Dallas Cowboys have lowered the bar

The Dallas Cowboys locker room is the absolute worst place to look for the supposed leaders of the Dallas Cowboys locker room. Or at least it is following defeats, and especially when that happens to be a disturbingly frequent outcome.

One exception is defensive lineman Marcus Spears, who is readily available and uniquely insightful.

It was after one of these cataclysmic defeats, though not the most recent, that I noted to Spears he had been drafted by a head coach at one end of the behavioral spectrum but played most of his career in Dallas for a head coach at the opposite end. To me, that's Bill Parcells on the right side and Wade Phillips on the wrong end.

I asked Spears how the consequences of losing were different for him under each coach. Spears laughed, and then said something educational.

"Sometimes, you couldn't tell if you won with Bill,'' he said.

That is a curious admission of something I've long suspected. Players were more miserable winning under Parcells than they often are losing with Phillips as coach.

You cannot make losing easy or acceptable, which is what I believe Phillips has done. He has created a culture at Valley Ranch in which he insulates everybody from criticism, never singles anybody out for blame, refuses to hold players accountable and has convinced his team that the media is the cause of any problems. When Leonard Davis admitted he is at fault for playing badly and was deservedly, albeit belatedly, benched, Phillips soothed him with praise, referring to him as a Pro Bowl player and returning him to his starting job.

By all accounts, Davis was benched in the second quarter and returned later as a completely different player. Perhaps Davis learned something from being embarrassed. What Phillips should have deduced from that experience, if not somewhere earlier in his three decades of coaching professional football, is that every player must be allowed to earn his playing time and his opportunity to perform.

He should apply it to Marion Barber, who for some reason remains an honorary starter even though Felix Jones is the player the Cowboys have decided should touch the ball twice as often. Through performance, Jones has earned the right to start, and he should. Never mind what it means for the reputation of the general manager who overpaid Barber or that Barber might sniff and be upset.

Cowboys management thinks it is unimportant which player starts as long as the better player is getting the ball the correct number of times. I disagree. I think it's important for players to know they are going to get exactly what they earn. For the lesser players to be motivated to develop, they must believe devoutly they can compete on an even playing field against a player with a bigger paycheck and higher draft status.

That is how Tony Romo and Miles Austin made the transition from undrafted free agents to among the richest players in the game, a process that began under Parcells.

The standard of success has been lowered in Dallas. It's ridiculous that Marc Colombo was defended after he received what proved to be a game-turning penalty for celebrating a touchdown that didn't even tie a game the Cowboys were playing at home in the fourth quarter against a perceived lesser opponent.

Phillips complained it shouldn't have been a penalty and insisted his players should celebrate when they overcome a 14-point deficit. How about they celebrate when they've actually overcome the deficit and won the game?

And so, this week Jerry Jones again reassured Phillips that his job is not in jeopardy. Phillips in turn assured the Cowboys that their season is secure and they will all keep their starting jobs.

"Wade is the same coach that everybody loved when we won 13 games, so why rip on him now?'' Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman said. "We had Bill Parcells here and we didn't win 13 games. We never even got out of the playoffs."

How curious that in defending Phillips, Newman must reference the coach's most noteworthy failure. A Cowboys team largely rebuilt by Parcells won 13 games the season after his departure, but immediately lost its first playoff game at home to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, a team that the Cowboys defeated twice in the regular season. Dallas became the first No. 1 seed under the current playoff format to fall in the first round. Phillips protested that the better team lost.

Parcells made every Cowboys player tougher. Phillips makes them all more sensitive.

You weren't looking for leaders with Parcells in charge. If he didn't create leadership, he had enough of it for everybody -- or so it seemed.

Former Parcells assistant Sean Payton brilliantly coached the New Orleans Saints to the Super Bowl championship last season. This is his theory on coaching: "I think it's important that you're demanding. I think it's important that you're fair. I think you don't want to settle for anything less than exactly what you're looking for. It's not our job to be the players' friend.''

Of course the players are going to protect Phillips, just as Charles Haley and Deion Sanders did for Barry Switzer years ago. Who wouldn't want a work place where your bosses never question your performance, take the blame that you might deserve and happily overpay you if necessary?

If I'm infuriated when the Cowboys lose, and the only guys available in the locker room to explain are Spears, Igor Olshansky, Roy E. Williams and Orlando Scandrick how must those players truly feel about their higher-paid, more celebrated teammates disappearing into training rooms, meeting rooms or players' lounges?

I have a new level of respect for Williams. Not only has he played incredibly well this season, competing for every ball, but nobody has overcome more scrutiny or criticism. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Sanders have all reviewed him negatively. I've criticized him harshly and 10 times more often than anybody else, with the possible exception of Switzer or, perhaps now, Phillips. I'm not sure I would talk to me if I were him. But Williams is more available than virtually any other Cowboys starter.

In a moment of reprieve following the Cowboys' only victory, Jones remarked that he encouraged his players to behave as though they had lost again in Houston, because he believes the situation his team responds most strongly to is crisis. He never intended that to be an indictment of the person whose hiring he is forever defending, but that's what it seemed to me.

One of the primary functions of the head coach is to create the proper focus and mindset for his players to succeed each week. Phillips seems to do this poorly. If the Cowboys only play with ferocity and expertise when they sense they must for survival, Wade Phillips is failing to have his team meet its weekly challenge.

They Cowboys no longer need to pretend they're facing a crisis. They're actually living one at the moment.

They are taking a 1-3 record to play the equally-disappointing Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome, one of the nosiest and most difficult places to succeed. The Cowboys' season ended in the same building against virtually the same roster last season when they suffered a 31-point defeat.

Now is the time to beat the Vikings. It's what everybody else is doing.

But it will be difficult.

How confident are you that Wade Phillips' team is tough enough?

Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.