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Sunday, October 24, 2010
Updated: October 25, 7:16 PM ET
Valley Ranch Triangle clouds Cowboys

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

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.

Wade Phillips
Jerry Jones said he wouldn't fire his coach midseason, but if his team loses Monday, Wade Phillips will inevitably walk the plank.

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:

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.