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No More Wowboys

Tabbed by many in the preseason as a Super Bowl favorite, the star-studded Dallas Cowboys instead find themselves in a week-to-week struggle just to keep their postseason hopes alive

The statue ofliberty could fit comfortably under the retractable, translucent roof of theDallas Cowboys' new stadium, set to open next summer. A 180-foot-widescoreboard with a high-definition, 30-million-pixel screen will hang from thearches spanning an arena that will cost $1.3 billion, a record for afootball venue. And there's a beer fridge the size of a house: 50 feet by50 feet with a 20-foot ceiling. "And that's just for the fans in theend zone!" owner Jerry Jones roared on Sunday. Just kidding, folks, justkidding. ¶ "We could have had a fabulous place for 75 percent of what wespent," Jones said before one of his team's last games at Texas Stadium, apotentially season-defining matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Theother 25 percent was for the wow factor." A short while later, almostwithout thinking, Jones added, "Of course, we must win."

The wow factor andwinning are the two most important things in Jerry Jones's professional life,and they're not always in sync. Take the Cowboys of 2008. The final season intheir old digs was supposed to be a coronation for the star-laden team. With 13Pro Bowl players back from the '07 club that went 13-3, the addition ofnotorious but highly skilled cornerback Adam (Pacman) Jones and the drafting ofexplosive running back-kick returner Felix Jones, how could this team not winthe Super Bowl?

Because there's afine line between euphoria and despair in the NFL. The game against theBucs--and possibly Dallas's status as a contender--came down to whether JeffGarcia, Tampa Bay's 38-year-old quarterback, could work over the cornerbacksranked fourth, fifth and sixth on the Cowboys' depth chart. The Bucs, trailing13-9 with 19 seconds left, were at the Dallas 18, fourth-and-five, onetimeout left. Two scenarios: The Cowboys give up the TD and lose their fourthgame in five weeks, with a road game against the world champion Giants looming,or the Cowboys deny Garcia and raise their record to 5-3, improving theirplayoff prospects and picking up a little momentum before heading to theMeadowlands.

Never mind thecircus that sprouts up in Dallas whenever a 3-0 start is followed by a 1-3slump--the fire-the-coach columns, the talk-show screeching (one local radiohost last Saturday characterized the team's play as "vomitlike"), thevenomous fans. (The boobirds were out after one failed offensive series onSunday.) Right now all that mattered was the next play. Euphoria ordespair?

Out of the shotgunGarcia quickly felt pressure coming from his left--it was the NFC's sackleader, linebacker DeMarcus Ware--and hurried his throw. The ball flew wideleft of tight end Jerramy Stevens, who was running a simple out pattern.Incomplete. Dallas wins. On the sideline four Cowboys linemen looked to the skyand shrieked with joy, though it was hard to hear them above the din in thestadium.

Told that his teammight just have saved its season, Jones nodded gravely and said, "I knowit. I know it."

Then again, theCowboys might simply have postponed inevitable disappointment. The first halfof the season revealed that they are flawed in many ways. The secondary can bebeaten deep. With Terence Newman injured, Adam Jones suspended and AnthonyHenry sliding over to safety, the top three remaining corners--Mike Jenkins,Alan Ball, Orlando Scandrick--are 23 or younger, with a total of two NFL startsamong them. There's no pass-rush complement to Ware, which is why coach WadePhillips choreographed odd blitzes from all over the field on Sunday.

The offensive line,once a road-grader, has become creaky; only twice in 25 carries against TampaBay did Marion Barber go untouched three yards beyond the scrimmage, and mostoften he was hit at the line or a yard on either side of it. With backup BradJohnson at quarterback, there's a hold-the-fort mentality until starter TonyRomo returns from a broken right pinkie, which has caused him to miss two gamesand will probably keep him on the shelf until Nov. 16, after the Cowboys' byeweek. Felix Jones is out with a hamstring injury and unlikely to play againstthe Giants.

In making Dallas apreseason Super Bowl favorite, the football cognoscenti expected agingveterans to play well. They haven't. Left tackle Flozell Adams, 33, has beenturnstiled by quick pass rushers such as the Arizona Cardinals' Travis LaBoy.Enemy defenses have crowded the line the last two weeks, knowing that the40-year-old Johnson can't beat them deep. (Bad news for Barber, who's hadlittle room to run.) Henry, 31, looked past his prime against whippetlikeSt. Louis Rams rookie wideout Donnie Avery, getting beat on a 42-yardtouchdown play even after giving Avery an eight-yard cushion. Linebacker GregEllis, 33, is hitting the wall after his 121⁄2-sack, Comeback Player of theYear performance in 2007.

And the most famousof the Cowboys' old-timers, Terrell Owens, who turns 35 in December, is on pacefor just 60 catches and 862 yards; such pedestrian corners as Rod Hood ofArizona have knocked T.O. off his game with physical play at the line,preventing him from getting into his long-striding deep routes.

Facing some harshrealities, and the possibility of falling too far behind the Giants andRedskins in the NFC East, the usually mild-mannered Phillips took his teamby the throat last week. On Wednesday he told Jerry Jones that practices weregoing to be different, and he was going to be different. "I've worked sohard helping make other head coaches great," said Phillips, who has servedon staffs under Marv Levy, Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer and Buddy Ryan."Now I'm going to do it for me, and for this team."

First, Phillipstold the defense it had to be more aggressive. As defensive coordinator for theSan Diego Chargers a few years ago, Phillips was a gambler, rushing the passerwith linebackers and safeties from all over; in Dallas he'd mostly played itsafe because he didn't have an option other than Ware. Against the Bucs,though, veteran safety Ken Hamlin left his centerfield job four or five timesto chase Garcia; also releasing was linebacker Bradie James, and they combinedfor one sack and four hurries. The added aggressiveness paid off: Dallas, whichhad a total of 39 QB pressures in its first seven games, had 13 against theelusive Garcia. Also, Phillips showed faith in his young defensive backs. Onthat make-or-break final play of the Tampa Bay game, the corners were Jenkinsand 2007 seventh-round pick Ball. Scandrick played the nickel, and CourtneyBrown, another '07 seventh-rounder, played safety alongside Hamlin. Just a fewminutes earlier, James had said to each of the four untested defensive backs,"You're no rookie anymore! You're a player!" For the entire secondhalf, the four Bucs wideouts combined for only 47 receiving yards.

Second, onWednesday and Thursday, for the first time in his 25-game tenure with theCowboys, Phillips ordered full-speed, full-pads inside running drills for theoffense and the defense. The scout-team offense, led by practice-squad runningback Alonzo Coleman, bashed into the defense for two straight days. Defendersconsidered it penance for the 190 yards the Rams had run up on them a few daysearlier. Practice was as spirited as some games. Bruising Tampa Bay backEarnest Graham's output on Sunday: 42 yards on 17 carries. "Brilliant moveby Wade," said middle linebacker Zach Thomas. "We needed it bad. Thesewere no brother-in-law practices, where you're just tapping the guy. We werepummeling each other. It proves the old saying in football: You don't win onSunday. You win on Wednesday and Thursday."

Finally, Phillips,again for the first time in Dallas, sent the players home after their briefFriday practice and told them he'd see them on Sunday. Never under Phillips hadthe Cowboys not had a short practice and skull session on Saturday at ValleyRanch. "He knew it would be an emotional game, and he knew we'd betired," Johnson said. "I was so beat. I went to bed at six Fridaynight."

After the win overTampa Bay, Phillips smiled for what might have been the first time all week. Heaccepted a bear hug and the game ball in the locker room. "I know I speakfor everyone in this room," said Jones, holding a football in the air andnodding to Phillips. "Nobody ever deserved this more." LikeIndianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and the Buffalo Bills' Dick Jauron,Phillips never raises his voice to his team. Last week he showed the playersand a skeptical public that he didn't have to yell to get a great week ofpractice, and a clutch win, out of the Cowboys.

So, for now--and,Jones swears, for the rest of the season--the owner isn't going to resort tothe wow factor and fire the coach. "I think it'll take 10 [wins] to getinto the playoffs," Jones said. "The real tragedy would be if this wasone of those years where a team like us would be playing the best football ofanyone at the end of the season and then didn't make the playoffs."

Dallas still hasmiles to go to be playing that well, and not even the return of Romo canguarantee 10 wins. The 5-3 Cowboys go into the second half of the season with a50-50 shot at making the playoffs. After what they've been through over thepast month, they'll take those odds.




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"Brilliant," Thomas said of practice changes byPhillips (left). "We were PUMMELING EACH OTHER. We needed it bad."


Bob Rosato


With Johnson (14) running the offense for Jones, Barber (right) has foundhimself shouldering a mighty load.


Bob Rosato

 No GreatLeap

Though Roy Williams caught his first TD pass as a Cowboy, the offense hardlyhas been flying of late.