Valley Ranch Triangle clouds Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are kind of like the American representative in the Miss Universe contest Tony Romo judged when he was first tasting the fruits of being a celebrity quarterback a few years ago.

The beautiful Miss USA became the butt of jokes just as quickly as it took to fall on her backside during the evening gown competition.

The pretty Cowboys find themselves flat on their butts five games into their season. A team loaded with players who have made recent Pro Bowl appearances has become a punch line with a 1-4 record.

Owner/general manager Jerry Jones can rationalize it all he wants, saying the record doesn't reflect the Cowboys' performance this season. So can coach Wade Phillips. They can cite some pretty statistical evidence, pointing out that Dallas ranks third in the NFL in total offense (400.0 yards per game) and fourth in total defense (281.4 yards per game).

The standings are the only rankings that really matter, though, and there you can find the Cowboys in last place in their division. Until they prove otherwise, consider them a beautiful bunch of losers.

They'd better prove otherwise in a hurry, or the rest of the Cowboys' season will be nothing more than a way-too-long farewell tour for Phillips. The process of digging out of the hole Dallas has created must start Monday night at home against the NFC East-leading New York Giants. If not, that hole will look a lot like a grave.

The leaders of this team aren't looking to be patted on their bruised tailbones. They're searching for ways to fix the problems that strongly indicate the Cowboys are a poorly coached team (although the Wade-loving players won't use that last phrase).

"Moving forward, there's some things you look at and say we're doing a lot of good things in certain areas," tight end Jason Witten said. "But, dang, the reality of it is we are a 1-4 team. These other things have killed us."

Added linebacker Keith Brooking: "For us, it's not necessarily thinking of it as if we're really close to being where we want to be. It's: Where are the areas that we need to improve?"

Those areas certainly aren't secrets. They are messes the undisciplined Cowboys have been talking about cleaning up since September, if not before that.

Call these categories the Valley Ranch Triangle, where games not-so-mysteriously get lost:

  • Penalties: Dallas has been called for more penalties per game (12.4) than any other team this season. Only the perennial loser Detroit Lions have had more penalties accepted against them per game than the Cowboys (9.8). And Dallas gives away the most ground to penalty flags, moving backward an average of 80.8 yards.

    The Cowboys managed to get called for excessive celebration on back-to-back touchdowns over a two-game span. How dumb and undisciplined does a team have to be to have that happen after the first infraction played a major role in flipping the field position?

    But those weren't Dallas' most costly penalties. Fill-in right tackle Alex Barron's third holding call in the season opener negated what could have been the winning touchdown pass on the final play against the Washington Redskins. Miles Austin's 68-yard touchdown catch and run against the Minnesota Vikings was negated because he was called for offensive pass interference. Then Dez Bryant's 34-yard punt return got called back because of a hold by Alan Ball. And the Cowboys' slim comeback chances went kaput in the Metrodome when cornerback Mike Jenkins got flagged on third-and-long just before the two-minute warning, his fourth pass-interference penalty in the past two games.

    The coaching staff took two significant steps this week to try to slash the penalty totals. Phillips put his foot down and asked whether the players would pretty please follow college celebration rules. And the Cowboys made inviting referees a part of their routine on heavy practice days.

  • Turnovers: Romo's five interceptions in the past two games -- three of which came deep in Dallas territory and led to easy scores for the opponent -- were fatal flaws. But the defense's inability to force turnovers has been just as big of a problem.

    The result: a turnover ratio of minus-5, the third worst in the league.

    The Dallas defense has come up with a league-low-tying four turnovers, three of which came in the Cowboys' lone win.

    The Cowboys got away with ranking near the bottom of the league in turnovers forced last season. That hasn't been the case this season, especially with Romo's recent rash of picks tilting the field-position battle in the opponents' favor.

  • Special teams: Kicker David Buehler has missed three field goals that would have tied the score or given Dallas the lead in losses, but miserable kickoff coverage has been a more pressing problem recently.

    The Cowboys allow a league-high 32.9 yards per kickoff return. That's an increase of 12.1 yards from last season, making the decisions to cut core special-teamers Pat Watkins and Steve Octavien appear regrettable.

    Buehler, who led the NFL with 29 touchbacks as a kickoff specialist last season but has only three this year as he focuses more on place-kicking, ranks second on the team in special-teams tackles with six. It's never a good sign when the kicker gets that much contact.

    Buehler was called for a face mask penalty on his most recent tackle, which came on a 73-yard return by Tennessee's Marc Mariani to set up the Titans' winning touchdown. Buehler couldn't stop Minnesota's Percy Harvin from going the distance on a 95-yard touchdown return last week.

Phillips has emphasized each of these areas to his team, but there's apparently a disconnect between the coach and players. The players talk about how they respect Phillips and believe in him, but how else to explain the same problems popping up on a weekly basis?

Maybe it's because Phillips' message gets diluted by the excuses he makes for his players' failures. He doesn't come across as a stern disciplinarian when he mentions that part of the reason the Cowboys get penalized so much is because they're on offense more than most teams. He lets his defense off the hook by claiming that creating turnovers is as much a benefit of having a lead as the cause of getting one.

If you listen to Phillips long enough -- and can stay awake -- you might think the Cowboys are just unlucky instead of consistently finding ways to lose.

"You can play good enough in this league and get beat," said Phillips, who infamously made a speech about how the better team lost when the Giants beat the Cowboys in the final playoff game at Texas Stadium en route to the Super Bowl XLII title. "But normally you have one, maybe two a year when that happens, that you just outplayed the other team and for whatever reason you made mistakes. You outplayed them, but they beat you.

"That can happen, but it doesn't seem to happen as much as it's happened this year."

The ugly truth is it will keep happening as long as the Cowboys continue playing like losers.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.