Fragile Cowboys on brink of self-destruction
If you're wondering if the Cowboys are in serious trouble, they are. Any more frail and they'd break into tears, Gene Wojciechowski writes.
ST. LOUIS -- About an hour before his team ralphs on itself, loses its third game in four weeks and goes into full crisis mode, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is walking on the Edward Jones Dome field with his two plainclothes security guards and the team public relations director. He stops to tell a story.
"I asked a man one time who had 300 restaurants, 'How do you find all those cooks? How can you find people who can cook 24 hours a day?'" says Jones, whose left jacket lapel features a Salvation Army pin and a diamond-studded star. "He said, 'You got to remember one thing: If it's supposed to be cold, make it ice cold. If it's supposed to be warm, burn your mouth. You can cover up a lot of things with intensity.'"
Jones pauses. "I admit there's some frailties around here, but we try to make up for it with heat, with heat."
Right now, the Cowboys are generating all the heat of a rain-soaked book of matches. If you're wondering if Jones' team is in serious trouble, they are. Any more frail and they'd break into tears.
The Cowboys could miss the playoffs. Think about that for a moment. A team built for a Super Bowl is on the brink of self-destruction, of self-implosion. And when you dust the crime scene for fingerprints, Jones' are on every piece of Cowboys furniture.
There's no confusion on what happened here Sunday. Jones' pride and non-joy were out-owned, out-coached, out-thrown, outrun, out-fought, out-thought, out-physicaled and, most of all, outscored 34-14. By the St. Louis Rams. Try covering that up.
Jones listens to motivational tapes each day because, he says, "When I wake up, I don't just get up fired up. I usually have to work on that. ... It's just not natural to be upbeat."'
He wasn't upbeat after this latest phone-it-in loss. Jones was angry enough that he could have steamed a basket of clams. A bead of sweat slipped down his forehead as he spoke in terse, measured tones in a nearly silent Cowboys locker room. Earlier, he issued a team-wide, locker-room tongue-lashing that even the most veteran Cowboys say they have seldom witnessed.
"I've had all the fire knocked out of my butt tonight," he said.
Jones called the loss to the Rams -- I repeat, the Rams -- a "complete whipping." He stopped short of saying the Cowboys quit, but when asked if he was concerned the season was slipping away, Jones said, "Yes, but I'm not in any way thinking that we don't have the ability not to let it slip away."
Forty-year-old backup quarterback Brad Johnson threw three interceptions and finished with a 45.5 QB rating. Terrell Owens had two catches for 31 yards. Roy E. Williams, acquired in the much-publicized trade with the Detroit Lions, didn't catch a thing.
I can go on. Eight Dallas penalties. A lost fumble. The Cowboys' defense gave up 180 rushing yards.
"That's sobering, very sobering not to see any positives,'' Jones said.
The Cowboys are 4-3. Their remaining nine games are against Tampa Bay, at the New York Giants, at Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, at Pittsburgh, Giants, Baltimore and at Philadelphia. Without Romo, the Cowboys are wheat toast. With him, it's going to be a grind to finish 9-7 -- a borderline record to even qualify for postseason play.
"We didn't look like that kind of team that is going to turn it around today,'' said suddenly vulnerable head coach Wade Phillips. He added later, "This is the worst game this team has played since I've been here. ... I'm angry, disappointed and embarrassed. We shouldn't get beat like that.''
Phillips said he thinks the Cowboys will recover from this freefall. The question is, will Phillips still be here to see it? The Cowboys gagged late last season, and then again in their first game of the playoffs. And here they are needing a tracheotomy seven games into the 2008 season.
"Emphatically no,'' Jones said, when I asked him if a head coaching change was on his list of possible changes. OK, so Phillips stays. For now. But if the Cowboys continue to lose and/or struggle, how patient will Jones remain? After all, his team hasn't won a playoff game in 12 long, excruciating years.
And did I mention that the Cowboys lost to the Rams?
Jones is great for the NFL, but sometimes you wonder if he's bad for the Cowboys. Granted, no other owner in the league is more involved, engaged and invested in his team than Jones. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder tries, but he's a poseur compared to Jones.
But that utter devotion to his franchise sometimes creates some blind spots. Jones admitted as much before the Rams game.
"I think I am unreasonable sometimes relative to my passion and my interest about the team,'' he said. "I admit I can be unreasonable and, if you will, illogical sometimes."
These Cowboys were painstakingly assembled by Jones. And now bottom-feeder teams such as the Rams are lobbing water balloons at his grand plan. You could see the hurt and disbelief on his face. When someone chuckled during one of his postgame answers, Jones said, "I don't see any humor in this."
Jones wears a Super Bowl ring from the Cowboys' 1992 season. He wears it because it was his first, and because it fits his finger the best. Jones remembers asking then-Dallas stars Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith for their input on the look of the ring.
Irvin told him: "Jerry, you know how to design a ring. Just make those diamonds look like headlights."
The Cowboys need those headlights these days. They're driving on a dark road headed to nowhere. If this keeps up, you'll hear the crash soon enough.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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