<
>

Pins, needles popping Cowboys' hope

10/19/2010 - NFL Dallas Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' plane ride home from Minneapolis was quiet.

Miles Austin had on his headphones, trying to escape the world. The plane landed around 10 p.m. CT, but he said he didn't get to sleep until 4 a.m.

Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said he doesn't sleep well and feels ill when his team loses.

The Cowboys are 1-4 and running out of time. This season of hope is down to 11 games. If the Cowboys are to salvage it, they would need to win nine of those for a guaranteed playoff berth; eight more wins means they would need help from other teams.

"You work so hard, you don't prepare for this," defensive end Marcus Spears said Monday while sitting on a couch in the Cowboys locker room. "It is shocking; especially with the guys we've assembled in this locker room, you wouldn't think you would go through this kind of stuff. You are and you have to play to win the games, and we're not doing that."

The Cowboys rank third in the NFL with 49 penalties. The offense has been called for 30, the most in the league. Quarterback Tony Romo, who threw a career-low nine interceptions last season, has thrown five the past two weeks.

Dallas' special teams unit allowed a 95-yard kickoff return for a score in the loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday and a 75-yard return in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Tennessee Titans the previous week.

Phillips' job status has been called into question, but Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said nothing is changing regarding the coach.

However, Phillips said other changes are forthcoming. He's banned players from touchdown celebrations after Austin and Marc Colombo were penalized for excessiveness in consecutive weeks, although the league said Monday that Sam Hurd, not Austin, should have been the culprit against the Vikings.

It was of no consequence to Austin, who wore the look of a man in pain as he spoke with reporters Monday. He apologized to his teammates in an afternoon meeting.

"I just feel terrible about it," he said. "As bad as I feel about it, I've just got to do whatever I can to make it up to the team and work as hard as I can."

Monday afternoon was a dreary day for the Cowboys. Players slowly walked into the Valley Ranch complex wondering how they can fix things.

How can they stop the penalties? How can they make more defensive plays? How can they curtail the turnovers? How can they get healthy?

Players talked among themselves about the problems and other things going on in their lives.

Gerald Sensabaugh and Spears sat on a black couch in the center of the locker room, playing with their iPads as they talked.

Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins sat at their lockers, exchanging small talk with reporters.

Several other players were in the trainer's room receiving treatment for injuries and being told about their playing status.

Starting left guard Kyle Kosier is out two to three weeks with a sprained right Achilles.

Romo has a bruised left thumb. It's not considered serious. Dez Bryant is getting treatment for a sprained ankle.

The Cowboys are not healthy from a physical standpoint. You could say the same about their mental makeup.

Igor Olshansky said the team is in panic mode.

"Everybody should be a little bit uneasy where we are," he said. "It's not like we have many more weeks. The margin of error is getting very small for us. So we have to really focus and step it up a notch."

The New York Giants are next Monday night, and they're tied for first place in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Phillips said his team is not thinking about the playoffs. The Cowboys have to take it one game at a time. They have no choice.

"We've got to get one game," Phillips said. "It's just win one and move on from there. It can look quite a bit different in several weeks. That can't be what your focus is. Your focus has to be on this game."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.