TAMPA, Fla. -- Even with his team ambushing the rest of the NFL, courtesy of a five-game winning streak and a workable lead in the NFC East, coach Bill Parcells kept telling his young Dallas Cowboys roster that, if it didn't correct some of the habitual errors that he kept seeing on video and the practice field, it might be headed for a spiral.
On Sunday afternoon here, outhustled and outhit by the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs, the Cowboys turned their coach's words into a self-fulfilling crash-and-burn disaster. That thud you might have heard just before 4 p.m. was, indeed, the Cowboys, who apparently took the extra hour of sleep on Saturday night to an extreme.
When the clocks changed over to standard time, it seems, timepieces in the Dallas hotel here must have all struck midnight, and the Cowboys were transformed into pumpkins.
In a game several Dallas veterans acknowledged that they viewed as a yardstick of just how far the team had advanced in Parcells' initial season, the Cowboys got hit instead by a whipping stick, and the final 16-0 rendering doesn't even accurately reflect the lopsided nature of what transpired at Raymond James Stadium.
"The score," conceded Parcells, "was not as bad as it could have been. ... We need to take a look at the film and see where we go from here."
Certainly that is the question with which the upstart Cowboys, who have already won as many games in 2003 as they did in any of the previous three seasons, will be confronted while they prepare for next Sunday's home game against the Washington Redskins. To this point, the Cowboys have been overachievers, and it will be up to Parcells and a few of the franchise's elder statesmen to ensure the club does not go under.
There certainly has been a suspicion that the Dallas talent level was hardly commensurate with its victory total and, alas, Sunday's loss graphically demonstrated there is still plenty of work to be accomplished. During one of his media briefings last week, Parcells recited a lengthy litany of transgressions, both venial and substantial.
When the Cowboys coach and his staff assembles on Monday morning to review video of the loss, they will see many of those same errors repeated, along with a few more, such as a costly penalty in which rookie cornerback Terence Newman extended a Bucs drive by running into kicker Martin Gramatica. Instead of a field goal, and a 6-0 lead, Tampa got a touchdown and a double-digit edge on the scoreboard.
But at least the glitch by Newman, the Cowboys' first-round draft selection in 2003, was an aggressive one. In general, the Cowboys were far too passive, especially in executing an offense that had displayed a proficiency in getting the ball vertically up the field.
Through the first six games, Parcells has taken some shots deep, but Dallas opened here on Sunday by running on its first six snaps. Rarely did the Cowboys, especially following a badly underthrown pass by quarterback Quincy Carter that was intercepted and set up the contest's first score, test a refurbished Tampa Bay secondary in which not a single player was lined up in his normal position.
Explained Parcells, who tired of answering the same questions, in his post-game press conference: "We did not want to get into a passing game." On the ground, though, the Cowboys totaled a paltry 60 yards on 22 rushes, and never got into synch.
Now, getting back into the rhythm displayed in the first six games becomes the priority for a team that experienced its first setback since the season opener.
"To me, I don't think you take anything away from a loss, except a loss," said veteran strong safety Darren Woodson. "But we have a lot of young guys who have to learn from their experiences. So maybe there's a lesson here, I don't know, but it's a lesson no one wants to have to learn too many times. We've got to sift through the wreckage and put this thing back together again."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.