Another Cowboys season slipping away

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ARLINGTON, Texas – Given the state they call home, their unself-conscious embracing of a national branding and the cavernous stadium where they stage their Sunday spectacles, the Dallas Cowboys exist in a world that can rightfully be described as larger than life.

Whatever goes down in the House That Jerry Jones Built, you can bet your last silver dollar that it'll be big.

That's why it was so surreal Sunday evening after the Cowboys' latest December disappointment, a 20-17 defeat to the San Diego Chargers, to hear frustrated owner Jones, embattled coach Wade Phillips and many of his players insist that this was merely a small setback with limited big-picture significance.

Right, and the Alamo was just a superficial siege followed by a scrappy skirmish.

To be fair, there's no shame in getting beaten by the ascending Chargers (10-3), who've won eight consecutive games and can close in on a first-round bye with a home victory over the Cincinnati Bengals next Sunday. And it's true that this was the first time the 'Boys (8-5) have lost consecutive games in '09, and they would make the playoffs if the season were to end today.

But if you don't see the signs that Dallas' season is in serious danger of slipping away, you must be wearing lenses far more obfuscating than the 3-D glasses they passed out to the 90,552 fans at Cowboys Stadium Sunday. No matter the dimension, America's Team is tough to watch right now – and with a showdown at the Superdome against the 13-0 New Orleans Saints next Saturday night, it appears headed for the NFL's equivalent of a Black Hole.

"This is a bitter pill to swallow," Jones conceded afterward in a crowded, unannounced session with reporters outside the team's locker room. "We know what we've got ahead of us. But this was not terminal to our goals, relative to what we can do this year."

Perhaps not, but the Cowboys might want to get their affairs in order. Given their recent history, the death watch in Big D is in full force.

Even veteran linebacker Keith Brooking(notes) was resigned to that reality after succumbing to San Diego. Brooking, who joined the Cowboys in '09 after 11 seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, had adamantly argued before Sunday's game that the franchise's past December failings should not be used against the current team as it headed into a harrowing stretch drive.

Following Sunday's setback – which included a scary injury to the team's best player, DeMarcus Ware(notes), that landed the star pass rusher in the hospital with a neck sprain – Brooking couldn't muster a whole lot of defiance.

"It is what it is," Brooking said of Dallas' 10th defeat in its last 15 December games, a period that coincides with Tony Romo's(notes) run as the team's starting quarterback. "We're 0-2 in December right now. So you guys can write all you want or say whatever you want on TV. We've teed it up for you."

Yep, and now they're going to get whacked around like Tiger.

That this hard-fought game came down to a few poorly executed plays – and that it took place against this particular opponent – made the outcome even more excruciating for the Cowboys.

If Dallas is known for its December fades – the Cowboys are 18-33 in games after Dec. 1 since 1996, and Phillips is 3-8 – San Diego is its North Polar opposite. The jollier-than-Santa Chargers are 16-0 in the month since Philip Rivers(notes) became their starting quarterback, including an 11-0 mark in the Norv Turner era.

The inevitable Turner comparisons that surfaced Sunday made things especially uncomfortable for Phillips, given the two coaches' intertwined histories. A brief recap: When Bill Parcells resigned after the 2006 season, Jones strongly considered hiring Turner, the team's offensive coordinator from 1991-93, as his head coach. Largely because of his regard for newly named offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the owner instead offered the job to Phillips – a surprising hire that ultimately led to Marty Schottenheimer's ouster in San Diego, which hired Turner as his replacement.

So it wasn't just that Phillips lost to Turner on Sunday – it was the deeper meaning that could be read into certain situations.

For one thing, the Chargers were exceedingly prepared for their opponent.

"Early in the game Philip was calling off some of our blitzes, yelling out the patterns that we run," Brooking told me afterward. "Yeah, it was frustrating – he knew what we were going to do before we did it. Eventually, we adjusted."

Defensively, the Chargers weren't especially baffled, either. Though Romo played well – he completed 19 of 30 passes for 249 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions – Phillips and Garrett took the ball out of his hands at a key juncture in the second quarter and paid for it dearly.

Trailing 10-3 with four minutes remaining in the first half, the Cowboys had first-and-goal at the 4-yard line and gave the ball to halfback Marion Barber(notes) on four consecutive plays. He gained three yards on the first carry but was held short of the goal line on each of his successive attempts from the 1.

The only strategic wrinkle came on fourth down, when Barber lined up as a fullback in front of Felix Jones(notes) before taking a quick handoff. It fooled nobody, and while Chargers linebacker Tim Dobbins(notes) (who was in on the final three goal-line stuffs) may not be the world's foremost authority on schematic evaluation, he basically dissed the Dallas braintrust after the game.

"I don't know what they were thinking, but after the second time you've gotta think, 'Don't run that play anymore,' " Dobbins told reporters. "I don't know if they watched film or what. In our mind, we knew he wasn't blocking. We knew he had to get the ball. … Everybody knows that; everybody in the stands knew that. We knew it was going to be a flip or a dive, one or the other. I don't know what they were thinking."

Ouch, Wade. Ouch, Jason.

Jones did his best to take the heat off his coaches, saying he had no problem with the calls. "Not one bit," Jones insisted. "You might say that the ballgame was [decided] right there. Well, I would've bet the ballgame [that we'd score on one of] four tries right there, the way we were running ball."

To be accurate, the game wasn't solely decided on that sequence. The Cowboys regained possession at the San Diego 27 on a terrific, leaping interception by cornerback Terence Newman(notes) with 1:46 to go in the half, but the Chargers held them to three yards on three plays, and Nick Folk(notes) missed a 42-yard field goal.

Dallas tied the game at 10 on the final play of the third quarter when Romo hit Miles Austin(notes) on a six-yard touchdown pass, completing an 11-play, 99-yard drive. On the ensuing drive, Rivers dropped back on second-and-7 from the Cowboys' 48 and threw an incompletion to Vincent Jackson(notes) – and then things got truly frightening.

Ware, as he was charging around left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes), jammed his helmet into the body of right tackle Brandyn Dombrowski(notes) and slumped to the turf. After a long delay he was strapped to a board and taken off the field. He had full movement in his extremities and eased fans' fears by making thumbs-up signals and waving with both hands, but he was taken to a local hospital for tests.

When the game resumed McNeill was whistled for a false start, setting up a third-and-12. Turner's call (four receivers running vertical patterns) clearly stumped the Cowboys: Rivers floated a gorgeous, 39-yard pass to Jackson on the left sideline behind Newman and well out of safety Gerald Sensabaugh's(notes) range.

"They ran something that put some of our guys in an awkward situation," Newman said. "They got one."

On the next play Rivers hit tight end Antonio Gates(notes) for a 14-yard score. The Chargers forced a punt, launched another long drive and put away the game on Nate Kaeding's(notes) 34-yard field goal with 1:56 remaining.

By night's end the Cowboys trailed the Eagles by a game in the NFC East and held a one-game advantage over the Giants (7-6, but with a tiebreaker over Dallas) for the final wild-card spot. Jones, who said late last month that a strong performance down the stretch could help Phillips earn a contract extension – the coach's deal expires after this season, though Jones can exercise a one-year option – wouldn't bite on the obvious, opposite conclusion that a negative outcome would suggest.

"I'm disappointed we haven't been able to win in the playoffs … that we haven't played better in December," Jones said. "But I have in no way written Wade Phillips off. That's a reach to say that Wade is coaching for his job. There's no one, specific goal I have in mind in relation to that – not even a playoffs thing."

Playoffs? Is that Jim Mora I hear in the background?

Draw your own conclusions: The Cowboys' rigorous road to the postseason begins Saturday in New Orleans, continues in Maryland against the Redskins and concludes at home against the Eagles, who last year ended Dallas' playoff dreams with a 44-6 thrashing in the final game.

Clearly, the post-traumatic stress provoked by such flameouts is responsible for the pervasive belief that the Cowboys are once again mired in December doldrums, a line of thinking that Newman attempted to squelch.

Dobbins denies Barber entry into the end zone.
(Tim Heitman/US Presswire)

"Who gives a [expletive] about December?" he asked. "The only time you have to worry about December is if you're trying to make the playoffs, which we are. But who cares what month it is? It's about the weekends. We've got three left, and we'll see what happens."

Perhaps they'll fool us and reverse their recent history, but try as they might to downplay Sunday's defeat, the Cowboys look like a lost cause. Consider that Jones took it upon himself to address his players after Sunday's game, using the rampant criticism he and coach Jimmy Johnson endured after he bought the franchise in 1989 as a lesson in the power of overcoming adversity.

As the owner spoke, Phillips undoubtedly nodded along and made his best "Yes, Jerry" face. The coach has less than a week to get his team back on the horse – and to figure out a way to defeat a New Orleans team that no one has beaten since last December.

"We don't have time to worry about a hangover," Brooking said. "We've got to take some Excedrin and get over it real quick. We're gonna find out what this team's about in the next three weeks."

Good luck getting over this Texas-sized headache, boys.

I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …

Congratulations to the Colts and Saints, each of whom improved to 13-0 on Sunday. For their efforts, Indy coach Jim Caldwell and New Orleans counterpart Sean Payton will now be told how to prepare their teams for the playoffs by millions of outsiders who purport to know what's best. The Colts (13-0), who defeated the Denver Broncos 28-16, clinched home-field advantage in the AFC and won't play another meaningful game until the weekend of Jan. 16-17. In this season of superlatives, the Colts managed to clinch while surrendering an NFL single-game record 21 receptions to Denver wideout Brandon Marshall(notes). They seem to be sending signals that they'll err on the side of keeping key players healthy, rather than going all out for a perfect regular season – which is their prerogative. The Saints, meanwhile, clinched a first-round bye by pulling out a 26-23 victory over the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. They seem to be intent on trying to become the second NFL team to go 16-0 in the regular season – which, likewise, is their prerogative. "It means a lot to us," quarterback Drew Brees(notes) told reporters afterward. "These kind of years don't come around very often."

After last Sunday night, when Brett Favre(notes) struggled in a road defeat to the Cardinals, the timing set off alarms. Last year, after performing admirably for the Jets through 11 games, Favre went into a tailspin that ended with his team missing the postseason. The quarterback later attributed his struggles to a torn biceps, but cynics wondered whether that was just an excuse. This just in: I don't think it was. In a 30-10 victory over the Bengals (9-4) on Sunday, the 40-year-old quarterback showed that his off night in Arizona was an aberration and pushed the Vikings (11-2) closer to a first-round bye. "I don't think I'm falling apart in December like most people seem to think," Favre said in his postgame news conference. He remains a strong candidate for an unprecedented fourth MVP award, a race that realistically includes Brees and another three-time winner, the Colts' Peyton Manning(notes).

As for the defensive player of the year derby, I've been pretty locked in on Saints safety Darren Sharper(notes) as the leading contender for much of the season. The veteran free-agent signee has made big plays all year and is an emblem of the team's newfound aggressiveness under coordinator Gregg Williams; many players around the league I respect agree that D Sharp has been the biggest difference-maker in New Orleans. Yet there's another experienced defensive back who's giving me pause: Packers cornerback Charles Woodson(notes), who shined again in Green Bay's 21-14 victory over the Bears in Chicago. The 12th-year cornerback intercepted his eighth pass of the season, tying Sharper for the NFC lead, bolstering a stellar campaign that includes 61 tackles, two sacks, 22 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Along with quarterback Aaron Rodgers(notes), he has been the driving force behind the five-game winning streak that has propelled the Pack (9-4) into prime playoff position. "Dude, he's unreal," Rodgers said (via text) Sunday night of Woodson. "He should've had another pick today, too. He's so good. He's got to be defensive MVP." Added Green Bay linebacker Nick Barnett(notes): "He is having one hell of a year! Balling. Have to love him. If you don't you're a …"

… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT

I didn't have a problem with the Chiefs trading for Matt Cassel(notes) back in February – new general manager Scott Pioli was understandably impressed with the way the quarterback progressed as the Patriots' fill-in starter last season, and Kansas City got him (and veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel(notes)) for a mere second-round draft pick. However, I did a double-take in July when Pioli signed his new quarterback to a six-year, $63 million contract extension that included a reported $28 million in guaranteed money, and I'm sure even Pioli is questioning that decision now. Given that Cassel had only 15 games of NFL starting experience – and before that hadn't started a game since high school – it would have behooved the Chiefs to wait. With the franchise tag at their disposal, they could have delayed the decision on whether to give him a new deal well into the coming offseason or beyond. Instead, the Chiefs (3-10) are committed to a player who has looked pretty far from elite in 2009. Just ask the fans at Arrowhead Stadium who booed Cassel in Sunday's 16-10 defeat to the Bills, a four-interception debacle that dropped his passer rating to 68.3. "Hey, they're allowed to do whatever they want," Cassel told reporters after the game. "They pay the money to come here and we have to perform." I'm sure they're also curious to see whether Brodie Croyle(notes) could give K.C.'s offense a spark in the season's final three games – but given the franchise's financial commitment to Cassel, I doubt that's going to happen.

I know a lot of loyal, passionate Raiders fans, and every time the team wins and coach Tom Cable insists Oakland is turning the corner, I see the gleam in their eyes and hear the excitement in their voices … until Sunday comes. In the wake of the Raiders' latest dud, a 34-13 home defeat to the Redskins, here's a sickening statistic for you, courtesy of the Contra Costa Times' Jerry McDonald: Oakland has now been outscored 119-23 after its four victories in '09. Another embarrassing stat: In Cable's 25 games as coach, the team has scored one offensive touchdown or less in 19, and no offensive TDs in eight. I've asked it before, and I'll ask it again: Is that an overhead projector I hear revving up in the background?

Speaking of repeating myself, I've been calling the Jaguars frauds all season, and with no victories over winning teams, Jacksonville has offered nothing in the way of a rebuttal. On Sunday the Jags missed a chance to gain some pseudo-legitimacy by beating a Dolphins team that was 6-6 coming in, and you can't say they didn't have their chances: Jacksonville (7-6) had six possessions in the final 18 minutes of a 14-10 home defeat and scored zero points, advancing no further than the Miami 39. Jack Del Rio's team will have chances to shut me up in each of the next two weeks – at home against the Colts and at the Patriots. Good luck with that. You can bet the AFC's three 6-7 teams (Titans, Steelers, Texans) will be rooting hard for Indy to go 14-0 on Thursday night.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. That the most popular album of the past decade, according to Billboard magazine, is ‘N Sync's "No Strings Attached." I don't even know what to say, other than to surmise that the decade's most popular food additive was high-fructose corn syrup.

2. The curious statement Sunday by former Cowboys great Michael Irvin on the NFL Network's pregame show that "I would turn in all three Super Bowls and my Hall of Fame bust for one undefeated season." Say what? Look, I go way back with Irvin, and I suppose it's futile to try to argue that I have a better read on his true feelings than he does. But doesn't that statement just smack of a producer saying, "Mike, when we talk about the Saints and Colts, say something extreme about the importance of going undefeated – it'll be great for ratings …"? Because Irvin can't really believe that, can he? In my opinion, it's the most preposterous thing he has said since "Can I tell you who I am?"

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

I have to say I'm stunned – stunned – that there are questions about Randy Moss'(notes) motivation and mental toughness in the wake of his and three teammates' one-day banishment last week for arriving late to a team meeting. I mean, when Moss spent those two years acting like an absolute dog in Oakland, that was only because of the Raiders' inherent dysfunction, no? Once he got traded to the Patriots in 2007, the team's superior locker-room culture brought out his inherent "professionalism" (Bill Belichick's direct quote at the time) and selflessness, and everyone except Al Davis lived happily ever after. Right? Well, upon further review, the ever-after part might not have been so accurate. Yes, the Patriots undoubtedly would make the trade again, given Moss' production over the past three seasons, including an NFL-record 23 touchdown receptions in 2007. But if he's driving his coach and some of his teammates crazy right now because he doesn't seem to be down with the program, well, I have no sympathy. After all, some of us saw this coming. And no, don't take it from me that Moss seems to be dogging it – I'm just a columnist. Instead, let's hear from two of the men who covered him in Sunday's 20-10 defeat of the Carolina Panthers, beginning with cornerback Chris Gamble(notes). "We knew he was going to shut it down," Gamble told the Boston Globe's Albert Breer. "That's what we wanted to do to him. That's what we did. … He'd just give up a lot. … Slow down, he's not going deep, not trying to run a route. You can tell, his body language. I know everyone who plays against him, they can sense that. Once you get into him in the beginning of the game, he shuts it down a little bit." Moss was thrown to four times on Sunday, catching one pass for 16 yards – he fumbled on the play – while another attempt was intercepted. Panthers safety Chris Harris(notes), in comments to Breer, echoed Gamble's assessment of Moss, saying, "If you get a jam on him, he'll just ease up. … If he can't get it going, he gets out of sync."

Later, on NBC's Football Night In America, former Colts coach Tony Dungy agreed that Moss was fragile and said that Moss' poor mindset "probably started early in the week. I coached 13 years as a head coach. I've reprimanded guys. I've fined guys. I never sent a guy home from practice, and I think that had to impact Moss." Personally, I don't think Belichick sending Moss home was such a bad idea. If the guy's inner dog is starting to surface, it's reasonable for a head coach to try to shock him into submission. Alas, it might have had the opposite effect, and the downward spiral seems set in motion. Who knows – maybe Moss will undergo an abrupt attitude adjustment between now and the end of the season and help the Pats mount a playoff run, but I wouldn't count on it. I think he's on his way out of New England, and I fear his legacy will be this: Freakishly talented player who was virtually unstoppable when he was the focal point of a winning team's offense; unmotivated, divisive pouter in any other circumstances.

TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"I'm not sure if I'm at a vegas nightclub, a movie theater, a bar, or an NFL game."
– Text Sunday afternoon from former Saints wideout Chase Lyman(notes), who watched the Dallas-San Diego game from the Cowboys Stadium end zone.

"I damn near feel really bad for dallas and this whole December [expletive]"
– Text Sunday night from a Raiders player. (Wow.)