ARLINGTON, Texas - When an entire busload of players fails to arrive for the biggest game of the season, as the Eagles did yesterday against the Dallas Cowboys, the first place you look is the bus driver. This is on him, on Andy Reid. With that, his toughest week begins.

Six days after this disaster - Cowboys 24, Eagles 0 - the teams will meet again in an NFC wild-card game. Mentally, Reid will have to find a way to convince his players that a snapshot of the scoreboard at Cowboys Stadium is just that, a quick picture and not an enduring truth. Schematically, Reid will have to find a way to protect quarterback Donovan McNabb long enough for him to hit a couple of home runs to DeSean Jackson, or somebody.

Both of these tasks are as enormous as they are essential - and there is another complication. After the game, Reid went out of his way to say that you couldn't just pin this mess on a key group of young players who didn't step up in a big spot. Minutes later, McNabb chose to place more of a focus on the kids.

"We showed our youth," the quarterback said. "We showed our youth in situations where everyone would begin to look around to see who was going to make the play instead of stepping up and making that play. That's something that comes with the territory when you have a young group. I think at this time, having discussed it with the guys, everybody understands it."

This is the exact opposite of what Reid spun.

"The important thing is we learn from our mistakes," the coach said. "Not only the young guys, but the coaches and the players - learn from our mistakes and do better the next time. That's the important thing. I don't think it was just the young guys. I think it was all of us. We've all got to do a better job there."

They all had a lousy day, and Reid was right there among them. First off, he and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg stopped running as soon as they got behind, after the Eagles' first series of the game. It was too quick, especially given the challenge the Cowboys' pass rushers present, and extra-especially given the reconfigured realities on the Eagles' offensive line in the absence of injured center Jamaal Jackson.

I don't usually sing this song, but a reasonable amount of balance has meant a lot to this season's team, especially lately. And, well, these numbers from the second quarter - 14 passes, three runs - don't approach the kind of balance they need.

Then there was the obligatory time-management hiccup. Early in the second quarter, the Eagles were in punt formation on the Dallas 39-yard line and didn't have enough people on the field. They ridiculously called timeout rather than just take the 5-yard penalty. It was a timeout they could have used, too, seeing as how the half ended with the Eagles near midfield but without a way to stop the clock as they hurried to line up.

"We needed to fix something," Reid said, by means of explanation. "We needed people on the field . . . Right there, I wanted to back them up the best I could. The way things were going, I wanted every yard we had and back them up and see what we could do."

Really, that's what he said.

Then there was the third quarter. Down 17-0, the Eagles were looking at third-and-2 at the Dallas 35-yard line. This was two-down territory, but Reid didn't play it that way. Instead of running it on third down and then being ready to run it again on fourth down, the Eagles called an incomplete slant to tight end Brent Celek and then watched kicker David Akers miss a 53-yard field goal attempt.

"I would have liked to have gotten some points there," Reid said. "At that point, it was 17-nothing. I would have liked to have gotten some points."

This coach, as everyone knows, almost never compromises. Injuries, youth, big stage, doesn't matter: You run the plays and expect the players to perform. But now you wonder. Everything has to be on the table after this kind of embarrassment. Michael Vick has to be on the table in a big way. More running, and shortening the game, has to be on the table. More blitzing by the defense had better be on the table. Protecting McNabb at all costs has to be on the table, because he is going to have to be excellent for them to have a chance.

It might very well be too much. The Cowboys have found a way to limit the deep balls and force the Eagles to try to walk it up the field in smaller bites, which is not their strength. The Cowboys also have now eviscerated this Eagles defense. It is not a good picture.

Still, it is what Reid has. He misread his team this week, as focus deserted them in a big spot. Again, that's on him. Now, starting today, there will be a locker room full of people looking at him to provide an answer, desperate for a new plan. But how can he convince them, after this?

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