Cowboys want to keep momentum -- and coach Phillips, it appears

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones and Wade Phillips stood before the disappointed Dallas Cowboys on Monday and gave them some encouraging words to take into the offseason.

"Keep it the way it is," the message went.

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Jones and Phillips didn't speak with reporters, but players shared the news -- the tone being a clear indication that the owner plans to pick up the team option on the coach's contract for next season.

"It sounds like that Wade will be back, so we're definitely happy about that," said linebacker Bradie James, the Cowboys' defensive captain. "It just wouldn't make any sense to let him go right now."

Dallas is 34-17 (counting playoffs) in Phillips' tenure, having won the NFC East twice in three years. Only the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers have more wins in that span.

This season, the Cowboys eliminated two major burdens by winning a playoff game and having a winning record over the final month. They hadn't done either since 1996. Things looked shaky when Dallas opened December with consecutive losses, but the team bounced back with a four-game surge that had many people expecting the Cowboys to keep rolling through the playoffs.

"You can see we were a different football team from the start of the season to the end," safety Gerald Sensabaugh said. "We were able to overcome the hard times, and that shows a lot about a team. That's a (reflection) of Wade as a person."

However, the Cowboys were flattened at the finish for a second consecutive season, this time going down 34-3 to the Minnesota Vikings in the divisional playoff round.

While it didn't sting as badly as the 44-6 exit in last season's regular-season finale at Philadelphia, the loss had the same result for Cowboys players: a Monday spent filling trash bags with gear from their lockers and saying goodbye to teammates.

"Either way, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth," cornerback Terence Newman said. "But (everybody) in this locker room made it farther than they have here, so that's definitely a positive and a plus. It's a steppingstone."

Dallas has now gone a franchise-worst 13 straight seasons without winning -- or even reaching -- a Super Bowl. That's only part of the reason Jones has more incentive than ever to try ending the drought.

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The Super Bowl is coming to Cowboys Stadium after next season, the first time that Jones' franchise has hosted it. No host has ever played in the game, and that has been an obsession for Jones since he won the bid.

"That would be like the best situation that could happen, period," Newman said.

Jones also is expected to have some new rules to play by this offseason, a byproduct of there likely being no salary cap next season. Sure, there will be certain limitations -- but count on Jones to test the boundaries, especially with the dangling carrot of a Super Bowl at his $1.2 billion showplace.

The Cowboys also will have a first-round pick again after not having one last season.

The flip side is the front office might not have to do too much. This roster already is in pretty good shape, especially with young players such as wide receiver Miles Austin, running back Felix Jones, linebacker Anthony Spencer and cornerback Mike Jenkins having breakout seasons.

Although the offensive line was mostly to blame for the Minnesota loss, the unit was good enough for quarterback Tony Romo to pass for a career-high 4,483 yards during the regular season.

The defense, led by DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff, allowed the fewest points in the NFC this season and closed the regular season with the first back-to-back shutouts in franchise history. Kickoff specialist David Buehler set a franchise record for touchbacks, and punter Mat McBriar was solid, too.

Dallas' most glaring weakness? Field-goal kicking. Former Pro Bowl selection Nick Folk was cut after he struggled this season, and his replacement, Shaun Suisham, missed two attempts Sunday.

"With the type of quarterback and running game that we have, and our abilities to stop the run and to produce the pass rush that we can, we have all the characters for winning it all," defensive end Igor Olshansky said.

Dallas already has changed one spot on the coaching staff, hiring Paul Pasqualoni to replace Todd Grantham in charge of defensive linemen. Grantham left to become defensive coordinator at Georgia. Phillips encouraged that move, which also points to his return. He's also likely to remain in the dual role of head coach and defensive coordinator, considering how well the defense played this season.

"It's good for us," safety Ken Hamlin said.

Phillips and his staff actually have one more game to coach: the Pro Bowl. They will guide the NFC team in Miami the weekend between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, a taunting reminder of how close this Dallas team came to capping its 50th season in style.

"We just came up short at the end, but we definitely made strides," Spencer said. "The things that we did this year, we just need to do them better next year."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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