The tone, it is . . . what? Not angry; not resigned; not philosophical -- he doesn't do philosophical, obviously. Maybe it's . . . detached. Which is not what you expect. Bill Parcells, who is as into coaching football as anybody who has ever put a whistle around his neck, has a 3-5 football team and doesn't seem to know what to do about it. The Eagles (7-1) visit Monday night.

He's certainly working as many hours as ever and looking at as much film as ever. But it's not showing up on the field. You don't know what you're going to get from his Dallas Cowboys these days, and that's unusual for the Jersey guy's team.

For two decades, Bill Parcells's teams have had a strong running game that controls the clock. They've played stifling defense (including that infernal two-deep zone). They've been great on special teams, and they've occasionally thrown a trick play at you. And almost always, in the second year of a Parcells reign, his team takes a big step toward the Super Bowl.

But halfway through this season, his second in Dallas, everything is inside out. The gambles that used to look daring and brilliant now don't work. The Cowboys make killer fourth-quarter mistakes. And they don't have an identity. Are they a running team? Are they a passing team?

"We don't know," quarterback Vinny Testaverde said.

After Sunday's 26-3 debacle of a loss in Cincinnati, following a week in which the Cowboys talked bravely about getting back to .500 and making a run back to the playoffs the second half of the season, they are tied with Washington at the bottom of the NFC East. (Parcells and Joe Gibbs, bringing up the rear -- who would have ever imagined?)

There don't appear to be solutions -- not to the lack of a running game, not to the smallish defense that is not typical of a Parcells unit, not to the miscues by veterans and young players alike that caused Parcells to question the intelligence of his squad on Sunday.

"It's the elementary things that we're doing that are hurting us," Parcells said Monday at a news conference, in which he didn't back off at all from his assertions that his team had been "stupid" against the Bengals.

"That's really the most disappointing thing. When your team isn't playing smart football, disciplined football, I take that as a reflection on me. I'm obviously not getting the message across."

Not that Parcells is expecting anyone to feel sorry for him. With his $17 million contract and total control over personnel, the heat is on again -- and no one wants to hear any moaning about the fates.

"Everybody has problems in this league," Parcells said last week. "But I learned -- really, in my first year -- that nobody cares. Nobody cares. Because on Monday, they just wonder who won. I think you keep that in mind, and you prepare what you have as best as you can prepare it each week, and not worry about the future or the long range or down the road or a month from now or eight weeks from now. Just get your team ready the best you can now with what you have available."

Said wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, one of the world's most prominent Parcellsologists: "You're not probably mathematically out of it until you're something-and-nine. You can be 8-8 and still be okay. So I think he's just giving that perspective in terms of what he's trying to tell us. Hopefully, it'll catch on. You don't stop. You know that you keep pounding away at it."

The Cowboys have had more than their share of injuries to key personnel. The secondary is a shambles; Dallas is on its fourth right cornerback of the season, and veteran safety Darren Woodson had been on the physically-unable-to-perform list for the first six weeks of the season.

On offense, Dallas has already lost wide receiver Terry Glenn for the season, along with its best blocking tight end, Dan Campbell. Quincy Morgan, acquired from Cleveland for Antonio Bryant at the trade deadline, has been in and out of the lineup with a pulled hamstring, leaving rookie Patrick Crayton and inexperienced Randal Williams to play major minutes at wide receiver with Johnson. Rookie running back Julius Jones has been out for most of the season after breaking his shoulder blade in September, and free-agent pickup Eddie George has shown only brief flashes of his old self.

Meantime, Testaverde -- 41, as is pointed out every six seconds by media and fans in Big D -- has had a miserable last few weeks. Last Sunday, he threw three more interceptions (he has 10 for the season). That's led to increasing speculation about when Parcells -- and, by extension, owner Jerry Jones -- will pull the plug and insert rookie quarterback Drew Henson into the starting lineup.

The Cowboys looked helpless in blowout losses to the Vikings, Packers and Bengals, but their other two defeats turned on gambles by Parcells that didn't pan out.

Against the Giants, the Cowboys were down 16-10 early in the fourth quarter when Parcells went for it on fourth and 1 at his own 43. They didn't get it, and New York salted the game away.

The next week, Dallas led Pittsburgh, 20-17, with less than three minutes to play and had the ball at the Steelers 47. The Steelers had no timeouts, but the Cowboys opted to pass. Testaverde was hit by linebacker James Farrior and fumbled, and the Steelers recovered. Jerome Bettis scored with 30 seconds left to give Pittsburgh an improbable 24-20 victory.

And yet Parcells also went for it on fourth down at key moments of each of his two Super Bowl victories with the Giants. So nothing has changed except the results, and after they blew up in his face, Parcells accepted full responsibility for the decisions.

"He kind of took the blame for the first five or six games when we were really struggling," defensive end La'Roi Glover said. "That kind of took the pressure off of the players a little bit somewhat. Then, instead of calling out one or two guys, he kind of called us all out. Instead of playing individually, one guy here, one guy there, instead of playing as 11 individuals, play as one offense, play as one defense."

Indeed, Parcells has actually cut back on the amount of hitting his team does during the week. And there hasn't been a lot of screaming, though he's never been much of a yeller; he's always been more caustic than loud. This season, he acknowledged that the first thing on his mind coming off the practice field most days is the mental state of his team.

"He just tells the young guys that, hey, you're going to have to step up and make some plays," Testaverde said. "We're not looking for game-breaking plays. Really, he's just telling them to be consistent. Learn your stuff, know your stuff, and perform like a veteran would do. We're counting on you."

Said Johnson: "He's just trying to make sure of giving us an understanding of where we're at in terms of positioning. Because you get media people writing that we're dead, we're done. Young guys may hear that on the radio and believe that."

But the Cowboys' aspiration to be "an extremely physical, hard-hitting team on both sides of the ball," as Glover said, isn't jibing with reality, especially on defense. Many of the important numbers from last season are trending down. The defense led the league last season, allowing just 253 yards a game. This season, it's 20th (341 yards allowed per game).

The Cowboys were third in the league in rushing defense last season; this season, they're 24th. Opponents converted only 30 percent of their third-down chances last season. That percentage is up to 43 this season. Dallas had 25 takeaways last season; halfway through this season, the team has five -- fewest in the league.

And the Cowboys have the Eagles twice, Baltimore and Seattle in the next six weeks. That doesn't mean the season is over. But time's a-wastin' for the Boys. And for their coach, who's still figuring out what he's got and how he can compete with it.

"I think Coach [Don] Shula was great at that," Parcells said. "No matter how much negativism was surrounding his team, he could put it away. And so if I could take anything from my predecessors in the league -- and there were a couple of them that were very good at that, keeping their team organized with what they have, whatever it is, get the best out of that -- you still give yourself, most of the time, even if it is not as good of a chance, you give yourself a chance."

Cowboys QB Vinny Testaverde fumbles after a sack by James Farrior in a loss to the Steelers on Oct. 17.