IRVING, Texas -- Locker-room signs of a team in trouble:
In one corner, first-round pick Kevin Smith is apologizing for dropping an interception that failed to put the Phoenix Cardinals away sooner; in another, defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt "baffled" and "frustrated" by too many missed tackles; and in another, Nate Newton is asking Tony Wise for film of his next opponent, although the game is 15 days away, a sure sign of panic.
And in the fourth, Thomas Everett, future savior of the secondary, is breaking records for most interviews given by a player who watched a game from owner Jerry Jones' box.
Dallas' 31-20 victory over Phoenix yesterday made it official. The Cowboys aren't just winning again. Just like the old days at Texas Stadium, they are "winning but . . . ."
The Cowboys beat the Cardinals but they gave up too many yards, 438 if you're counting. They won but didn't drive Chris Chandler's head into the turf with enough frequency. They won but looked downright silly at times on their alleged specialty, their special teams.
"We made a lot of mistakes today," said cornerback Larry Brown, burned for a Randal Hill touchdown. "We have a lot of good teams up the road, and we'll have to correct those mistakes."
"I'd be concerned about some things if we were 0-3 or 1-2," coach Jimmy Johnson said. "But we're 3-0."
And the Cowboys own the league's longest regular-season winning streak at eight games. Winning, which was news here three years ago has become routine.
Michael Irvin played a major role in the first seven victories in the current streak but nothing like yesterday when he scored three touchdowns and caught eight passes for 210 yards, the fifth-biggest receiving day in Cowboys' history.
Irvin put the Cardinals in a hole on the game's second play, catching a short sideline pass from Troy Aikman, spinning away from Lorenzo Lynch, then cutting back and forth
away from safety Mike Zordich for an 87-yard touchdown. It was the fourth-longest pass play in Cowboys' history.
"I don't want to hear any more about rust," he said, referring to questions about his contract-created layoff this summer. "Everything is behind us. I don't even want to hear about this game in a few more minutes. We've got a team, and we're working toward a goal."
On a miserably hot afternoon that goal came more into focus, and with it, the big Monday night showdown in Philadelphia two weeks from now. After first joking that he didn't know who was next on the schedule, Johnson indicated he knows exactly what's coming when the Cowboys face the only other unbeaten team in the NFC.
"We're going to be playing a great team," he said. "It's going to be the ultimate challenge to go up against that bunch on Monday night."
The Cowboys are in position to accept that challenge because Irvin didn't stop embarrassing the Cardinals' secondary with that first touchdown. He also caught touchdown passes of 41 and 4 yards, and Emmitt Smith ran 26 times for 112 yards and a !B touchdown.
That more than offset the occasional deficiencies of the defense and special teams. Chandler threw for 383 yards, tied for ninth-best on the Cardinals' all-time list of big games. Under any circumstances, that's not the sign of an improved pass defense. And on special teams, Brown failed to recover an onside kick, and Alexander Wright apparently reinjured a knee while flailing at kickoffs in the Cowboys' end zone. Lin Elliott had a field goal blocked, and the punt coverage team didn't block a kick all day.
Yet the 0-3 Cardinals, who trailed 21-10 at halftime, never got closer than 11 points in the second half despite their admirable efforts.
"I think it was big, the way things were going," said Aikman, 14-for-21 for 263 yards and three touchdowns. "If we have to take 10 minutes off the clock to win a game, that's what we'll do."
Winning, suddenly it seems, is what the Cowboys do just about as well as anyone in the NFL.