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COWBOYS NOT EXACTLY IN MIDSEASON FORM

Emmitt Smith on Tuesday offered his Dallas Cowboys teammates a bottom line and a punch line.

"There's no more time to `jell,' or to `feel each other out' to see who we can count on," Smith said. "The season isn't going to stop and let us catch up. . . . `Catch-up' is only good for two things: french fries and fish."Put aside for a moment Smith's comedic and culinary tastes and you hear the message: Three games into the season is too late to still be tinkering with what should be the National Football League's most finely tuned machine.

"In a new season, you don't pick up right where you left off," said Smith, explaining that the Cowboys cannot expect to have reached Super Bowl-level performance already, especially given roster and coaching staff changes. "You start again from square one and eventually try to build back to where you were."

But, he conceded, Monday night's 20-17 overtime loss to Detroit means the 2-1 Cowboys have produced three performances some locker-room inhabitants consider unacceptable.

Said coach Barry Switzer: "You'd think by the third ballgame we wouldn't have this many mistakes."

In Week 1 at Pittsburgh, the offense stalled often enough to force four field goal tries in a 26-9 victory. In Week 2 against Houston, the Cowboys survived, 20-17, with quarterback Troy Aikman and receiver Michael Irvin in particular suffering through performances that fell short of their usual Pro Bowl level.

And then came Monday night's game, a contest filled with so many errors that Switzer spent much of Tuesday's news conference trying to determine which mistakes were fatal and which were merely foolish.

"This game," Smith said, "was the first time in three or so years I can remember us losing when we had so many chances to win."

The miscues were among the array of questions being posed Tuesday at Valley Ranch, a place where, as Smith might say, time's a wastin':

Whatever happened to Michael Irvin?

He has just three catches in each of the last two weeks. His 14 receptions this season rank him 27th in the NFL. He has two drops in each of the last two weeks, and the once unstoppable Aikman-to-Irvin slant pattern - the trademark for a receiver that has played in the last three Pro Bowls - no longer seems to be part of the game plan.

"Oh, it's in there," Switzer assured. "There were several times we came to the line with a slant called. Then we see the cornerback has it covered, so we call a `check-read' (audible) at the line and run a draw or throw underneath. Throwing underneath, that's our scheme."

But that's always been the Cowboys' scheme. And in the past, there has been room to find Jay Novacek and Daryl Johnston underneath and still get the football to Irvin.

Did the Cowboys mismanage the clock?

The Cowboys trailed, 10-7, with 1:50 remaining in the first half. They needed just 42 seconds to move from their own 11-yard line to their 39. So with one minute to go and two timeouts available, the Cowboys were 28 yards away from a 50-yard field-goal attempt.

But the Cowboys didn't call a timeout, and the clock ticked down to 43 seconds, meaning about 17 seconds were wasted. At 43 seconds came a 7-yard pass completion to the Cowboys' 48. It took 19 more seconds, and some apparent confusion among Cowboys offensive players, before the next play started at 24 seconds.

Using the two timeouts, the Cowboys might have begun their second-and-three from the 48 with about 50 seconds left rather than 24 seconds. All of which isn't a concern, Switzer said. The coach first said he didn't understand questions about time management, but later altered his view.

"I'm sure we could've done some things differently," he said. "But other things had a lot more to do with winning and losing the ballgame."

Where was Charles Haley and the pass rush?

After piling up 13 sacks in the first two weeks, the Cowboys managed just one sack of Detroit quarterback Scott Mitchell - and that was the result of Mitchell allowing himself to be chased out of bounds by linebacker Darrin Smith.

Especially conspicuous in his absence was NFL sack leader Haley, who wasn't able to add to his total of 5.5 sacks.

"They dictated the game to the defense," said Haley, who was controlled by Detroit tackle Lomas Brown. "They ran so many draws that they had us on our heels instead of doing what we do best."

The normal Cowboys defensive line strategy is to attack gaps. Safety James Washington said an alteration was made to contend with Lions runner Barry Sanders, whose elusiveness on 40 carries gave him 194 yards.

Said Washington: "Our strength is pursue and attack. Instead, we were too reactive."

Is something missing from the Cowboys' goal-line offense?

Touchdowns.

Especially pivotal was a second-and-goal-from-the-1 sequence at the end of the third quarter. The Cowboys, behind 17-7, decided to rely on Smith twice. His second-down attempt inside was stuffed, a third-down sweep was chased down, and the Cowboys had to settle for a Chris Boniol field goal and a 17-10 deficit.

The Cowboys have just six touchdowns this season. Only five teams have fewer.

"That happens," said Smith, before remembering that more than a shrug of the shoulders is expected of this team.

"That happens," he amended, "but it shouldn't."