MINNEAPOLIS -- Early Sunday evening, with his dispirited team coming out on the wrong end of the game everyone was calling the Desperation Bowl, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stood in the middle of a quiet and crowded Dallas locker room and gamely tried to answer the obvious question: What emotion is one rung below desperation? What reaction fits after watching a season on the brink quite possibly morph into a season over the brink?
To his credit, Jones quickly ruled out mindless optimism and a healthy sense of denial. When asked how he could stay optimistic about the situation his 1-4, last-place Cowboys find themselves in after a 24-21 loss to the previously desperate Vikings, Jones flashed some of his trademark candor.
"I'm not,'' Jones said. "I'm very disappointed, and I realize the challenge we've got. And we're not playing well enough to get it done right now. We're running out of the opportunity to make this season what we want it to be.''
What they wanted it to be in Dallas this year was a Super Bowl season. And not just any Super Bowl season. One that ended with the first Super Bowl champion to be crowned on its own home field, the two-year-old Cowboys Stadium. That was the dream.
What they have instead is an unmitigated disaster. A nightmare scenario that even Jones can't believe he's watching unfold.
"Never, never, never,'' Jones said. "I couldn't have conceived this. Not that I would have made a big bet on it, I did make a big bet that we wouldn't do that (meaning start 1-4).''
No, Jones wasn't pulling a Pete Rose and admitting he bet on his own losing team. He was reminding us that he has already put his money where his mouth is when it comes to these Cowboys. Jones' team has the highest payroll in the league, and there is that $1-billion-plus stadium he helped get built in Arlington. It was supposed to be a showcase for his Cowboys, at least in its earliest years, but instead Dallas just keeps playing one hide-your-eyes-type of game after another this season.
And so the search for answers goes on in Dallas. But maybe that's only because the schedule will continue for another 11 games, whether the Cowboys, at the moment, can stomach the thought or not. The season already feels lost in Dallas, but I don't know if anyone wants to be the first one to admit it just yet.
"I really believe that we're still together,'' tight end Jason Witten said. "We're frustrated, but we feel like we can do it and have the team to do it. But it's going to take a while. We're in a deep hole. We're going to have to dig for weeks. We've just got to go show it. There's nothing we can say that's going to change the opinions. But I really believe we can do that.''
Giving up, I suppose, is not really an option, as long as the Cowboys can still conceivably go 9-7 or 10-6 and make the playoffs in the mediocre NFC. Eleven games remain, and that's nearly three-fourths of the season. But this Dallas team is now playing the rest of the season with a very small margin of error, and so far, the Cowboys have essentially specialized in errors, starting with that Week 1 meltdown at Washington.
For the record, Sunday was a very bad day for the Cowboys' playoff hopes. Not only did Dallas sink to 1-4, but the 4-2 Giants and Eagles both won at home to remain tied for first place in the NFC East (2½ games ahead of Cowboys). The third-place Redskins lost to Indy on Sunday night, dropping their mark to 3-3 -- 1½ games ahead of Dallas. If there's a comeback looming from the Cowboys, it'll have to be a doozy.
"There's no getting around [our record],'' Cowboys receiver Roy Williams said. "You are what you are. We're a 1-4 football team. But this football team is too good. We just have to get one, just one win. Just one, and then hopefully it keeps going from there.''
It's not difficult to see the problems in Dallas. The Cowboys are their own worst enemy. A lack of discipline pervades their games, and will likely wind up being their fatal flaw. On Sunday against the Vikings, they gave up a game-turning 95-yard Percy Harvin kickoff-return TD to open the third quarter, tying the game at 14-14, and two Tony Romo interceptions set up Minnesota on two short fields. The Vikings turned those breaks into 10 points, and Dallas simply isn't good enough to overcome the gift of 17 points to an opponent.
And those weren't the Cowboys' only costly mistakes. Dallas lost a 68-yard Miles Austin touchdown catch when the receiver was called for offensive pass interference, pushing off on cornerback Asher Allen. A fourth-quarter 34-yard punt return by Dez Bryant was nullified by a holding call on Dallas safety Alan Ball, and the final self-inflicted wound was an 11-yard pass interference call on Cowboys cornerback Mike Jenkins during Minnesota's final possession. That flag, coming on third down, allowed the Vikings to keep the ball an extra 2:05, giving Dallas just 13 seconds to try to mount a desperate and unsuccessful game-tying field drive.
All told, the Cowboys had another 11 penalties for 91 yards, even drawing another excessive celebration call, when Austin leap-frogged Williams from behind after the receiver had scored the first of his two touchdowns, on a 15-yard first-quarter grab. At least poor Marc Columbo was nowhere near the scene of the crime this time.
"We're 4-0. The Dallas Cowboys are 4-0,'' Williams said. "Our losses are because we beat ourselves. We can't turn the ball over, and make all these mistakes. I'm tired and I'm frustrated, because we're better than what we're doing.''
For me, the play that summed up Dallas's glaring lack of discipline again on this day came in the waning moments. With Minnesota protecting a three-point lead and punting it to the Cowboys' with 29 seconds remaining, Bryant cost his team both time and yards by fielding Chris Kluwe's punt at the Dallas 4, returning it only three yards. Instead of having the ball and a slight chance at the Minnesota 20 with about 24 or so seconds left, Dallas started at its 7 with just 13 seconds left.
Neither Jones nor any of the Cowboys had answers for why the penalties keep coming, and at all the wrong times. But I asked him if he thought Dallas's lack of discipline could wind up being his team's fatal flaw?
"Well, we'll see,'' he said. "There's going to be 31 [teams]with fatal flaws at the end of the season. Our discipline and our penalties are certainly going to have to be improved or it's going to be the first thing that people point the finger at. Our penalties [are] what I'm talking about, which is a form of discipline. Like I say, we'll see what flaws are fatal.''
I disagree. I think they're already on full display, and become more obvious by the week. And despite that, they're not likely to begat much of any real change, Jones said. The Cowboys owner reiterated he will make no in-season coaching change at any position, and I can't really blame him. Replacing head coach Wade Phillips with offensive coordinator Jason Garrett wouldn't really help anyway. Garrett's play-calling has left something to be desired of late, and it was a head-scratcher on Sunday to see Dallas target running back Felix Jones on 10 short passes, twice as much as anyone on the team. (Just three passes in Williams' direction produced two Cowboys touchdowns, and Bryant caught a 31-yard scoring pass on his only reception of the game).
Jones also said he doesn't consider the playoffs to be out of the question already, and made it clear the Cowboys won't bench Romo, who has tossed seven interceptions, just two fewer than his total of nine all last season. "We don't have a replacement for Tony,'' Jones said, apparently forgetting about backup Jon Kitna. "I know we'll go as far as Tony will take us.''
But something's got to change pretty soon for Dallas, because Romo hasn't taken the Cowboys anywhere so far, unless you count moving beyond desperation to whatever state is worse off than that. Week by week, Dallas's once-grand designs on this season are giving way to a full-scale disaster, and all the Cowboys can do is seemingly watch it crumble.