IRVING, Texas (AP) -The Dallas Cowboys opened this season with high hopes for their new decision-makers, coach Wade Phillips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Still, there were some nagging questions.
For Garrett, it was whether someone three years removed from suiting up was ready to call plays.
For Phillips, it was what kind of leader would he be when the going got tough.
Well, after only one game, a 45-35 victory over the New York Giants, Garrett seems to be off the hook. He did such a good job that Terrell Owens was shut out in the first half and was smiling anyway.
Alas, things aren't as peachy for Phillips. That one game was enough to put him at the first major crossroad of his tenure.
The defense he was brought in to improve looked terrible. Yes, it was without expected starters Terence Newman and Greg Ellis, two pivotal pieces, but that's life in the NFL. So is the fact another key player, Jason Ferguson, was lost for the season in the opening quarter of the opening game.
Newman and Ellis should practice this week and could play Sunday in Miami. But even if they do, they won't be at full strength. There are no guarantees either will be their usual self all season.
Well, Mr. Fix It, as Phillips called himself last week, now what?
The question goes beyond plugging the holes poked by the injuries. The bigger issue is keeping this problem from eating away at team morale, which was flying high just a few weeks ago, before the injuries began to mount.
Fans are probably more worried than players are. So far.
The challenge for Phillips is making sure everyone believes they'll find a way to get through this, either by the offense continuing to put up more points than the defense allows or by other players stepping up.
Winning the opener was certainly a good start.
``We didn't lose because we played well enough as a team to win,'' he said. ``That's what it takes.''
There are indications this team has the blind faith needed to get through an early rough patch, or at least buying some time for the coach to figure things out. Again, Owens serves as a good barometer.
During a lengthy chat session last week, it was mentioned the offense might have to carry a bigger load because of the guys banged up on defense. The topic was still being addressed when Owens cut in with an answer.
``That's all right,'' he said. ``We'll take up the slack.''
Phillips' easygoing, serious-when-he-has-to-be approach is playing well in a locker room still decompressing after four years under Bill Parcells. Players are no longer wary of the coach playing mind games with them, such as boosting spirits after a loss and jabbing at them after wins to keep them humble.
The confidence the Cowboys feel also comes from knowing that Parcells left them in good shape. They have a good mix of players and a chance to have a big year. The keys are staying healthy (oops!) and not letting adversity get to them.
That's where Phillips has been a role model so far. He seems to have mastered the funny one-liner that takes the edge off things, like walking into his postgame news conference Sunday night, knowing he was about to be hit with questions about his leaking defense, and saying, ``How about my offense, huh?''
Asked Monday about some mistakes made by the defense, Phillips wouldn't give any.
``I got their back. They may not have mine all the time,'' he said, keeping things light even when being serious. Then he added: ``I just don't think it's right, especially when you win, to go into who didn't do this well and let's dwell on the negatives and all that. There are some negatives. Certainly we are going to dwell on them. I don't think out there for the public is really the right way to go.''
The best way to keep everyone in harmony is to play well. And the backups-turned-starters certainly had their moments: an interception by Newman's replacement, Jacques Reeves; a sack by Jay Ratliff, Ferguson's fill-in; and a tackle on Giants quarterback Eli Manning that broke up a 2-point play by Ellis' replacement, Anthony Spencer. One more worth mentioning is the game-saving touchdown by Sam Hurd, forced into crunch time because of an injury to receiver Terry Glenn.
``Those things are good to see, because everybody practices, but (backups) don't get as many reps as everybody else,'' Phillips said. ``That shows you that guys who aren't playing are still focusing on what we are doing and know how to do the right things.''
That's the spirit. Now it is up to Phillips to make sure it stays that way.

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