Bickering Cowboys are a mess – but this doesn't feel like a classic implosion

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·NFL columnist
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ARLINGTON, Texas – Brandon Weeden sat on the bench, pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes, and initiated a deep rub. This is what it looks like when someone is trying to massage their brain through the front of their skull.

Nearby, Dallas Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant barked his way past Weeden, turning toward the quarterback and spinning his fingers next to his head. En route to losing to the Arizona Cardinals 28-17, Bryant could have been suggesting either he, or Weeden, or someone – maybe everyone – was losing their minds. Which, given the state of Dallas right now – suffering back-to-back home losses in a seven-day span – might be understandable.

Understandable, but wrong.

Brandon Weeden was largely ineffective on Sunday. (AP)
Brandon Weeden was largely ineffective on Sunday. (AP)

No doubt, the seams holding the Cowboys together are taxed. Quarterback Tony Romo is literally broken. Starting offensive linemen Doug Free and Ronald Leary are injured. Two defensive starters – linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford – went down Sunday. Bryant spent the day shut down and frustrated. The running game sputtered. In any other recent edition, this would be the time to panic.

But none of this screams catastrophe. Not yet. Not with Romo expected back for next week's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. Not with a bye week following that game. And not with the NFC East getting messier and more beat up by the week (rough day for Philly).

"We have a team that needs to look at all of the pluses that we've got going for us right now," team owner Jerry Jones said. "This is not the time to lose your confidence. I'm not saying that I saw anybody lose their confidence out there [Sunday], but we had many opportunities to do so. We're a good team. Our [6-3] record speaks for itself."

Indeed, in the midst of disappointment, Dallas is soothed by a reality: this is a team that has time and circumstance on its side. But head coach Jason Garrett and Jones need to seize the next two weeks to tie up loose ends.

And there is plenty of work to do. Consider that three weeks ago – fresh off an impressive road win over the Seattle Seahawks – there was a reasonable argument to be made that Dallas was the best NFL team outside of the Denver city limits. With an unstoppable running game, retooled defense, strong offensive line, sharp quarterback, focused receivers – this was the complete package. It lacked nothing.

Then the underwear thing happened. Backup running back Joseph Randle was arrested for allegedly shoplifting a bottle of cologne and a package of underwear on Oct. 13. And we'd later find out that he went full monologue on a police video following the incident, in a stream-of-consciousness canvassing of legal issues that dogged teammates Josh Brent and Bryant. A team meeting would ensue after a rift materialized in front of the media, with Bryant and Randle needing to be separated after arguing in front of reporters following practice. Sandwiched somewhere in the middle of that mess? Starting quarterback Tony Romo was decked in a loss to the Washington Redskins and broke his back.

Arizona's Patrick Peterson helped bottle up Dez Bryant. (AP)
Arizona's Patrick Peterson helped bottle up Dez Bryant. (AP)

And lest we forget, there is still an undertow of emotion regarding stalled contract extensions all over the place – from Bryant (who just hired rapper Jay Z's new agency to negotiate his next deal) to potential league MVP DeMarco Murray, to the head coach, Garrett.

All of which would foreshadow another Dallas implosion. Except that, in perspective, the necessary repairs appear to be within the Cowboys' grasp. The contracts? While it's uncomfortable that they haven't been completed, there are no indications that the deep-pocketed Jones isn't planning on extending his stars and patiently weaned head coach.

By all accounts, Romo's injury appears to be painful, but manageable with rest. Both Garrett and Jones were confident and firm that Romo would be in London next week to face the Jaguars.

"He's definitely on the flight," Jones said. "… If he can, we want him to play."

On the offensive line, Leary could return as soon as next week, and Free almost certainly will be starting again no later than the end of November. McClain was walking slowly in the locker room on Sunday, but Jones said it shouldn't be a long-term problem. And while Crawford's knee injury may be more serious, it didn't sound (at the moment) like it is season-ending.

As for the Randle mess, it's telling that he's still on the roster after the embarrassing video was made public. While issues with Bryant and Brent are legitimate, Randle still managed a carry Sunday and he's a player that Jones believes has value. And in a case like his, where he has no room for denial for talking about his teammates' personal lives, if he's not cut immediately, it means the franchise still sees some salvageable value. If that wasn't the case, it's unlikely Garrett would have gone through the trouble of having a meeting about the incident.

As Garrett framed the discord Sunday: "It's not a big deal to our football team at all."

All of which leaves Sunday's loss to Arizona to be put into perspective. The Cardinals are out in the open now – a legitimate 7-1 and a good NFC team that is playoff-bound. Cornerback Patrick Peterson, who shut down Bryant for much of Sunday, is playing like the best cornerback in the NFL. Arizona's other cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu, is healthy and wreaking havoc alongside Peterson. And with Carson Palmer healthy, the Cardinals' offense is steady and opportunistic.

Bottom line, Arizona is a legitimate NFC contender. A good, solid team. One that should come in and cause problems for you when your Pro Bowl quarterback is down and you have injuries and chemistry distractions. There's no shame in losing this kind of game.

"Today wasn't our day and we've just got to learn from it," said Bryant, whose "crazy" gesture toward Weeden came after the quarterback threw a third-quarter interception. "You've got to be a man and accept what happened. … Keep fighting. You can never give up. Nobody here is going to quit – I won't let them quit."

The final seven games of the season will reveal whether that's the case. But for now, the next two weeks will allow Dallas ample time to bounce back. Romo will travel to London. He'll likely start against a poor but dangerous Jacksonville team. If what we believed about this team three weeks ago still holds true, the Cowboys will win and enter the bye just in time to regroup for the final ascent.

And if Dallas loses? If Romo is hurt again? Then think of Bryant whirling those fingers next to his head because that's when everything gets truly crazy. That's when everything changes, maybe collapses.