The resigned look on the face of Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, after his team had lost to the Saints 27--13 and been all but eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday, said it all. Just the day before he had spent a good part of the team meeting showing his players some of the illegal-contact and pass-interference calls that referee Tony Corrente's crew had made this season. They'll call everything, Parcells told his players of the officials working Sunday's game, so avoid any contact with receivers past the five-yard bump zone.
Yet with the Saints facing third-and-31 in the second quarter, Dallas cornerback Terence Newman was flagged for illegal contact on an incomplete pass that traveled about 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. On third-and-four in the third quarter, linebacker Dat Nguyen was called for pass interference. And on a third-and-14 in the fourth quarter, safety Roy Williams was penalized for illegal contact. Three flags against the Cowboys, three first downs for the Saints.
However, the defense wasn't responsible for all the Dallas penalties--14 total, 11 accepted by New Orleans. The special teams chipped in five. "I did what I could," Parcells said with a shrug. "I am just disgusted."
Barring a miraculous finish (unlikely with a road game against the 12--1 Eagles up next for the 5--8 Cowboys), Parcells will have to wait until next year--at least--to make his 10th trip to the playoffs. After a surprise postseason appearance in 2003, Dallas suffered an equally stunning drop-off this year. Here are three reasons why:
• Injuries robbed the defense of its leader (safety Darren Woodson, out all season after undergoing back surgery) and the offense of its deep threat (Terry Glenn, out since Oct. 25 with a sprained foot), and franchise rookie running back Julius Jones missed all but one game in the first half of the season with a shoulder injury.
• The defense, top rated in the NFL last year, has plummeted to 25th. Newman, a second-year man, has been burned repeatedly and has lost his confidence, and the team hasn't found a suitable replacement at the other corner for Mario Edwards, an off-season free-agent departure.
•Veteran free-agent pickups at running back (Eddie George) and quarterback (Vinny Testaverde) haven't looked merely old; they appear to be out of gas.
Instead of brimming with optimism as they look ahead to 2005 and Parcells's third season with the team, the Cowboys have no idea who their quarterback will be. Drew Henson, the 24-year-old former New York Yankees infield prospect, has made one NFL start--on Thanksgiving Day against the Bears--and was yanked after an ineffective first half. The defense is full of holes and was built on speed by holdover coordinator Mike Zimmer; Parcells prefers a bigger, more physical unit.
About all the team has going for it is Jones, a second-round draft pick out of Notre Dame who in the last four games has rushed for 517 yards and six touchdowns. Maybe Dallas can find another impact player with one of the two first-round picks it has in the April draft. In the meantime Philadelphia waits to take another shot at its beleaguered rival.