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.
Johnson is the ultimate game-managing bus driver, a Bill Parcells wet dream. But after getting comfy watching Romo throw to Witten, being subjected to Johnson soft-tossing to Tony Curtis feels like downgrading from Phyllis George to Phyllis Diller. Aesthetically pleasing? Johnson's throwing motion is similar to a senior citizen's first date with a Wii.
To his credit, Phillips squeezed blood from the offense's shriveled turnip. After watching Johnson booed and Flozell Adams with yet another false start and a 1-2-3-kick! routine straight from the Kilgore Rangerettes, the head coach gambled on fourth downs and bypassed a field goal for a risky throw into the end zone for the game's only touchdown.
For a week, it worked. But it feels more like a temporary stay of execution than a permanent lease on life. You'd need Isiah Thomas' version of the truth to believe the Cowboys aren't still broken.
After the bye Romo gets healthy and Felix Jones gets healthy and Witten gets healthy and Kosier gets healthy and Henry gets healthy and Terence Newman gets healthy and Anthony Spencer gets healthy and Roy Williams gets better and Pacman Jones gets reincarnated.
Said Phillips, "I think everyone knows that after the bye we'll be a lot stronger."
Remember, the Giants won the Super Bowl last year without winning the division. In a country that might actually elect a black president, anything's possible. Wild cards do win. The Cowboys, for a refreshing change, could peak at the end of the season instead of the beginning.
But, more likely, the mere fact that Dallas is wildly celebrating mid-season wins is a testament that things have gone horribly, irreversibly wrong.
If the Cowboys are this happy just to survive in October, is it realistic to think they can succeed in January?