The Dallas Cowboys thought they might be the last team standing. Now, they could be the first team drafting.
So how does a proud franchise miss the mark in such a spectacular way, following its most promising season in a decade by losing seven of its first eight games?
Is it all coaching? What role does Cowboys owner Jerry Jones play? How do those players — essentially the same group that won a playoff game last season — allow themselves to be embarrassed the way they were in Sunday's 45-7 loss at Green Bay?
To find some answers, I called Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, the only living coaches to have led the Cowboys to Super Bowl victories. (Johnson won two, matching the total of Tom Landry, and Switzer won one.)
While Johnson and Switzer agreed about the lack of effort and emotion with the 2010 Cowboys, they differed on how much blame Jones deserves — responses reflective of their polar-opposite working relationships with the owner during their coaching days.
"The problem with the Cowboys is you're not real sure who the leader is — and therein lies the problem," said Johnson, now a "Fox NFL Sunday" analyst. "Their players haven't answered to the head coach, and I think that's a problem."
Despite the coaching switch — from Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett — Johnson doesn't think that will change. By his thinking, Jones will always loom largest.
"Jerry will never change," he said. "Jerry wants to be right in the middle of it. That's why he paid all that money to buy them.
"Stephen is such a huge part of the process too," he added, referring to Jones' son, the club's chief operating officer. "So that's family. And when it comes to family, there's no stronger bond. Jerry's not going to change because his family's so involved."
Switzer said he never had an issue with Jones' involvement, said it didn't seep into the game-day decisions, and praised the owner for his financial commitment to winning.
"Jerry Jones does not have one thing to do with what happens on that football field, I promise you," Switzer said. "Jerry is the biggest supporter. He's willing to put up money. He competes. A lot of guys who own football teams in that league do not even compete for a Super Bowl. Jerry wants to win Super Bowls. He'll put his money up, he'll write the big checks.
"He never interfered with me, never did one thing. Hell, he wasn't even around. Jimmy didn't let him around; that was the problem they had."
Both Johnson and Switzer praised Phillips as a good coach, although neither said the Cowboys made the wrong move in firing him.
"The easiest scapegoat is Wade," Johnson said. "But it's hard to put it all on just one person. They've been a sloppy team the past two or three years with penalties and turnovers. They've put up a lot of yards. But they've made critical mistakes that have cost them games. That's been a disappointment.
"But this year, it's just been a lack of effort. Obviously the effort has something to do with not only the performance on the field, but also their preparation."
For Switzer, effort and emotion are interchangeable. If a team is playing without emotion, it's surely not making the effort required to win games — and a lot of that is up to the coach.
"Everybody can get the mental and the physical down, but it's the emotional part," he said. "That's why coaches know they've got to go if that arrow is pointed down. And it was pointed down for Wade, big time. He knew he had to go."
Switzer said he saw the same lack of emotion in the Cowboys at the end of his tenure there, when they lost the last five games of the 1997 season and finished 6-10.
He and Jones would always go out to dinner the night before a game. And it was in Cincinnati, the night before the second-to-last game, when Switzer dropped a bombshell.
"Jerry's talking about what we've got to do next year," Switzer recalled. "I looked at him — we'd already had a bottle of wine — and said, 'If we don't beat them tomorrow, the first thing you'd better do is fire my [butt] and hire yourself a new football coach.' It just shocked Jerry that I said that. I was serious. The arrow was pointing down."
The Bengals won that game, 31-24, and it wasn't long before Switzer stepped down. He said it's painfully obvious when a team has packed it in for the season.
"Backs don't ricochet up into those dark holes like they did when they had a chance to get into the playoffs," he said. "When they aren't going to the playoffs, they get out of bounds sooner. They get down quicker. The receivers come across the middle and they might not stretch and lay out for a ball. They would have given it all up to make a play to get in the playoffs.
"I know that from watching film when I was with the Cowboys. It's no different now. … There are a few players that have the pride to do it every snap. But a lot of guys protect themselves. It's human nature."
On that, the two coaches agree. These Cowboys are as lifeless as their record suggests.
"Just the way they played the last couple of weeks, they just kind of quit," Johnson said. "That was a shocker to me."