IRVING, Texas -- Following his team's 13-9 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones hurried into the locker room to award Wade Phillips the game ball. His coach and his staff had just endured a rough week -- one player described it as "tumultuous" -- in no small part due to Jones prodding Phillips to get more involved in the defense, which cut the pride of defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and added more responsibility and pressure to Phillips' existence.
The endorsement of Phillips was seemingly just due. So was the game ball, a trophy of sorts typically placed on a mantle or in a case. Phillips, however, might use it as a cushion; he needed a soft landing place after he and everything Cowboys appeared to be falling without a parachute.
"He's made a lot of other head coaches successful," Jones said, referring to Phillips' expertise as a defensive coordinator. "What he did today was make this head coach successful."
Phillips didn't hide his relief. A win after losing two in a row and three of his last four in this city, for this star-stocked franchise, was more than welcome. He didn't view this one game -- in which his team survived despite producing a paltry 172 yards of offense -- as an end-all, though.
"Somebody asked me if this was a must(-win) game," Phillips said. "All of them are must(-win) games at this point."
As cliché as that was, Phillips' point was this: Dallas, now 5-3, needed a Band-Aid to get it through a few more weeks, when quarterback Tony Romo and a slew of other injured players are expected to resurface. Had the outcome of this tightly played, ugly game not been in favor of the Cowboys, the wound could have been irreparable.
Not just for the bumps that sent this early season juggernaut off track, but for what lies ahead.
The New York Giants, who sit atop Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia in the NFC East, are next for the Cowboys. The Redskins, who in Week 4 handed the then-incomparable Cowboys their first loss, are up immediately after the bye. Dallas plays both teams on the road. San Francisco and Seattle could provide some sort of reprieve for the Cowboys but the season ends with games at Pittsburgh, vs. the Giants and Baltimore, and at Philadelphia.
This was less of a victory than it was a reprieve.
"This wasn't a season-saver, but it was a must-win right now," said linebacker Bradie James. "We knew that we needed to get this one because of the road; we still have a lot more games, and it's not going to be easy. This was a stepping stone. With our starting quarterback being out, and with the injuries that we have, we have to find a way to win."
Dallas found a way against Tampa Bay, and it did it not only without Romo but without tight end Jason Witten (bruised ribs) and cornerback Anthony Henry (deep thigh bruise), both of whom went down with injuries. It did it with 40-year-old quarterback Brad Johnson, who was booed for overthrowing open receivers multiple times and who failed to match the short, sometimes horizontal, passing game of the Buccaneers.
The Cowboys also won because Phillips showed he is more of a head coach than he sometimes is given credit for.
It wasn't the strategies or schemes that allowed the Cowboys to stifle Tampa Bay's offense and make needed plays when it had to. It was Phillips' ability to get players to play to a higher level -- and in return, he coached at a higher level.
Phillips took over a lot of the defensive planning, and sometimes the play-calling, but he was sympathetic enough to Stewart that his players recognized the odd spot he was in. So they ramped things up for Stewart and Phillips, both of whom were overly emotional when the Cowboys' injury-depleted defense stopped the Buccaneers on Dallas' 18-yard line with 19 seconds remaining.
"It was emotional for (Stewart)," James said. "We wanted to play for him. We wanted him to keep his confidence going."
Wide receiver Terrell Owens said it wasn't just the defense that was in on things.
"From a coach's point of view, and his assessment of this team as a whole, we knew why we were losing," said Owens, who has started the season with eight straight games without gaining 100 yards receiving for the first time since 1997, his second NFL season. "Some of it is energy. Some of it is communication on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive side and even special teams. It showed that everybody was in sync with each other. It's a part of how we've been practicing all week. We gave ourselves a chance."
While his team was grinding, the normally easy-going Phillips coached as if he was playing with house money. He went for a touchdown late in the first half when a field goal seemed to be the more prudent call. Johnson's 2-yard lob to Roy Williams with four seconds left in the second quarter turned out to be the difference in the game. Phillips also went for it on fourth down in his own territory late in the game -- a high risk move, especially in light of how well the Bucs' defense was playing.
"It ended up putting pressure on them at the end of the game," Phillips said.
The delegation of pressure to someone else was a welcome opportunity.
How things play out from here will be interesting to monitor. The dynamic of Phillips as partial, full-time, de-facto defensive coordinator could be fleeting, with him only dabbling in things when/if needed. It could be more involved, potentially causing uneasiness with Stewart and the players who support him.
The cause that generated the inspired effort against Tampa Bay has been exhausted. Can a new one be found? Is a new one needed?
There are a ton of things that could dictate whether Dallas plays to its potential and, if so, if its potential is even good enough. More questions than answers lie ahead.
For now, though, the drama has subsided and, for a week, things will be as normal as they can be with this franchise. And Phillips can take his game ball home, feel good and do with it what he wants.