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Sunday, October 26, 2008
Cowboys' season receives temporary reprieve

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

  Jeff Curry/US Presswire
 Dallas coach Wade Phillips received the game ball from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

IRVING, Texas -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stood in the middle of a jubilant locker room Sunday looking as if he'd just stepped out of a sauna -- in a blue sportcoat no less. Moments earlier, he'd awarded his embattled coach Wade Phillips the game ball.

Never mind that quarterback Brad Johnson had just set the league back 30 years with his 3.7 yards per attempt average on -- wait for it -- 33 attempts. This team desperately needed a win, and got one, 13-9, over the offensively challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Cowboys may have been favored in Vegas, but they'd left little evidence that they could end a two-game losing skid. On Sunday, we finally got a glimpse of the fabled Phillips 3-4 defense that once put fear in the hearts of quarterbacks.

Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia took a savage beating, and more important, he never saw it coming.

Though he wouldn't admit it after the game, Jones had ordered Phillips early last week to take over the play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Brian Stewart. Phillips wouldn't confirm the change, but he admitted that he would take a more active role.

"Brian [Stewart] didn't lose his job or anything like that," Phillips said after the game. "He does a great job. I just felt like if I got more into it, it would help. I don't know that it helped any. We conversed on a lot of things. I make the direct calls and he backs me up."

The Cowboys only sacked Garcia twice, but he was getting hit after almost every attempt. The pressure helped cover up for that fact that starting cornerback Anthony Henry left the game with a left quadriceps contusion early in the third quarter.

Second-year player Alan Ball had to replace Henry and rookies Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick were the other corners. Garcia tried immediately to burn Ball with a double-move to Antonio Bryant, but he didn't bite.

On the Bucs' final offensive play, Ball was matched up one-on-one with veteran Joey Galloway. It was a nightmare scenario, but pressure from Greg Ellis forced Garcia to rush his throw.

The win capped an emotional week for Phillips, who didn't want to strip Stewart of his play-calling duties. After the game, a couple of reporters intercepted Stewart as he was trying to make a quick exit. He didn't want to provide details on who was calling the plays Sunday.

"Wade's involved. He's always involved," Stewart said. "Nothing's going to go down without him. It doesn't matter who calls it."

Late in the game, Stewart became much more demonstrative on the sideline. The Buccaneers faced three fourth-down situations on their final drive, and each time, Stewart appeared ready to take the field.

"They're gonna feed off what the defensive coordinator's doing," he said. "They look to see what our demeanor is and then they feed off that."

About that time, reserve defensive tackle Stephen Bowen walked past and said, "I love you, Stew."

One by one, several defenders stopped to offer similar encouragement. It had been one of the most trying weeks of Stewart's relatively young coaching career -- especially since at least two players had spoken against him, according to a team source.

Pro Bowl safety Ken Hamlin has been one of Stewart's biggest defenders. But Hamlin had to deal with his own adversity last week.

On Wednesday, he woke up to find his 2008 Cadillac Escalade sitting on bricks, with all four tires and rims missing. He said he quickly moved on from the theft to focus on Sunday's game plan, which once again called for him to be involved in a couple of blitz packages.

In past weeks, his number hasn't been called, but in Sunday's win, he hit Garcia twice just after he released the ball.

"I wish he'd held onto it a little bit longer," Hamlin joked.

Hamlin said that Stewart showed up with the same "swagger that he always has" and that nothing had changed in meetings this week.

On Sunday, the defense kept the game close while the offense went three-and-out on its first three possessions.

Self-appointed team spokesman Tank Johnson made a rare appearance to stop Bucs running back Earnest Graham on third-and-1 from the Cowboys' 18-yard line in the first quarter. And when the Bucs had third-and-3 at the Cowboys' 25 in the second quarter, nose tackle Jay Ratliff busted through the line of scrimmage to sack Garcia for an 8-yard loss.

On a day when Brad Johnson needed 33 attempts to reach the 122-yard mark, the Cowboys defense somehow gutted out a win. That's why Jones admitted that it felt like a season-saving win.

"This could be the game we look back and say we turned the corner," Jones said.

For now, let's just call it an important win.

But wait, there's more...

More on the game ball: Jones has always been a presence in the postgame locker room, but over the past couple weeks, he has been more vocal than ever.

After a brief speech from Phillips during the 10-minute cooling-down period, Jones presented his head coach with the game ball. He later delivered a confusing defense of Phillips' credentials.

"There's no one in this country technically better at making decisions and supervising this defense. It would be madness to have him not here. He's made a lot of top head coaches, in a lot of ways, top head coaches."

Jones denied giving Phillips an "ultimatum" to start calling the plays, but he also said he didn't receive any "pushback" and that there was "nothing that [he and Phillips] didn't agree on."

Williams honors his alma mater: If you watched the game, you saw wide receiver Roy Williams flash a Hook 'em Horns sign to honor his No. 1-ranked Texas Longhorns. The former Detroit Lion said the gesture meant a lot more at Texas Stadium than it did at Ford Field.

"It was a great feeling," said Williams, wearing a black 10-gallon hat. "It was great to do that in front of people who understand what it means. I've been playing in front of all those Michigan and Mich
igan State fans."

Williams said he feels like he's back in high school because he stands over on the sideline begging the coaches to put him in. He kept a low profile at Valley Ranch last week because he doesn't feel as if he deserves to talk when he's not playing.

"My teammates probably think I'm a dork," joked Williams.

Johnson plays it close to the vest, line of scrimmage: I'm still in the process of trying to figure out whether Brad Johnson set an NFL record for the most passing attempts for the least amount of yards. So far, it looks as if former Chicago Bears great Shane Matthews is the only quarterback who can compete with Johnson.

Johnson had only five throws that went for 10 yards or more and his longest completion was 14 yards.

Johnson averaged 3.7 yards per attempt; Garcia ran circles around him with a whopping 5.2. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has promised to add several deep check-down routes to next Sunday's game plan.

Here's the most baffling postgame quote from Sunday: It comes from Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams. "[Brad Johnson's] just an overall great player. You can't ask for a better quarterback in there. Unfortunately, he made some great plays, some key throws at critical times."

Hmmm ...