EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The ritual has become exhaustingly familiar for Jerry Jones. Each week, for more than a month now, Jones has stood in a crowded hallway, the sound of water rushing from showers in the background, and slowly let his confidence leak away. From that very first week, when Tony Romo was hurt and Jones felt lower than a crippled cricket's ass, to now -- four straight losses later and on his second different backup -- Jones has withered before his eyes, along with the Dallas Cowboys' season. The details change -- and there are always details -- but the results are the same. Loss after loss to imperil a campaign conducted even in the NFL's least coherent division. As many losses since Romo got hurt in Week 2 as the Cowboys suffered all of last season.
On Sunday, the Cowboys went with Matt Cassel as the starting quarterback, and this time, after a 27-20 loss to the Giants, Jones could not summon even the bravado that makes him, most of the time, the most glass-half-full owner in the NFL. Gone was the praise for the arm and accuracy of Brandon Weeden, praise so over the top it might have made Troy Aikman wonder about his place in the America's Team firmament. With each loss, Jones is shrinking into realism, and it is not pretty. At 2-4, the Cowboys are in last place in the NFC East, and they face Seattle next week.
"The challenge is daunting," Jones said. "We should and will go back out and look at Seattle and go quarter by quarter. That's all we need to be looking at. We can't afford to look down the road."
The road only figures to be rockier for a while. Receiver Dez Bryant -- who could be seen shouting at an enraged Greg Hardy, apparently in an effort to calm him, after the Giants' Dwayne Harris (a former Cowboy, which Jones admitted did matter) returned a kickoff return for a touchdown to secure the victory -- could return from a foot injury as soon as next week. But Romo cannot return to the field until Nov. 22 against Miami at the earliest, which means three more weeks of Cassel. And it will be Cassel, Jones assured, despite three interceptions that doomed the Cowboys, who had otherwise managed to put up 233 yards rushing and hold the Giants to just one offensive touchdown.
"If you're asking me if I'm confident Cassel can help us win several of the next ballgames, I don't know that," Jones said. "I saw him do some things out there today that could have helped us win this ballgame, and then obviously those turnovers are backbreakers."
There are times when it seems the Cowboys view the world through a prism that nobody else has access to. Weeden had the arm and accuracy of the league's best quarterbacks; Cassel, who last won a start on Sept. 7, 2014, can help the Cowboys win games now. And Hardy, who has been with the team for two games after serving a suspension for his involvement in a domestic violence case, is a team leader -- as Jones termed him -- for screaming at special teams players after the kickoff return. Hardy's outburst prompted Bryant to yell at him, apparently in an effort to play peacemaker, and that led to Hardy yelling at Bryant, which led to Tyrone Crawford leading Bryant away. Coach Jason Garrett absolved Hardy, and Jones welcomes all of it, saying of Bryant and Hardy "their type of juice, their type of passion, it's not a Knute Rockne speech made by their owner. Those guys walk the walk, and talk the talk. Everybody knows it's real."
"He's of course one of the real leaders on this team," Jones said of Hardy. "He earns it. He earns it with respect from all his teammates. That's the kind of thing that inspires. I have no problem with him being involved in motivating or pushing any part of the football team. He plays and walks the walk."
Hardy would not explain what he was thinking. To each question in a series posed by reporters, he responded "No comment. Next question."
But really, silence might be the best option for the Cowboys right now, because everything they have said -- about treading water until Romo returns, about Weeden's ability, about the shift to Cassel prompting offensive relief -- has proven to be wrong. The Cowboys have not tread water so much as watch the rest of the NFC East founder, too. That is why, for all their travails, they remain very much in the race. The problem now is that they have run out of quarterbacking options, and on a day when everything else seemed to work, that proved to be enough to unravel them even as the Giants struggled with their own offensive hiccups.
Except that Jones did a bit.
"We hate to have certain things go as well as they went for us and then lose the ballgame with the age-old understanding that turnovers don't win," Jones said.
Later, he added: "I was more confident we could reach those goals when the season started than I am today. We're not the offensive team and not the overall team, we don't have much margin at all. We can't make mistakes with the makeup of our roster right now."
But not far from where Jones stood glumly was the one sight that could boost his spirits and renew the Cowboys. Even as Jones continued to bemoan Cassel's turnovers and the uphill climb the Cowboys face, Romo walked through the locker room. He carried his bags. His arms were free of harnesses. The Cowboys are punchless without him, but Romo may at least be able to go down swinging.