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Romo's injury makes evaluation of Phillips tough for Jones

Never has a fractured clavicle had such an impact on the imminent future of the Dallas Cowboys or their direction.

No, Tony Romo's broken collarbone is not a first among the franchise's name players. Walt Garrison suffered the same injury in the 1970 NFC Championship but inexplicably kept playing. The Cowboys, partially behind Garrison's 122 yards from scrimmage, won that game en route to Super Bowl V.

The Cowboys' season this year, for all intents and purposes, is lost. Now the question becomes this: How does the organization, without it's franchise quarterback for at least the next six weeks, realistically evaluate coach Wade Phillips?

This is Year 4 of the Phillips regime, and the Wade Era has been filled with mixed results. Many have been screaming for his head since the Cowboys' sloppy Week 2 loss to Chicago, and as if a 1-5 record wasn't enough, Dallas' 67 penalties (only the Raiders and 49ers have more this season) might be the water seal on the wood deck. But firing Phillips -- even after the season -- might be in itself a false start.

Phillips has won 34 games since the start of the 2007 season, which trails only the Giants' Tom Coughlin in the NFC. Considering Dallas was winning Monday night when Romo got hurt, and that the NFC is nothing if not mediocre, it's quite fathomable that Phillips could've had his team back in the thick of it.

But that all changed with Romo's fracture, as did the ability to properly evaluate Phillips. Can owner Jerry Jones and vice president Stephen Jones do that effectively with Jon Kitna, a 38-year-old off-and-on NFL starter, playing half the season? That's debatable, considering Romo is one of the league's best distributors at the quarterback position, and Dallas' offensive success is completely predicated on that ability.

It's worth noting that Phillips was the defensive coordinator for the 2003 Falcons, a team, which like Dallas, was coming off a playoff season but lost their starting quarterback to injury. Michael Vick's broken leg contributed to a 3-10 start and subsequently coach Dan Reeves' resignation. Phillips took over as the interim head coach for the final three games, but ownership decided to hire Jim Mora (the younger) in 2004. That move paid off as Atlanta made it to the NFC Championship Game.

The 1999 49ers were contenders until they lost quarterback Steve Young early in the season and finished 4-12. Ownership chose to stick with head coach Steve Mariucci and was rewarded with back-to-back playoff appearances in 2001 and 2002.

But Jones wants Super Bowls, not playoff or even NFC Championship appearances, and therein lies the problem. While Phillips didn't have the Cowboys on the right track before Romo's injury, Dallas can't possibly be expected to land in the Super Bowl with Kitna driving the bus. So how does Jones evaluate?

Does making a valiant effort to salvage the season and going 7-9 or 8-8 save Phillips' job? If it does, will the penalty-ridden, red-zone challenged Cowboys of the first six games be any closer to a Super Bowl berth next season?

That is the question, and it's not an enviable one for the Jones'.

Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.

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