IRVING, Texas -- Miles Austin couldn't stop berating himself Monday, calling his flag-drawing, celebratory leapfrog of teammate Roy Williams "dumb," then "stupid," then "crazy and unexplainable and unexcusable."
And get this: It wasn't even his fault.
Carl Johnson, the NFL's vice president of officiating, told the Cowboys a little later Monday that even though Austin was announced as being guilty of unsportsmanlike conduct and an official on the sideline told coach Wade Phillips the same thing, the penalty actually was against Sam Hurd for mimicking the "Hook 'em Horns" hand gesture that Williams flashed.
Lombardi: Gut-check time in Dallas
Truth is, any Cowboys player celebrating during this quickly dissolving season is doing something wrong.
Penalties and turnovers once again conspired to wipe out an otherwise victory-worthy performance Sunday, this time against the equally struggling Minnesota Vikings.
The head-slapping part about the celebration penalty was that the Cowboys had one in the fourth quarter of the previous game -- and it directly contributed to that narrow loss.
This defeat dropped them to 1-4 and was followed by what's becoming their typical Monday routine: guys talking about needing to clean up their mistakes, Phillips pointing out all the things they're doing right and everyone vowing to keep fighting to turn things around.
The only thing missing was the disclaimer that there's still plenty of time left. Even ever-optimistic owner Jerry Jones realizes how long the comeback trail is becoming.
"We're running out of the opportunity to make this season what we want it to be," said Jones, whose $1.2 billion stadium will host the Super Bowl. "Everybody is aware of that."
Since the NFL went to a six-team postseason in 1990, just five of the 97 teams started 1-4 made the playoffs. None fell to 1-5, which makes the upcoming Monday night game against the NFC East rival New York Giants "as important as it can get," Phillips said.
"Every game is important and all that stuff, but playing in the division and winning division games can help you get out of a hole," he said.
Only the 2002 New York Jets continued bumbling; they were 2-5 and got into the playoffs at 9-7. The other teams all bottomed out at 1-4, winning at least their next three. The 1993 Houston Oilers won all 11 remaining games.
Dallas has more than blind faith to support hopes of joining the turnaround list, and not the pile of 92 teams that didn't.
The Cowboys have outgained their opponent every game, and their losses have been by six, seven, seven and three points. Take away a penalty here, an interception there, or maybe come up with a turnover here and stop a kickoff return there, and things could be drastically different.
Just look at what happened Sunday.
Romo might have had another chance for a tying or winning score, but Mike Jenkins yanked on a receiver's jersey on a third-down incompletion for a pass-interference penalty that kept alive a clock-draining drive. Austin erased his own 68-yard touchdown catch by being called for offensive pass interference.
So even though the Cowboys rank among the top 10 on offense and defense, they are 2½ games behind in the NFC East. Should they get back into the wild-card chase, their 0-3 start in conference play could bite them when it comes to tiebreakers.
"There are some good things -- in fact, there's some outstanding things that we've done," Phillips said. "But it all goes away on the wins and losses."
Everyone in the organization is grasping for answers.
The team still has a roster considered among the most talented in the NFL, and players are trying hard. It's just that when plays need to be made, the Cowboys either don't or they make mistakes.
Romo suggested it might simply be bad luck.
"We're kind of snakebitten right now," he said.
Phillips said he has told the team to stop any sort of celebration whatsoever. He also said Romo's non-passing hand, which was heavily wrapped after the game, was only bruised, and that right guard Kyle Kosier, who left the game with an injured Achilles' tendon, is sore. An MRI showed that Kosier had no serious damage.
Rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant had a stimulation machine on his right ankle Monday, but he said his ankle and ribs are fine. Having caught the first touchdown pass of his career probably helped.
"It felt great," he said, "but at the end of the day, it really didn't mean anything."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press