By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
When—not if—the Dallas Cowboys lose to the Giants in New Jersey on Sunday, the NFC East race will slip officially out of their reach.
At 5-4 and trailing the defending Super Bowl champs by three games with seven to play, owner Jerry Jones will attempt to shrug it off and spin it forward. He'll optimistically point toward the bye week and the impending return of quarterback Tony Romo and various favorable wild-card scenarios.
And we'll all get confirmation of what we already know: The bar has been lowered. Drastically, embarrassingly lowered.
A Cowboys team once featured on HBO and favored by Las Vegas is on track to being nothing more than a talented cast of characters whose celebrity greatly exceeds its success. How else do you explain Dallas doing cartwheels over the most meager of accomplishments?
Last Sunday at Texas Stadium the Cowboys were booed on their third offensive snap of the game. They gained only 172 yards. They converted three of 15 third downs. They lost starters Jason Witten and Anthony Henry to injuries. They somehow squeaked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 13-9, raising their modest record to 5-3 at the season's halfway point.
You'd have thought former mayor Laura Miller was in the locker room spit-shining the Lombardi Trophy and mapping out parade routes. Instead of treating a home win over a mediocre opponent as casually as Mark Cuban finding an old dollar bill in his jeans, the Cowboys set off the fireworks.
Head coach Wade Phillips ripped off his headset and raised his arms in triumph. Defensive coordinator Brian Stewart exchanged giddy high-fives with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Romo, his broken pinkie still in a splint, repeatedly pumped his fist. And Jones, a jittery combo of relief and rejoicing, awarded the game ball to his head coach.
"Nobody deserves this more than Wade," Jones crowed.
Think about it. In the days before Halloween, Phillips needed from his owner both a vote of confidence and a game ball. That kind of misplaced, ill-timed adulation is supposed to happen to improving, try-hard teams in Miami or Houston, not a preseason Super Bowl favorite like Dallas.
A year ago, the Cowboys had just hung with the perfect New England Patriots for three quarters en route to a 7-1 first half. Now? They needed one of the ugliest victories in franchise history—172 yards in a win is a team record—just to stay in the conversation.
"This," said backup quarterback Brad Johnson, "was a huge win."
Added receiver Terrell Owens, reduced to a role player during Dallas' decline, "It was a must win."
Admittedly, it was better than the alternative.
The Cowboys are still wallowing in turmoil and trouble, but for a week at least, they're no longer in panic.
After one of the most embarrassing losses in franchise history—34 points to the Rams?—Phillips decried he would step up and grab hold of Dallas' defense. The news there, of course, was that Phillips wasn't somehow already in charge of his vaunted "Phillips 3-4."
While hinting that he would directly call the defensive signals, he was simultaneously cryptic about how Stewart wasn't somehow being demoted and stripped of authority.
"I make the calls, and [Stewart] backs me up," Phillips tried to explain.
Huh? I have a better time trying to understand Bud Light's new "Drinkability" campaign. I mean, doesn't drinkability merely afford us the ability to drink it? (What, its competitors' product comes in the form of razor blade-laced powder?)
While players claimed nothing changed significantly during practices, meetings or the game, the results were dramatically improved. With a burst of enthusiasm and a variety of schemes, Dallas held a decent Tampa Bay offense out of the end zone to—albeit sheepishly—save its season.
Safety Ken Hamlin blitzed. Linebacker Bradie James recorded a sack. Linebacker Zach Thomas finally put his stamp on a game. And the secondary—which in the fourth quarter included two rookies (Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick) and a second-year, seventh-round pick (Alan Ball)—pressed receivers at the line of scrimmage for the first time in a long time.
In the end, the Cowboys' defense followed one of the worst performances in team history with one of the best.
"Our defense certainly stepped up today," said Phillips. "We needed it to come up with big plays at the end, and that's what it did."
Phillips, if nothing else, at least held a play sheet. If he, in fact, was more hands-on, it begs the obvious question of the longtime defensive guru, "What took you so long?"
As long as Romo's hand is in a cast, the Cowboys' long-term outlook is in the shitter. Dallas prevailed over the Bucs despite Johnson, not because of him.
The same won't happen against the Giants.
Why? Because the Cowboys are headed to New York without backup running back Felix Jones, starting left guard Kyle Kosier and maybe even tight end Jason Witten. But mostly, because Johnson's arm is weaker than the Adjustable Rate Mortgages that ultimately kick-started our national financial crisis. Seriously, the next time he steps into a throw will be the first time.