Bradie James couldn't do it.
It was the morning after the Cowboys' 2008 season ended in disgrace. Phillips announced at a news conference that although there was not going to be a change in head coaches, there would be a change in the head coach. No more Mr. Nice Guy, he intimated.
James, a defensive captain last season, got the word from reporters. His unfiltered reaction: a smile, followed by a giggle, then another smile.
Seven months later, James is still smiling - but for a different reason. He insists the grin is in appreciation of how Phillips has managed to get tougher while still remaining good ol' Wade.
"He's been more involved, more vocal," James said. "There are some things he's been firm about. That's what you need. You need to see him getting in and getting hands-on with us, and that's what he's been doing lately."
The Dallas Cowboys open training camp in San Antonio on Wednesday and the juiciest story lines stem from the departure of Terrell Owens, whether Tony Romo will flourish or flounder without him, and whether Roy Williams can step up as the lead receiver.
But don't forget about Phillips and his vow to crack a sharper whip. His future might depend on it.
Phillips is going into his third season running the Cowboys and his eighth full season as an NFL head coach, yet he's still seeking his first career playoff victory. He has the second-most regular-season wins without a playoff win in NFL history.
If Phillips can't break through this season, it's hard to imagine team owner Jerry Jones giving him another chance. And if he's cut loose, the 62-year-old Phillips may not find a fourth franchise willing to put him in charge.
Jones has plenty of reasons to be impatient, from the $1.1 billion he's invested in a new stadium that opens this season to the roughly $3 million he's paying Jason Garrett to be the offensive coordinator. Garrett is the highest-paid assistant in NFL history and widely viewed as the head coach in waiting.
Yet the biggest source of impatience - for Jones and all Cowboys fans - is "The Drought," a stretch between playoff victories that has reached capital-letter status.
Dallas' last playoff win was in 1996, making this the longest dry spell in franchise history. The club also has matched its longest gap between Super Bowl titles; anything shy of a championship this season will set that dubious mark.
The Cowboys seemed poised for a breakthrough in Phillips' first season, going 13-3 and grabbing the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Then they lost at home to the New York Giants, a wild-card team that went on to win the Super Bowl.
Dallas started strong again last season, only to finish 1-3 and miss the playoffs. Romo blew fourth-quarter leads in the first two losses, then everything fell apart in the finale, a 44-6 drubbing by Philadelphia when a win still would've put the Cowboys into the playoffs.
While Jones kept Phillips, he made a bunch of other changes.
Out went perceived troublemakers Owens, Adam "Pacman" Jones and Tank Johnson, plus linebacker Greg Ellis, who'd been griping about his status for several years. Jones also dumped defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, essentially making him the fall guy for the defense's problems late last season, even though Phillips was calling the plays by then.
Stewart's replacement? Phillips, making him the only coach in the NFL whose business card reads head coach/defensive coordinator.
Phillips' forte over 30-plus NFL seasons is running a defense. But it's a lot of work, so Phillips tried easing his burden by bringing in Dan Reeves, his former boss and a former Cowboys player and assistant coach, as sort of a right-hand man. Reeves set up shop at team headquarters, then moved out a few days later when Jones insisted he work a set amount of hours.
So Phillips is doing double duty without pals like Stewart or Reeves. He's also going into the third and final year of the contract he signed when he replaced Bill Parcells. Those factors alone could bring out a new, tougher Phillips even as he has the leeway to be hands-on more often.
"I'm not going to change my personality," Phillips said. "I think one of my strengths is getting players to do what I want done. That's what leadership is - getting what you want done, however you have to do it."
Phillips seems to be pushing players harder without being harsher. Makes sense. He's never been into playing mind games like Parcells or threatening anyone with being sent to "the asthma field," a la Jimmy Johnson.
"People are going to feel I'm laid back whether I am or not," Phillips said. "But what you demand of players and what you ask them to do, there are two different things there. Some things you can demand more and other things you can ask them to do, and if it's not done then you correct it. Some of those things, what I demand, might be different."
One wrinkle is an emphasis on his authority, which is tough to claim in an organization where Jones wields much power. Phillips is reminding folks he's the boss by being strict about the rules. Even little ones.
Consider this scene from an offseason practice: A horn sounded, ending a drill and starting a break. A backup quarterback knew what drill was next, so he lined up folks and started throwing the ball around. Phillips hustled over, blew his whistle and hollered, "Don't start until we start!"
Trivial as it might seem, cornerback Terence Newman brought that up as an example of the "new" Phillips.
"He just lets everybody know he's going to hold them more accountable than he did last year," Newman said. "Not that he didn't hold people accountable, but that's an emphasis for him. ... He's just letting everybody know that this is the year. This has to be the year."
Phillips' previous training camps were chided as "Camp Cupcake" because of how easy he made things for veterans. Don't expect him to go soft this time around. That message came through loud and clear on the final day of a June minicamp.
After 2 1/2 days of workouts in scorching heat, players were hoping Phillips would reward them by scrubbing the final practice.
"If he wouldn't have had all those headlines about him not being tough, then we would've been off," James said, smiling and laughing once again. "He's tough. Believe me!"
No more camp cupcake?
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