Time for Cowboys to face reality about struggles

LANDOVER, Md. – The clock was about to hit midnight and in the back of the Dallas Cowboys locker room, owner Jerry Jones held a white towel and dabbed at the perspiration building on his face.

"I'm very disappointed," he said.

He dabbed some more.

"But I am surprised."

He shook his head.

"I'm really surprised," he said.

Then he glanced away.

A few minutes before, he was standing in a box at FedEx Field watching the seemingly winning pass of the season's first game settle into the arms of receiver Roy Williams. He pumped his arms. He executed a fist bump and dreamed all the good dreams the owner of a $1.3 billion stadium can have in the year he is certain his team will play the Super Bowl in his home. So, of course, he never saw the yellow flag lying on the field. Never saw the clothesline forearm his right tackle Alex Barron(notes) delivered nullifying the victory.

And in the mayhem of dancing Washington Redskins and a roaring home crowd in Washington's 13-7 victory, he had to have seen a truth that glared so obvious to the rest of the country: These Cowboys are too careless, too undisciplined and too ineffective offensively to even think about a Super Bowl come February in their palace. That was clear on a night when they couldn't move the ball against the team that was the worst in their division last season.

The signs have been evident. Dallas did not impress in the preseason, its vaunted offense of acclaimed but not yet accomplished stars generating the fifth-fewest yards per game (273.4) in exhibition games. But they could easily brush it off as the preseason. The games didn't count. Their quarterback, Tony Romo(notes) – he of just one career playoff win – hardly sounded bothered in a conference call with the Washington media last week.

"Well, it will be a concern if we don't score any points in the regular season," he said.

Seven points into 2010, along with 12 penalties and a lost fumble for a touchdown, the Cowboys should be concerned.

Still, one by one they spoke calmly of their plight, shrugging without answers, certain a wretched performance Sunday night was nothing.

Coach Wade Phillips looked ashen and talked about how he immediately saw the flag on Barron's hold and knew the Cowboys would not be winning Sunday night. He did not offer an emotion to accompany this realization.

Instead, he blamed himself for the play that ruined the Cowboys' night: an oddly conceived attempt to throw a pass from his own 36-yard line on the last play of the first half of a 3-0 game. He decided to do this after it appeared the Redskins had declined a holding penalty on (whom else?) Barron – a replacement for the injured Marc Colombo(notes). The problem was Washington then accepted the penalty, pushing Dallas back from the 46.

Phillips said he was supposed to call off the pass.

Only he didn't call off the pass.

Seconds later, running back Tashard Choice(notes) fumbled, Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall(notes) picked up the ball and ran it back for a touchdown that put Washington up 10-0 at halftime.

When the debacle was over, Romo talked about all the corner blitzes the Redskins threw at the Cowboys, blitzes he had never seen before. Shocking blitzes. He said they weren't prepared to be blitzed like this. For a second, he still seemed startled. Then his face brightened.

"This will be a great learning tool," he said. "We will have seen their scheme for the next time."

David Buehler(notes) watches his 34-yard attempt in the first half go wayward.
(Geoff Burke/US Presswire)

Except these are the Super Bowl Cowboys – the team that's supposed to be more talented than any in the NFC. The Cowboys aren't supposed to be overwhelmed by the blitzes the Redskins brought. Just as they're not supposed to score just one touchdown, or miss a short field goal or get a huge chunk of their yards at the end of the game in a valiant attempt to come back.

Which is why, as the clock neared midnight and his sparkling offense very much looked like a pumpkin, Jerry Jones clutched his towel and started talking about the Cowboys' glory years from a previous century, which look very far in the past now.

"I've lost an opener right here and played in the Super Bowl," he said. "It was 35-7. Right here."

He was close. It was 1993, the score was 35-16 and the setting was RFK Stadium, which is not in Maryland but Washington, D.C., a few miles to the west. But, yes, the Cowboys of Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin did indeed come back to win the Super Bowl.

Somehow, the Cowboys of Romo, Williams and Miles Austin(notes) aren't quite the same.

"I thought the game was over and that Tony had pulled out a Romo special!" Jones gushed.

He hadn't.

Jones seemed perplexed.

"I think we need to be better," he said hopefully. "And I think we have the guys to do it."

If only it were as easy as wishing it so.