Schedule gives Cowboys hope

Tuesday, October 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

IRVING – If the Cowboys are going to make a move, now is the time.

They have a five-game stretch against teams that are a combined 11-17. Their only opponent in that stint with a winning record is the New York Giants (4-2), and the Cowboys will have had the luxury of a bye week to prepare for Sunday's game.

After the Giants, the Cowboys will play Arizona (2-3), Jacksonville (2-4), Philadelphia (3-3) and Cincinnati (0-5).

The Cowboys, at 2-3, remain in the thick of the NFC East race. But they must string together some victories over the next five weeks, with three of those games at home, to create some breathing room.

Their final six games are against clubs with a combined record of 25-7: Baltimore (5-1), Minnesota (5-0), Tampa Bay (3-3), Washington (4-2), the Giants and Tennessee (4-1).

Developing consistency has been high on coach Dave Campo's list of things to do. The Cowboys have been unable to win consecutive games since the first three games of last season. That's a span of 19 games, including last season's playoffs, without winning two in a row.

They opened this season with losses to Philadephia and Arizona, then followed a big win at Washington with a 17-point loss to previously winless San Francisco at home. They rebounded from that game with the 16-13 win over Carolina on the road.

"Our guys have to understand that we really haven't accomplished anything other than the fact that we went on the road and won a football game," Campo said. "We've got to put a couple together and try to get some consistency and get better from week to week. I can't stress that enough as being the most important thing that we do."

The Cowboys are encouraged by the positive things they accomplished in the Carolina victory. The offensive line opened holes for Emmitt Smith, who had season highs for carries and yards, and controlled the ball while the defense eliminated the big plays that hurt the Cowboys in previous games.

But in their only game following a win, they had one of their worst performances against the 49ers.

The Cowboys are at least healthier than they were against the Panthers. Linebacker Dat Nguyen, receivers Raghib Ismail and Wane McGarity, and veteran cornerback Charlie Williams are expected to play. Nguyen, McGarity and Williams did not play against Carolina, and Ismail left early because of an injury.

"I still don't know where we're at," Campo said. "We've got to consistently do it. I think we're making progress. Will it show on the field? We'll find out. Until we put a string of wins together and play consistently, I can't make that judgment. But I feel good that our guys understand they're making progress."

Several changes have created optimism. The front seven is concentrating more on playing strong positionally by controlling the gaps instead of attacking with too much aggression, which allowed opponents some big gains the first four games. Cornerback Phillippi Sparks, who made his first start against Carolina, provided experience that was lacking with rookie Kareem Larrimore.

And improved play from the offensive line helped Smith and quarterback Troy Aikman, who will enter Sunday's game with more healthy receivers.

"I think the only way to become consistent is working hard throughout the week, and you have to be a smart team to keep winning games," veteran safety Darren Woodson said. "The only way to become smart is to watch tons of films. You have to know your opponent inside and out. It's not up to Troy or Emmitt to carry us. It's the whole team doing all the little things."

Campo said he is determined to see his team do the little things that make big differences in the parity-driven NFL, where 15 teams have records equal to or worse than the Cowboys.

"It comes down to two or three plays at the end of a ballgame," Campo said. "If you're mentally prepared to make them, then you're going to win the game. It doesn't matter where you play. It doesn't matter who you play. It's how you play."