It is tempting to watch the Dallas Cowboys with a hand over your eyes, peeking through splayed fingers, the way you view a horror movie. The Cowboys are nothing if not that right now, a slowly unspooling Nightmare In Jerry's World, starting out innocently enough only to allow the dread to build until it reaches its excruciating, inevitable conclusion.
These 'Boys have known the feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong so well this season. It is a sense they have honed in recent years, pockmarking an empire -- one that is average in the standings, though highly lucrative nonetheless -- with the painful and pitiful, with the late-game interceptions and late-season meltdowns. It is a feeling that has -- fairly or otherwise -- come to accompany virtually every one of Tony Romo's drives.
So it was on Sunday afternoon. Even in a season that already has included calamitous losses to Denver and Detroit, and last week's shellacking by Chicago's Josh McCown, the way the Cowboys lost to the Packers -- ceding a 23-point halftime lead to fall 37-36, to a backup quarterback, at home -- was so cringe-inducing that it felt like a seismic shift, as if the Cowboys were finally coming loose from their moorings.
As Romo threw two late-fourth-quarter interceptions -- one after he opted to pass instead of run on a packaged play, even though the Cowboys were trying to bleed the clock and had been running effectively -- as Dez Bryant walked off the field while there was still time on the clock, and as a buffet of blame was set up by everyone from Jerry Jones on down, it seemed like anything was possible. With a roster aging at some critical spots, with a coaching staff -- particularly on defense -- incapable of stopping the bleeding, with even the usually sunny Jones burying his inner Up With People and declining to give Jason Garrett another vote of confidence because, Jones explained, he already has, darkness has descended over Dallas again and all options suddenly are on the table. Except actually being contenders, even though the Cowboys remain very much in control of their fate.
That is a hollow victory for the Cowboys, although they'll probably take any kind of victory right now because there is blame being placed at nearly every locker. Jones noted the lack of impact from DeMarcus Ware. Garrett pointed out that Romo should have stuck with a run play on the fateful first interception. A young receiver cut off his route on the second interception. Garrett noted that play-calling is now under Bill Callahan's auspices.
This is what happens to crumbling teams: Perhaps it's just answering questions honestly, but everybody grasps for a lifeline that is not there.
Romo is the easiest fall guy, and even his most ardent defenders will have trouble excusing Sunday's meltdown. The statistics say he is one of the best fourth-quarter quarterbacks in history, but the perception is that he comes up with gut-wrenching mistakes at the worst possible moments. On Sunday, watching the interceptions, it began to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy. For three quarters and 12 minutes, he was the quarterback you want. But in those last three minutes, he was the quarterback you fear.
Other QBs threw interceptions in Week 15 that ended their respective teams' chances -- Tom Brady most prominent among them. But Brady has not been outplayed in consecutive games by backup quarterbacks. And the harsh math of the NFL is that if you're going to be paid like a top-shelf quarterback, you simply must perform like one when the season is on the line.
But of course, Romo should not have had to throw at any point in the second half. The Cowboys moved away from a running game that was working; they had 93 yards rushing in the first half but finished with 134, running just seven times in the second half. And while Romo might have made the critical decision on the first interception, the philosophy of the offense is set by Callahan -- the coordinator to whom Jones handed play-calling duties -- and ultimately Garrett. Late in the third quarter, with the comeback already on, the Cowboys ran the kind of drive that makes you wonder if anybody there deserves to keep their jobs. Romo dropped back three times and failed to get a first down. The drive took exactly 63 seconds off the clock. After the Packers scored once more, to close the lead to just five points, the Cowboys took to the air again on the subsequent touchdown drive.
"The idea was to run the ball and make them use the clock," Garrett said of the Cowboys' fourth-quarter strategy. "Run it, and then if we have to throw it, throw high-percentage passes to keep the clock going and make them use their timeouts."
Garrett's oddly detached explanation indicates a deeper organizational problem -- that he is either not ultimately responsible or does not feel he can step in to dictate offensive direction if he is unhappy with what Callahan is doing. Only one person can fix that, but Jones is the person who gave Callahan the play-calling responsibility in the first place.
We know who is in charge of the defense, but Monte Kiffin surely can't be for much longer. Even Jones has admitted in recent weeks that the decision to replace Rob Ryan with Kiffin "doesn't look good right now." This loss, ultimately, belongs to the growing collection of catastrophic defensive collapses this season. The defense has given up at least 400 yards of offense in eight games, and it is that knowledge -- that the unit cannot preserve a lead, no matter how large -- that is likely informing offensive play-calling that is skewed toward the aggressive.
This, then, is a collective failure. And that, too, is nothing new. After all, when the Cowboys missed the playoffs last season, Jones fired the defensive coordinator and switched offensive play-callers, changes that have borne no fruit.
It is tempting to think the Cowboys are stuck in neutral -- never bottoming out and never improving. But standing still in the NFL is going backward. The Cowboys are slowly decaying, their players getting older, their results getting more galling, their window slamming shut. And Jones already has exercised all of his options for making changes around the margins.
The Cowboys, incredibly, still have a chance to win the division, owing to the weakness of the NFC East, but they can't allow that to delude them this offseason into thinking that they are among the league's best teams. They are far from that, and other than Romo -- whose massive contract has conferred untouchability on him -- nobody should feel safe.
On a day of awful decision-making, Jones made one correct call Sunday night. He did not offer any more votes of confidence, not for any of his coaches or his players. After all, how can anyone who watches the Cowboys be confident in anything anymore -- except knowing that if they uncover their eyes, they are likely to be subjected to a few more hours of scary scenes?
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.