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Sunday, December 21, 2008
Cowboys close down stadium; season's next

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

 
 AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
 Tony Romo (252 yards passing)  and the rest of the Cowboys couldn't break through against the Ravens.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

IRVING, Texas -- In a surreal scene that bordered on the absurd, the 2008 Cowboys crossed paths with men such as Drew Pearson, Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly and Michael Irvin on their way to the losing locker room Saturday night. It's too bad players synonymous with greatness were forced to be associated with a team that once again gagged when the stakes were at their highest.

Following a 33-24 loss to the Ravens, America's Team on Paper will have to try to back its way into the playoffs. And the one man offering alibis on the final regular-season night at Texas Stadium happens to own the club.

In a different time, perhaps Jerry Jones would've been tempted to fire head coach Wade Phillips on the spot. The man he entrusted to add some bite to his 3-4 defense failed on so many levels Saturday, but Jones stood by Phillips in his hour of need.

Jones was asked over and over to clarify his comments, in part because they didn't make a lick of sense. Even after watching the Ravens ice the game with 77- and 82-yard touchdown runs in the final 3:32 of the game, the owner blamed it on poor tackling, and said it had nothing to do with coaching.

"That floors me," he said. "Those are missed tackles."

Show of hands real quick: Did anyone see the Cowboys lay a hand on Willis McGahee as he raced toward relevance to give the Ravens a 26-17 lead? Jones, who spent several minutes in the closed locker room period asking quarterback Tony Romo to tell him what he saw out there, clearly thought Saturday's loss was on the players.

Asked whether he'd consider firing his head coach if the Cowboys missed the playoffs, Jones said, "Absolutely not. I don't have any inclination about any coaching changes. None. None."

He then rolled out an explanation that made its first appearance last month. Jones said Phillips is going to "do the best job of making his head coach look good." When I reminded him that Phillips was actually hired to be the head coach, Jones said he didn't want a "walk-around" head coach. Translation: He wants a head coach who also coordinates one side of the ball. The problem is that Phillips has always been more successful with only one of those roles -- and I don't need to tell you which one.

"Bill Parcells Jr. isn't gonna come in here," said Jones. "That's not a cure-all. As I stand here right now, it doesn't make sense [to make a change]. You look around at all the people who have changed and then how many people end up winning the Super Bowl."

The Cowboys (9-6) now find themselves on the outside looking in for the final wild-card playoff spot. They will root for the Bucs, Falcons and Eagles to lose Sunday and the Bears to fall Monday. Then they'll need to take care of business Dec. 28 in the regular-season finale in Philadelphia, which seems like such a far-fetched idea in the wake of Saturday's performance.

"We had control over our own destiny and now we don't," Phillips said in a quiet voice. "That's unfortunate. The only good thing about it was that they are an AFC team."

I'm not sure that was the silver lining Cowboys fans were looking for, Wade. One of the reasons Jones might be so supportive of Phillips is that the head-coach-in-waiting Jason Garrett's stock is in a free-fall. Until it was in a desperate situation late in the game, the Cowboys' offense didn't accomplish anything meaningful. Heading into the fourth quarter, Romo had thrown for 72 yards and two interceptions.

Garrett's "Twilight Zone" moment came on a key short-yardage situation early in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys were trailing 16-7, but they faced a third-and-1 at the Ravens' 16-yard line. Garrett called for Romo to run an option play to rookie Tashard Choice. Phillips claims the team has worked on the play in practice, but it wasn't ready for prime time. Choice couldn't handle the pitch, and the Cowboys settled for a 35-yard field goal.

For the better part of the game, Choice was the only reliable option. He had 17 carries for 90 yards and he was certainly capable of getting a couple of inches up the middle in that situation. It was a case of an assistant coach getting cute when there was no need for style points. The irony is that he could've been on the opposing sideline. The Ravens were prepared to name him their head coach, but Jones coughed up $3 million to keep Garrett in Dallas and Baltimore hired John Harbaugh. At least one team is getting its money's worth.

Romo threw two made-to-order interceptions to All-Pro safety Ed Reed, the second one setting the Ravens up for a go-ahead field goal before halftime. He then missed a wide-open Miles Austin in the third quarter on a deep ball that would've put the Cowboys on top, 14-9.

"I told Jerry when he came in the locker room that when you play these guys that are in our division you start to get the beat on things," Romo said. "But it took us a good three quarters to understand who was what and what position each individual was playing. I give them credit. They did a good job of keeping us off balance."

It's too bad the Cowboys couldn't figure things out in the final game at Texas Stadium -- especially since Jones apparently petitioned the league for the Cowboys to play the Ravens because it once looked like a winnable game. Jones sort of confirmed that theory to me after the game, but I couldn't tell whether he was joking. It didn't matter to the Ravens.

"We had a lot of politics that really made this game more fun," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "They personally recommended us as their homecoming opponent. We fed off it the whole game. We hope they enjoy their ceremony tonight, but I guess we were the dynamite."