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Trouble at corner a nightmare scenario for sleepwalking 'Boys

By JIM REEVES

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

 

I almost had to pull off the road, I was laughing so hard. On the radio late Saturday night, I'd just heard Wade Phillips, in his plodding Coach Generic drawl, admit that perhaps he didn't have the Cowboys quite motivated enough for their just-concluded preseason game with Houston.

 

It was like once again hearing long-ago cartoon dog Droopy, a notoriously lethargic basset hound, utter his trademark line in that lifeless monotone he made famous in theaters across the country in the late '50s: "You know what? I'm happy."

 

Hearing Phillips concede that he'd failed to motivate his players in his flat, emotionless delivery was so incongruous, I had to laugh.

 

"C'mon, Wade," I wanted to shout. How could a team not be motivated by a coach with so much fire, such unmitigated passion?

 

OK, I'm being sarcastic, and I don't really mean to pick on Phillips. It just sounded funny.

 

What Cowboys fans had just seen on the field, though, certainly was no laughing matter.

 

The Cowboys' 28-16 loss to the Texans was a sobering "Thanks, I needed that!" slap right across the chops.

 

But did they really? Did we?

 

That's the quick and easy rationale, of course. This, I must have heard five times before noon Sunday, was just what the Cowboys needed. The prevailing theory was that after skating through two easy preseason victories over Indianapolis and Denver, Saturday's loss is something they can learn from. Now they know what they need to work on.

 

"Yep," I answered. "Everything."

 

Hey, guys, reality has a bite to it. Yes, this Cowboys team has a chance to be pretty good. What the Texans happily proved Saturday night is that it's not there yet.

 

Maybe the optimists are right. Maybe this loss will do what Phillips said he didn't get right Saturday. After all, it was supposed to be a dress rehearsal for the season opener, almost a real game, and the Cowboys failed miserably in just about every facet of the game, and against a team that might have just experienced the highlight of its 2007 season.

 

Perhaps now the players will stop listening to the talk-show chipmunks prattle on about championship games and Super Bowls and whether they should go ahead and make reservations for the first weekend in February in Phoenix.

 

What it told me is that the Cowboys better hope that cornerback Terence Newman is a fast healer.

 

The Texans made Aaron Glenn and the Cowboys' young cornerback hopefuls look absolutely lost.

 

Cornerback was already a tenuous situation, troublesome enough that Cowboys officials already had considered the possibility they might have to make a trade to improve the depth at that position.

 

Now, with Newman nursing what's been diagnosed as an acute plantar fascia injury, the situation has gone from troublesome to dire. That's the kind of injury that can nag a player all season.

 

"I think we're going to have Newman, but obviously there's some concerns there," executive vice president and player personnel director Stephen Jones said Sunday. "It's an area that internally we've felt like could be an issue for us if we didn't have some guys step up.

 

"We've got some young guys we're hoping will get better and will have a chance to step up for us as they get more playing experience before it's all said and done."

 

The problem for the Cowboys is that Saturday night's game exposed nickel corner Glenn, who was trying to replace Newman, for what he is: an aging, undersized corner who can't cover the bigger, more physical receivers teams invariably will send his way. And Jacques Reeves, Joey Thomas and Alan Ball still look raw and unpolished.

 

Earlier this summer the Cowboys might have considered trading from their linebacker depth, if necessary, to land another experienced corner, but with Greg Ellis slow to return and now Kevin Burnett nursing an ankle injury, it's not like the Cowboys have extra linebackers to give away.

 

Still, they might trade someone like Akin Ayodele if there were someone decent available to bolster the secondary. But if teams have good, veteran cornerbacks, they're not rushing to the trading block with them.

 

"Everybody would like to be better at corner," Jones noted. "As accurate as these quarterbacks are, you always want depth at corner. But everybody's pretty much like us, with a bunch of young guys.

 

"We'll do what we've always done and keep our eyes open so that we can make a decision if something comes up, and we can take a long hard look at it."

 

The Cowboys are like most others team in the league. Their starters aren't bad, but the dropoff behind them is steep and treacherous. The teams that make it to Phoenix in February will be the ones that can avoid key injuries.

 

Cornerback isn't the only place where the Cowboys are thin; it's just that with Newman out, what they run out there instead is like chum in the water for the NFL's quarterbacking sharks.

 

"It's probably the toughest spot for us right now," Jones admitted.

 

That's not good, if for no other reason than it might spin Phillips into a seriously deep depression. Face it, if the head coach gets any less excited than he is right now, the Cowboys might have to have paramedics standing by at every press conference, just to check his pulse and make sure that he's still alive.

Jim Reeves, 817-390-7760

revo@star-telegram.com

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