DALLAS – The Dallas Cowboys are running out of excuses for their sloppy preseason. They're also running out of time to clean things up.
So coach Wade Phillips is considering doing something he'd rather avoid: play his regulars in the exhibition finale Thursday night.
The Cowboys are expecting to be Super Bowl contenders, yet Tony Romo has led the starters to one touchdown in four games this summer and it came on a drive that began 8 yards from the end zone. In a 23-7 loss to the Houston Texans on Saturday night, the first-teamers turned the ball both times they were in scoring position. The defense got run over, too.
"We're not ready for prime time yet," Phillips said. "If the players aren't ready to play for the first regular-season game, then I need to get them ready to play. ... If we see that things are correctable and we can correct them in practice, we'll do that. If we need more game time, then we'll just have to do it."
Offense and defense weren't the only disappointments. Phillips said he didn't see much emotion and intensity, either.
"I would hope we'd have some antidotes for some of these things," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We've got to be ready to play. We can't afford any bad nights."
The Cowboys have a laundry list of explanations for how they've played in August: They aren't game-planning. They don't want to reveal too much of their playbook. Guys are worn out from the NFL's longest training camp. Five starters are out with injuries (most are expected back by the opener).
They've also talked about needing to show at least glimpses of being the club that gained the most yards in franchise history last season, and that hasn't happened yet.
"If you're resting on anything you did last year, then you're already behind," Romo said. "I don't think that's the case. I think our team needs to look at each other and just continue to improve and get better."
In his three previous seasons in Dallas, Phillips has never used his regulars in the final preseason game, instead taking a long look at guys fighting for backup jobs and roster spots.
Then again, the Cowboys haven't been this concerned this late in the preseason. It's especially jarring for them considering that by playing the Hall of Fame game, they had an extra week of practice and an extra game.
"If we didn't have such a veteran team I'd be more concerned than I am," Jones said.
Working things out in practice sounds logical, but the schedule released a few days ago listed Tuesday as the only practice before facing Miami at home Thursday night.
If the starters play, receiver Dez Bryant might join them. He has recovered from a high ankle sprain, but the club wants to be cautious with its prized rookie and probably wouldn't risk using him with backups.
Maybe another passing threat would help Dallas' running game.
Marion Barber and Felix Jones have combined for 44 yards on 21 carries. Preseason statistics are pretty meaningless, of course, and there are extenuating circumstances. Still, it's perhaps their biggest concern.
"Being third-and-10 a lot puts a lot of pressure on," Romo said.
Romo keeps talking about how one mistake ruins their drives, "whether it be a false start or a hold or an inaccurate throw or a drop." That certainly was the case Saturday night.
Just before taking a snap on a first down from the Houston 16, Romo hollered a change from a handoff to a pitchout. Jones didn't hear him and wound up chasing a loose ball; he swatted it to a defender.
Romo drove to the 13 later in the game, then fumbled a snap and lost 4 yards. Two plays later, a pass to tight end Jason Witten was deflected and intercepted.
Failing to get touchdowns out of those opportunities was bad enough for Dallas. Failing to even try a field goal hurts, too, because the Cowboys still need to figure out whether they can trust David Buehler, their kickoff specialist. He's made 6 of 7 this preseason, but hasn't had a chance the last two games.
"We've got to be able to find a way to get into a rhythm, get some tempo going and get some good plays going," Witten said. "We're still together. We still know we have a good football team. We just have to take this and get better from it."