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Posted: Monday October 13, 2008 8:03AM; Updated: Monday October 13, 2008 3:08PM
Peter King Peter King >
MONDAY MORNING QB

With dark clouds approaching, can the Cowboys weather the storm?

Story Highlights

Dallas is 1-2 in its past three games against teams that are a combined 8-10

With blowout win over Ravens, Colts jump right back into AFC discussion

Matt Ryan may be next great NFL quarterback and more Things I Think I Think

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Marion Barber hasn't found much room to run in the Cowboys' recent skid, averaging 3.2 yards per carry the past three games.
Marion Barber hasn't found much room to run in the Cowboys' recent skid, averaging 3.2 yards per carry the past three games.
AP
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Sometimes when you're parenting, you tell your kids, "Oh, everything's fine. Don't worry. Everything's fine.'' You don't really believe it, but you figure it's what you've got to say sometimes.

Well, everything is not fine with the Dallas Cowboys, even though owner Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips would have you believe that it's only a matter of time before it will be. We in the media loved the Cowboys before the season -- some of us more than others -- because of their inordinate talent and rising-star quarterback. But it's time to rethink that. Even more so now that Tony Romo will be sidelined for up to four weeks with a fracture in his throwing pinkie.

Optimistically, Dallas may lose Romo for only three games -- at St. Louis, Tampa Bay, at the Giants -- because their bye week follows the Nov. 2 game at the Meadowlands. Romo could return in what would likely be a vital NFC East showdown at FedEx Field against Washington on Nov. 16.

Dallas backup Brad Johnson won't be a disaster in relief. He's won a Super Bowl, played in big games, won't be cowed by the Cowboy Nation pressure and has a strong bond with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. He's been in the offense for two years and is a smart player who knows his limitations. Those are the pluses. The minuses: He's a month past 40. His arm is Chad Pennington weak. (Beware of an eruption from Mount T.O. when he's not getting many downfield chances.) Johnson's mobility is poor. Other than that, Mrs. Jones, how did you like the play?

Johnson at least hasn't been in mothballs forever, having started 14 games for Minnesota in 2006. He's a 62 percent passer, lifetime, which is in Romo's range. What's bad for the Cowboys is that two of the three teams Johnson will face (Rams, Giants) like to blitz coming off the bus, while Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who knows Johnson very well and vice versa, likes to safety- and corner-blitz the passer. That kind of speed and quickness could force Dallas to max-protect with an extra tight end far more than Garrett had to do for Romo. That, in turn, would put fewer Cowboys out in passing lanes for Johnson to choose from.

Imagine losing your quarterback and best cover corner (if Adam Jones gets suspended this week by the commissioner) in the span of a couple of days. That's a test of a team right there. And it couldn't come at a worse time for the slumping and embattled Cowboys.

After the 30-24 overtime loss in Arizona on Sunday, Jones said in the locker room, "I like 4-2. I do like 4-2.'' Who would say that after starting 3-0, then facing three straight teams (Washington, Cincinnati, Arizona) you were favored to beat, and winning only one of those games?

When Bill Parcells walked away from the team 21 months ago, the one thing I feared was Jones hiring the second coming of Barry Switzer, a man he could manage and control. While I don't think Phillips is Switzer-like, and while I have a high regard for Phillips the game planner, the Cowboys' mistakes and sloppiness make it obvious a firmer hand is needed to whip this talented team into shape.

In the last three games, Dallas is 1-2 -- and that's against teams with a combined record of 8-10. The other numbers in the three-game slide that should alarm Jones and Phillips when they meet today to discuss what ails this team:

Score: Dallas 79, Foes 78.

First downs: Dallas 54, Foes 54.

Terrell Owens touches: 13 catches and four rushes for 199 yards.

Romo was working hard to look at Owens as much as he could, maybe to the detriment of the team. But Owens is a great playmaker, and as long as he's on the team, the Cowboys have to figure out a way to get the ball into his hands more, and to get him off the bump at the line of scrimmage. Rod Hood, a journeyman corner for the Cards, took a page out of the physical Shawn Springs playbook Sunday, neutralizing Owens near the line in bump coverage.

Marion Barber carries: 48. He has to average more than 16 a game.

Felix Jones carries: 12. A ridiculously small number, and it may not improve in the next couple of weeks. Jones, the athletic first-round pick from Arkansas, strained a hamstring Sunday at the Cardinals.

Touchdown passes allowed: Six.

Special teams touchdowns allowed: Two. Those two touchdowns bookended the loss at Arizona. The game started with a Cardinals kickoff return for touchdown and ended with a blocked punt for touchdown.

There are storm clouds approaching. Terence Newman (groin) should be out at least a month, and Adam Jones could feel the commissioner's wrath this week with a suspension for his fight last week in Dallas. If Felix Jones misses time because of his hamstring injury, he'll leave the offense short another playmaker. And where is the great offensive line? For a great back like Barber to be averaging 3.2 yards a carry against Washington, Cincinnati and Arizona is patently absurd.

I thought about the Cowboys a lot in the wee hours of this morning, trying to put two and two together about their slide. I think what I'm realizing is how smart the Giants are, and how football is a team game that cannot be built on stars. Kowtowing to players, whether the team believes what it's saying or not, just doesn't work.

First, Owens complains about not getting the ball enough, and Jerry Jones says the team should "overly'' try to get him the ball. Then Adam Jones gets in the fight, and Jerry Jones calls it a "nothing'' incident. No incident with the Pacman is a nothing incident, obviously. But whatever Jerry Jones says to the players behind closed doors, what he's saying to the public is: We've got an asylum here, and the inmates are running it.

The Giants, meanwhile, suspended their best receiver for a game, beat Seattle by 38 in the game Plaxico Burress missed, and got full support from the rank-and-file over Tom Coughlin's decision to make Burress miss a game.

The long-term answer in Dallas is to shed some of the prima donnas and go back to the way the team was built in the Parcells days. In other words, big turds need not apply. The short-term answer: Increase accountability, fire a guilty special-teamer or two for the Arizona touchdowns in the kicking game Sunday, and tell every player -- from T.O. to the eighth offensive lineman -- that they're going to be penalized, fined or docked playing time for repeated mistakes. Maybe even fired. Let the players know this is a business, and no player who fools with the chances of winning a Super Bowl will be tolerated.

It's going to be hard for Phillips and Jerry Jones to whack some hands with the ruler right now, because it hasn't been their way. But the alternative is worse. The alternative is not making the playoffs.

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