ARLINGTON, Texas -- If the Dallas Cowboys miss the playoffs in 2010 -- and they took a major step in that direction Sunday -- one of the most enduring images will be right tackle Marc Colombo landing on his backside after chest-bumping tight end Jason Witten during a touchdown celebration. The NFL has a rule that players "can't go to the ground" when celebrating touchdowns -- even if the fall and subsequent somersault is a result of a right tackle's poor coordination.
The Cowboys had just tied the score at 27 with 4:30 left in the fourth quarter, but a celebration penalty on Colombo eliminated the possibility of a touchback on the kickoff and laid the foundation for Marc Mariani's 73-yard return. It was one of 12 penalties for what has become one of the most undisciplined teams in the league. And it contributed to a 34-27 loss that may have buried the Cowboys for good.
"I was upset because the guy spiked the ball, got off balance and fell down," said a befuddled Wade Phillips after the game. "How that could ever happen and why [is that] a penalty right there? You're not supposed to go to the ground. He spiked it and he got off balance and fell down."
It seemed appropriate that the head coach would be thoroughly confused by the call since his players had been in a fog throughout much of the game. I'll admit that it's ridiculous to penalize a large man for botching an awkward chest-bump, but then it's a bit curious the Cowboys felt the need for such a wild celebration. Perhaps they were blown away by remaining in the game following two killer interceptions and a dozen penalties.
It was so bad that the team's butt-pattin' head coach apparently came unglued (by his standards) in the postgame locker room. Phillips admitted this loss was more frustrating than the two previous ones and said he made that clear to his team.
"He was as pissed off as I've seen him," said a defensive starter who asked not to be identified. "And he told us we need to be pissed off as well."
But it will take more than anger for this team to dig its way out of a 1-3 hole. The Giants and Redskins pulled off upset wins Sunday to improve their records to 3-2. The Cowboys now travel to Minneapolis to face a Vikings team that just added Randy Moss, a man with a long memory. This is a team that's staring down the barrel of a 1-5 start. I suppose that some folks will take solace in the fact the Cowboys seem to play well with their backs against the wall, but wasn't that the case Sunday against the Titans?
Phillips and some of his players insisted they'd had the best bye week practices of his tenure. That's why it's hard to believe they played like such a clueless team against the Titans.
"I'm extremely frustrated. I'm in disbelief right now," linebacker Keith Brooking told me. "It's hard to put my arms around it. We played really stupid football."
Cornerback Mike Jenkins, a Pro Bowler last season, set the tone with two pass interference penalties on the Titans' opening possession that cost the Cowboys 48 yards. Quarterback Vince Young then connected with wide receiver Nate Washington on a 24-yard touchdown during which cornerback Orlando Scandrick appeared to appeal for a call while the ball was still in the air.
The Cowboys may have been shocked that Young, the master of the 12-completion win, came out firing the ball early in the game. Jenkins responded by clutching and grabbing at every opportunity.
"That's how I play the game," Jenkins said when asked whether he was too aggressive. "I'm not going to stop being aggressive and I'm going to play like that every game. We were so keyed on the run, and they came out and passed the ball on us. We got to lock them down. That's it."
Jenkins was also victimized on a 52-yard pass late in the third quarter that put the Titans in position to take a 20-17 lead. The Cowboys only rushed four on the play and I'm told they were in a "4 deep" coverage on the play, which means four defensive backs weren't supposed to let anything get behind them. Britt, who was starting for the injured Justin Gage, raced past Jenkins and made a fingertip grab.
On the Cowboys' previous possession, Tony Romo had fired a pass to tight end Martellus Bennett near the Titans' goal line. The ball went through Bennett's hands and was intercepted in the end zone by safety Michael Griffin for a touchback. It was a drive-killing play that should look familiar to Cowboys fans by now.
Phillips pointed out how the Cowboys outgained the Titans by nearly 200 yards, but none of that matters. Giants coach Tom Coughlin was saying the same thing two weeks ago when the Titans found a way to overcome the stat sheet in a 29-10 win. New York responded with two wins, but I don't sense a similar turnaround coming for the Cowboys. Even in a watered-down division, they've put themselves in a serious bind.
When Jerry Jones isn't available for comment after a game, you know it's bad. And panic time has once again arrived in North Texas.
This time I think it has staying power.