IRVING, Texas (AP) -Jerry Jones was so sure this was going to be a memorable season for the Dallas Cowboys that he invited HBO's cameras to training camp. Might as well capture every moment.
Jones had every reason to be optimistic. The Cowboys were coming off a 13-win season and returned every significant player, most locked up for years with gaudy contracts. He also salted the roster with more talent, two first-round picks and a gamble that Adam ``Pacman'' Jones would be on his best behavior.
With a $1.1 billion stadium rising and big-time events lining up for dates to play there, Jones' 20th season in charge seemed certain to be a success in every way.
So, why isn't it?
Why are the Cowboys a mediocre 5-4 and spending their bye weekend holding down last place in the NFC East?
Why are they gathering up what's left of their optimism and essentially putting it all on next Sunday's game at Washington?
rom Super Bowl favorite to wild-card hopeful to ... well, there's no telling how things might wind up. Especially if quarterback Tony Romo's return from a broken finger isn't the big fix the Cowboys are counting on.
Coach Wade Phillips' soft touch was exactly what this team needed after four years of Bill Parcells. Now it might be part of the problem.
This theory dates to January, when Phillips built in enough free time around the first-round playoff bye for Romo and some guys to visit Mexico. The trip became even more memorable when Dallas lost to the New York Giants.
Phillips could've then sent the team into the offseason with a scolding, noting they had 13 Pro Bowlers and couldn't win a single playoff game. Instead, he essentially wished them a good trip to Hawaii with a day-after review of ``I certainly feel like the best team lost the game.''
The same back-patting tone came through in August, when HBO filmed Phillips praising his team for winning the last-ever preseason game at Texas Stadium - as if that's a feat for a team with legitimate championship aspirations.
All seemed well when the Cowboys started 3-0, convincingly winning at Cleveland, beating Philadelphia in a shootout, then winning at Green Bay.
a ripping a week later when it was fortunate to beat lowly Cincinnati at home. Instead, Phillips praised his guys for being ``the best walkthrough team I've ever been around.''
Any surprise that a sloppy, turnover-filled loss at Arizona came next?
Romo got hurt late in that game and Dallas is 1-2 since. But the Cowboys also were in a 1-2 slide when he was healthy.
The self-proclaimed ``Mr. Fix-it'' might need a new blueprint.
The Phillips 3-4 he installed last season produced pressure up front and some timely turnovers, items that tend to go hand-in-hand.
This season, despite DeMarcus Ware's 10 sacks, the Cowboys haven't consistently pressured quarterbacks. Lately, they've tried so hard to get a head start that they keep getting flagged for jumping offside, turning third-and-long into third-and-short, or sometimes into first downs.
Turnovers? Dallas had zero interceptions the first four games and zero by cornerbacks the first eight games.
The Cowboys have allowed at least 30 points four times after doing so twice last year. Two of those scorefests came in games Romo missed, which is when they really needed the defense to step up.
Absences can only be a slight excuse.
man's absence. Since he's been booted, Dallas turned to first-round pick Mike Jenkins and mid-rounder Orlando Scandrick, both considered an upgrade from the veteran backups used last season. Losing linebacker Anthony Spencer for several weeks meant more playing time for Greg Ellis, but he seemed to be doing fine.
``We're trying to do the best that we can to win,'' Phillips said. ``Part of that is analyzing what needs to be done, and part of it is getting the players to do it.''
It's worth noting that the defense kept Tampa Bay without a touchdown in the lone Romo-less victory. That tide-stemming win may have saved Phillips' job.
Then again, who would Jones have put in charge? Jason Garrett, the offensive coordinator and presumed coach-in-waiting, hasn't exactly earned a promotion.
While many of the offensive problems can be traced to a shaky line, the NFL's highest-paid assistant either hasn't brought out the Cowboys' best or hasn't masked their weaknesses.
The most glaring detail is Terrell Owens going nine weeks without a single 100-yard game. He had exactly 100 yards over the three games Romo missed.
``I know I am a playmaker,'' T.O. said. ``I've always been that and I still consider myself that. I think it shows when I get my hands on the ball, things happen. We have to get back to some of those things.''
try freeing T.O. from double coverage. Williams hasn't been much of a difference maker yet, but that should change once Romo returns.
Several of this season's biggest underperformers are guys who cashed in during the offseason.
Owens, left tackle Flozell Adams and safety Ken Hamlin are among those whose play hasn't matched their pay. There are extenuating factors, but the bigger the paycheck, the higher the scrutiny.
The Cowboys have a whopping nine captains. Yet they might not have a single emotional leader, one guy with the credibility and personality to stand up to teammates who are slacking.
Because that's not Phillips' style either, perhaps it leaves a big void on a team that seemingly has plenty of talent.
This group has seven games left to carve its legacy.
After playing at Washington, Dallas has very winnable home games against San Francisco and Seattle. Then come the kind of challenges a team needs to prove it's for real: at Pittsburgh, then home against the Giants and against Baltimore in what likely will be the last game at Texas Stadium. The finale is at Philadelphia.
Recent history is against the Cowboys because of all the forgettable Decembers and Januarys since their last playoff win, back in 1996.
like the 1970 team going from 5-4 to losing the Super Bowl on a field goal in the closing seconds, or the '71 club going from 4-3 to winning the Super Bowl.
``We understand now is the time to put your foot down,'' Romo said. ``I hate to use the term where everybody thinks it's the playoffs already, but ...''

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