Uncertainty rules in Dallas after humiliating MNF turn

10/25/2006 - NFL Dallas Cowboys New York Giants + more

IRVING, Texas -- At halftime Monday night, representatives from the Hall of Fame presented quarterback Troy Aikman and offensive tackle Rayfield Wright with the gaudy rings that signify the induction of the two former Dallas Cowboys stars into football's most honored fraternity.

It might have been better for the Cowboys' fortunes had Wright and Aikman been handed headgear instead of hardware.

Put the two new Hall of Fame members in uniform? Hey, in a game where the Cowboys looked absolutely dismal in an ignoble 36-22 loss to the New York Giants, it might have been a silly idea -- but one still superior to anything Bill Parcells and his coaching staff summoned. Because on a night in which Dallas honored a part of its glorious football past, the overriding questions by the end of a contest in which the Cowboys performed ingloriously were all about the team's future.

"I don't know where it leaves us," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "We played so badly. I mean, what can you say? We've got a lot of talent, but let's face it, we didn't play a good football game. Talent alone doesn't win football games, and we're finding that out. Now we're going to have to dig deep and find out just what we've got inside of us. But we sure didn't find any answers here tonight.

"We're leaving with a lot of questions, and we'll find out next week which way we're headed."

Once again the shortcomings that had been symptomatic of Dallas' uneven start to the season -- the inability to protect immobile Drew Bledsoe in the pocket and the quarterback's often dubious decision-making -- were manifested. At halftime, despite trailing by a 12-7 count and playing at home, Parcells had seen enough and yanked Bledsoe.

It seemed like a panic move at the time, but Parcells clearly felt it was a switch he had to make.

The Texas Stadium crowd, which lustily booed Bledsoe after the 14-year veteran was sacked twice on the first two series -- one for a safety -- got its first look at backup Tony Romo. And it probably won't be the last.

Parcells and owner Jerry Jones were noncommittal about which quarterback will get the nod Sunday night when Dallas plays at Carolina, but both men hinted pretty broadly that Romo will get the first start of his four-year career.

Romo completed 14 of 25 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown in the six possessions he worked, and was sacked twice. The crowd that chanted "Romo!" when he entered the game could have screamed "Oh, no!" at some junctures of his most extended regular-season appearance. But it seemed as though Parcells was looking for an excuse to make a change, and when Bledsoe threw a horrible interception in the red zone with Dallas poised to take the lead before halftime, he had more than sufficient justification for the switch.

"It was too many mistakes," Parcells said of Bledsoe's performance. "Too much improvising."

Parcells and several Cowboys players acknowledged that on the killer interception -- on second-and-goal from the Giants' 4-yard line -- Bledsoe threw to the wrong side. Dallas had a strong formation to the right side, with wide receiver Terry Glenn flanked to the left. Bledsoe never looked off defender Sam Madison, turned and threw for Glenn, and the Giants' veteran cornerback made an easy pick.

"Same recipe for disaster [as in past games]," Parcells said, sighing deeply.

Indeed, it was a combustible mix -- with Bledsoe harassed and sacked four times, blitzing Giants defenders left totally unblocked, and the Cowboys unable to move the football. And it might have been that ugly combination that ended Bledsoe's tenure as Big D's starter. He wasn't around in a deserted Dallas locker room, and Parcells conceded that Bledsoe wasn't happy about being benched after completing 7 of 12 passes for 111 yards, no touchdowns and one interception.

Unless the Cowboys' offensive line improves dramatically in pass protection, particularly at the interior positions, it might not matter who is playing quarterback. Opponents continue to send blitzers between the center and the guard, as if the quickest route to the Dallas quarterback is a paved highway. On Dallas' first offensive series, the Giants faked an inside blitz, the Cowboys overreacted and New York end Michael Strahan was never touched as he sacked Bledsoe for a 5-yard loss.

"We just knew there were some things we could do to their line, some stuff they were very susceptible to, and we broke it all out tonight," Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "We brought pressure, and they couldn't handle it. Not at all."

Indeed, the second Cowboys offensive series ended when strongside linebacker LaVar Arrington, who later suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the second quarter, sacked Bledsoe for a safety. Arrington came free on a delayed blitz between center Andre Gurode and right guard Marco Rivera, and no one impeded his burst into Dallas' backfield.

"We've got a lot more problems than just at quarterback," ever-candid Witten said.

Noted wide receiver Terrell Owens finished with six catches for 98 yards and one touchdown but also dropped a key fourth-down pass when it appeared the Cowboys were gaining some pulse in the third quarter: "We stunk it up in every facet of the game."

But the odor that wafted over Texas Stadium as Monday became Tuesday here was the undeniable scent of uncertainty. If the offensive line can't protect the pocket, the decision to go with the more mobile Romo seems a justifiable one. But this was a team built to win this season, not sometime down the road, when Romo emerges as a viable NFL starter.

Jones allowed that Romo "will make some exceptional plays and will make some bad ones, too," and that pretty much summed up his performance. But any decision to turn the ball over to Romo presupposes the Dallas brass is prepared to live with that reality. And, truth be told, no one really knows yet how good, or bad, the former undrafted free agent really is, or will be.

"Six games [into the season] and we're still struggling to find an identity," tailback Julius Jones said. "That isn't good. I mean, I think [Parcells] was just looking for some kind of spark."

What was created, instead, was an inferno of uncertainty for the final 10 games of the season.

If his body language was indicative of anything, Bledsoe, who looked lost and bitter on the sideline, is done. There will be no way, once the die is cast with Romo, for the Cowboys to go back again to Bledsoe to rescue them if things go poorly for his replacement. And there is this question: Will Parcells even be around to oversee Romo's nurturing beyond this season? That might be the most critical question for the not-too-distant future.

Make no mistake: The Giants, who finished the game without Arrington and starting right defensive end Osi Umenyiora (hip flexor), clearly established themselves as the team to beat in a tough NFC East. And the Cowboys, who are supposed to be a playoff contender -- and maybe even a Super Bowl candidate -- are a team undefined for the present and uncertain about the future.

"I'm ashamed," Parcells said, "to put a team out there that played like that. I apologize to the people who came out to watch that."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.