side of the bed and enjoy the day of celebration. Just how many Christmases have been destroyed by a critical loss in late December? Should a verification call be placed to Mrs. Steve Smith or Mrs. Julius Peppers?

The NFL playing husbands of these two provided the earliest of gifts for Cowboys households worldwide. While highly doubtful thank you cards are in the mail, it's the thought that counts. Sure, potential over-officiousness may have entered the fray, but each player made a critical and costly mistake (one avoidable and the other accidental) leading to an eventual defeat, at home, with the division title on the line. Hopefully, the hangover will continue Sunday in the Georgia Dome, but more on that later. It's difficult to decipher who made the more tactical error, Smith by waist-measuring the official or the Fox/Henning combination for not scheming Smith's involvement prior to the ejection. As for Peppers, forward momentum tends to carry big, fast guys in funny directions. "Wide Right" Cundiff just happened to obstruct inertia. At least Billy did one thing correct ("right" just didn't feel appropriate) in the contest.

It was the Christmas spirit that allowed him to remain a Cowboy throughout the weekend. In a gesture more humane than anything, Cundiff avoided the dreaded pink slip while slithering into his travel wear. He was even given a hall pass for the charter home. Is anyone a little apprehensive and queasy rolling into the St. Louis game with a side-winder claiming only two successful 21-yarders on his sparse professional resume? When the season concludes, and the if's and but's start to fly, is it safe to assume the three-legged monster of Cortez, Cundiff and Suisham (possibly) will be directly tied to the inability of the Cowboys to control their own playoff destiny? When considering the size of the signing bonus distributions this year, a few hundred thousand dollars for the likes of a Steve Hoffman would appear mere chump change. This particular element of the Cowboys arsenal must change in 2006.

Speaking of change, how about the Demarcus Ware and Julius Jones show? Each rolled into Carolina with the mindset of "this thing doesn't go down on my watch." Is it safe to say each came to the conclusion of "enough already?" The Shawne Merriman mantra and comparisons were becoming nauseating, and Jones was probably fed up with his 2004 "has been" status. The call-outs being led by none other than the Big Tuna. Pushing. Chiding. Bullying. Needling. How about this post-game whopper of a statement? "Oh no, he's been running like that and ready to roll for months." Nice. Vintage Parcells. Instead of handing out accolades, he prefers to keep the player's head within manageable proportions and able to fit through standard-sized doors. At least the commentary came after the performance. Before leaving Julius, just one additional ponderance. Was Marco Rivera and his lower back injury (preseason) the critical factor holding back the running game? It appeared Andre Gurode had no problems progressing from the point of attack to the second level. Hmmm.

While talking progression, evidently Demarcus Ware took both Jeff Ireland and Jerry Jones seriously. There were flashes of the late, and great, Derrick Thomas on display in Bank of America Stadium. Jones couldn't seek out Ware fast enough following the 60-minute proceedings. It's safe to assume Ware had his fill of Merriman comparisons. You know, kind-of-like, Shawne this!!

Those providing could have, should have analogies on who the Cowboys should have selected at #11 need to consider the entire comparison landscape. It's not enough to consider the stats and Pro Bowl invitation. Expectations of any first round selection are immense when it involves the NFL stage, but when you throw metamorphosis into the equation, the learning curve becomes an expansion bridge.

The hailed talent from little-known Troy University has been confronted with many first year pressures. First, the opposition talent lining up across from the team from Troy rarely consisted of Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Miami or Virginia Tech. The likes of Arkansas State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic aren't even close to the same zip code. Not to mention the Cowboys expectation and intent of moving Ware from rush end to stand-up, 3-4 linebacker. Not quite as easy as, say, blowing one's nose. And, oh by the way, Demarcus, you'll be a starter from the onset. No eased-in from the sideline adjustment following an agent-advised holdout. Lastly, by design, choice or neither, a decision was made to darn the famed threads on one Sir Charles Haley. No tall order or elongated shoes to fill there. Suffice it to say, the young man doesn't run from a challenge.

So, they survive to hopefully play another meaningful game in Week 17. It's hoped the Christmas giving extends another week with either Atlanta or Philly providing the necessary presents. Asking a favor of the Eagles almost seems sacrilegious, doesn't it? In considering the Eagles battle with the Redskins, it can only be hoped pride overrides their grandiose desire to lie down for stick-it-to-the-Cowboys purposes. Don't know about you, but the Carolina road record in the Georgia Dome provides much more optimism. Come one, come all, light a candle, incense, or any other available mind-soothing device. Say a prayer. Form a séance. Whatever it takes. Here's to hoping the 7:30PM (CST) kick-off is not merely an exercise in futility but a chance to dance in the post-season. It's either that or an anxious look ahead to the April Draft.

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