IRVING, Texas – Keith Brooking looked his Dallas Cowboys teammates before kickoff and could tell they were ready to play Tennessee, just like he expected following two weeks of "some of the best practices I've ever been a part of."
After watching the game film, he's convinced everyone was playing as hard as they could.
Yet Dallas lost. Again.
By piling up penalties and other mistakes. Again.
And despite all the Cowboys did wrong, they were in it to the end. Again.
Dallas is near the top of the league in offensive and defensive statistics, but is 1-3, last in the NFC East and off to its worst start since Troy Aikman retired and Quincy Carter took over in 2001.
All the offseason talk about the Cowboys playing the Super Bowl in their home stadium seems ridiculous now that they're 0-2 there, which also hadn't happened since '01.
Brooking, a defensive captain, said the problem — and solution — is simple: "You can't play stupid football."
The Cowboys committed 12 penalties for 133 yards, the second time this season they've drawn that many flags. On Monday, Dallas players dismissed flags for holding, pass interference and such as things that happen in a game. The stupid ones were pre- and post-snap stuff, like left tackle Marc Colombo costing them 15 yards on a kickoff by slipping during a touchdown celebration and doing a somersault through the end zone.
But those weren't their only mistakes.
They threw three interceptions and didn't come up with any turnovers, not even on a pass that looked as if their cornerback was the intended target. They allowed six sacks, two of them pushing back field-goal tries (one a narrow miss). The special teams also gave up a long kickoff return to set up the winning touchdown in the final minutes.
Great teams don't do those things, at least not in one game. Good teams find a way to overcome it. Lousy teams just keep messing up.
What baffles the Cowboys is that they've made a lot of really good plays, just not enough to make up for all their flubs. For instance, they had a 400-yard passer, a 150-yard receiver and a 100-yard rusher against the Titans.
They also fought back from a 17-3 deficit to tie it at 17, 20 and 27, which also shows they aren't giving up.
They simply aren't winning.
"We still know what we're capable of," defensive end Marcus Spears said. "We have to execute, we got to play better, we got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, and this thing will turn around fast."
Brooking pointed out there's still a lot of season left. Then he laughed and realized he won't be able to say that much longer.
Coach Wade Phillips knows it, too, but believes a turnaround is coming.
"This an easy fix," he said. "If you can move the ball and stop the other team, normally you can win some games. ... If you keep playing and keep playing at a high level, the wins will come."
The Cowboys are averaging 421.5 yards per game, which was second in the NFL before the Monday night game. The defense was eighth in yards allowed at 304.8.
"We're just not right on the right track," Phillips said. "It's just off kilter barely in those games that we've lost."
Against Tennessee, running back Felix Jones had a career-high 109 yards. Phillips wouldn't say whether Jones would replace Marion Barber as the starter going into the next game against the Vikings, but he acknowledged that Jones provided a spark and was looking for more of the same.
Dallas wants a different effort from right guard Leonard Davis.
He was benched in the first half after several whiffs on blocks led directly to sacks. He returned later, after his backup was hurt, and Phillips said Davis will remain the starter.
The Cowboys will need him back at Pro Bowl form on Sunday in Minnesota.
The Vikings had six sacks on their way to ousting the Cowboys from the playoffs at their place last season. Minnesota will have the added boost of receiver Randy Moss, who is 7-0 against Dallas in his career and will be playing at home for the first time since returning to his original franchise.
Phillips said he realizes the Cowboys appear pretty vulnerable right now, especially to critics. He's counting on his veteran leaders to keep the locker room in check and he's counting on his staff to work out everything else.
"We're going to keep fighting," Phillips said. "And we're going to play better. I really believe that."