Cowboys' loss sparked change

When the Dallas Cowboys visit the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field, it will surely bring back memories of the last time the Cowboys visited Philadelphia.

The Cowboys lost 44-6 in the 2008 regular-season finale, a game they needed to win to clinch a playoff berth.

But that loss percolated a string of events that has pushed the Cowboys to a 5-2 record this season and into a first-place tie with the Eagles in the NFC East.

The Cowboys' day started badly against the Eagles on Dec. 28. Kicker Nick Folk sent the opening kickoff out of bounds. It was like the Cowboys had given up before the game started.

By the end of the afternoon, the Eagles had scored 41 unanswered points, recorded four sacks and recovered four fumbles. Philadelphia set an NFL record by returning two of the fumbles for touchdowns on consecutive drives.

"I don't know if we didn't show up," coach Wade Phillips said. "We had a lot of bad things happen. But it was a terrible game."

After the game, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones was grilled by reporters in defending Phillips' job status. In two separate news conferences, quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens said changes needed to be made on offense.

It got worse. On the plane ride home, Flozell Adams, the starting left tackle, got in a fight with fullback Deon Anderson.

Right guard Leonard Davis broke up the scrum.

"Hardly anybody saw it," Davis said in recalling the fight.

"I was pissed off, but you can't go back, what the hell," Anderson said. "When was that game again, because so much has happened since then? But we've moved on and [are] now looking ahead to what's in front of us."

The next day, the Cowboys went to work on changes. They needed to do so because their organization was in shambles.

"It was just kind of disgusting," wide receiver Patrick Crayton said of the Eagles game. "It was disgusting to watch."

As a result of that game, three important things occurred:

1. The overall attitude of the team changed. The Cowboys either released or refused to re-sign four players -- Owens, Tank Johnson, Pacman Jones and Greg Ellis -- who they believed had a negative influence in the locker room and didn't produce enough on the field.

In the offseason, the Cowboys wanted players who made an impact and didn't cause problems. Roy Williams, who is enduring his own problems with Romo, hasn't caused any as far as play calling is concerned. While Anthony Spencer isn't as productive as Ellis (no sacks this year while Ellis has four with the Oakland Raiders), he's played well against the run and keeps his mouth shut.

Younger defenders Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick have proved to be better corners than Pacman Jones, who was suspended last year for fighting his own bodyguard. Jenkins starts opposite veteran Terence Newman.

Johnson was a backup to Jay Ratliff at nose guard and had 45 total tackles and one sack and three tackles for loss last year. But he irked several teammates for cursing at the end of the Eagles game and for getting into verbal exchanges with reporters.

With Johnson gone, the Cowboys gave Junior Siavii an opportunity. Siavii has picked up 16 tackles and two quarterback pressures playing about 15 snaps a game.

The team added defensive end Igor Olshansky and inside linebacker Keith Brooking in free agency. Brooking took over some leadership duties. He pumps up the team before games, something Ellis used to do, and Olshansky has played more games (seven to one) this year than the injured Chris Canty, whom the Cowboys let go via free agency.

2. Coaching changes. Phillips finally took an interest in special teams play. He fired Bruce Read, who needed help from other coaches to work with that unit at times last year. He was replaced by Joe DeCamillis.

This season, Crayton has returned two punts for scores under DeCamillis.

"He really pays attention to every return that we run," Crayton said. "A special teams practice ... is like 30 minutes of hell, trust me. These guys actually sweat more in those 30 minutes before the first team, period."

The Cowboys also made an effort to improve the kicking game. They were the only team in the league last year with no touchbacks. In the draft, the team selected kicker David Buehler from USC. He leads the league with 17 touchbacks.

Also, Brian Stewart was fired as defensive coordinator. Stewart was liked by several players but did not earn enough respect. Ellis didn't like how Stewart used him and went over his and Phillips' head to Jerry Jones to voice his concerns. Stewart lost play-calling duties at midseason to Phillips.

The Cowboys finished with a league-leading 59 sacks last year. This season, the Cowboys elected not to hire a defensive coordinator. Phillips calls the plays, and there are few complaints about the defense. After recording no sacks in the first two weeks of the season, the Cowboys have 17 in the past five weeks.

3. Offensive changes. Romo said the Cowboys were exposed by the Eagles in the 44-6 loss. Owens said the offense needed diversity.

The Cowboys addressed those issues. Left guard Kyle Kosier missed half the games last year with a foot injury. His return stabilized the offensive line and gave Adams the ability to trust the man to his right and allow Romo time to complete passes.

Which leads us to the next point. The Cowboys' offense was geared to get Owens the ball last year. But with Owens shuffled to Buffalo, Romo isn't stressed about T.O. Phillips said the team doesn't have to force-feed the ball to Owens to get things going this year. Instead, Romo can spread the ball around. In Dallas' win over the Seattle Seahawks last week, Romo completed passes to 10 different receivers.

Receiver Miles Austin, has emerged as a star. He's ranked 10th in receiving yards and has been the difference with Williams and Romo lacking a connection. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has rediscovered the running game. The Cowboys' running backs -- Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice -- have given the team the versatility Owens was talking about last year.

All three can start and all three are versatile. Jones is the speedster, Barber the bruiser and closer in the fourth quarter and Choice the third-down back who filled in for an injured Jones.

Overall, the offense is ranked second in the league.

The entire team seems more relaxed than last year. Even the man who signs the checks believes this team is better, thanks to the moves that were made as a result of the Eagles game.

"I do, and so many players on this team do remember how we left Philadelphia last year," Jones said. "I'm not big into team chemistry. That's one definition of it. I won't call it that. I guess, I'm being stubborn, OK? What I will say is that when you play as many people as we're playing and you have as many young people as we have along with veterans, that is a team concept. When you sprinkle in talent it comes in various forms."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com.