Where do the Cowboys go from here?

This is how it nearly always ends for the Dallas Cowboys. Maybe not the exact record or final outcome, but this team is the biggest tease in the NFL.

It’s hard to believe the Cowboys seemed to be a lock for the playoffs with a 7-4 record following a win over the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving. The Giants had imploded following a 6-2 start and were on their way to getting head coach Tom Coughlin fired.

But then Arizona happened. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett fell asleep at the wheel in the game’s final minute, which contributed heavily to the Cardinals winning in overtime. This could’ve been an aberration, but it turned out to be a sign of things to come as the Cowboys lost four of their final five games and reinforced their reputation for choking during the part of the season games mean the most.
That the Cowboys didn’t completely get embarrassed after the Giants took a 21-0 halftime lead Sunday night in the Meadowlands speaks to how low the bar is now set for this franchise. Owner Jerry Jones later called it one of the biggest disappointments of his career, but how could anyone be surprised by the Cowboys not looking prepared in a winner-take-all situation? Players and coaches insist that the past has nothing to do with their most recent failure, but surely they realize that losing year after year in December has created a certain culture at Valley Ranch.

Now, Jones will need to do some of the most difficult work of his career. He needs to say goodbye to some of the key players he once believed with all his heart would help him win another Super Bowl. Cornerback Terence Newman, the fifth overall pick out of Kansas State in ’03, embarrassed himself in Sunday’s loss to the Giants. Not only did he give up a long touchdown to Victor Cruz on a simple out route the Giants believed would give them seven yards at the most, but he was hurdled in the open field by a fullback and a blocking tight end who goes by the name “Bear.” Jones handed Newman a lucrative contract extension when he was 30, and due to injuries and poor play, things haven’t worked out. The Cowboys owner has a blind spot when it comes to rewarding players based more on loyalty than actual production.

It’s pretty safe to hand outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff long-term extensions, but it’s hard to figure why Jones felt compelled to do so with cornerback Orlando Scandrick and safety Gerald Sensabaugh this season. It’s like he has this warped belief that writing an $8 million check to a nickel corner will somehow turn him into a better player.

The Cowboys will likely part ways with veteran linebackers Bradie James, Keith Brooking and Newman, as well as bit players such as Alan Ball and Frank Walker. On offense, the Cowboys will have to continue retooling of the line. It’s time for Tyron Smith to take over at left tackle and Doug Free will try to regain his 2010 form — on the other side. The Cowboys will have to look to the draft or free agency to add talent at the guard and center positions because you can’t move forward with Montrae Holland and Phil Costa.

Quarterback Tony Romo didn’t have the luxury of a running game against the Giants on Sunday, although some of that was dictated by the Giants’ quick start. It’s hard to say if the Cowboys’ season would’ve finished differently had DeMarco Murray not broken his ankle, but he’s certainly one of the bright spots for the future.

Cowboys fans used to have Romo to kick around every December, but he actually performed well down the stretch. His interception to Giants resident loud-mouth Antrel Rolle was troubling Sunday, but he did bring the Cowboys to within one score, 21-14, while being sacked six times and running for his life on numerous occasions. The fact that Romo has played at an elite level the past two months may be the most galling thing about this season to Jones. Yes, the quarterback gave away games against the Jets and Lions earlier in the season, but he played his best football down the stretch. And it didn’t matter.

With Romo’s play and the rest of the NFC East on the verge of collapse, this should’ve been a relatively easy path to the playoffs. Instead, the Cowboys went 0-4 against the Eagles and Giants while barely beating the 5-11 Redskins twice. Jones had the false belief that his team could somehow reprise the Packers’ strong finish last season after that team squeezed in as the No. 6 seed. But that Packers team built some momentum down the stretch and everyone knew they were dangerous. Even if the Cowboys had won, it would’ve been a stretch to identify them as a dangerous team in the playoffs.

And it probably would’ve deluded Jones into not making the necessary changes this offseason. You might wonder why I keep mentioning the changes Jones will make rather than what’s on Garrett’s agenda. Well, that’s what happens when an owner has the audacity to give his head coach advice – during a game. Garrett’s credibility had already been diminished by his own doing (see Arizona, Detroit, New England, first Giants game), but Jones weakened his authority even more with his in-game visit.

Some observers may have believed Jones when he said Garrett would have “final say” on everything that happens with this roster. Now, that seems pretty far-fetched. This is no time to fire Garrett because it’s not like one of the big names such as Jeff Fisher or Bill Cowher wants to work for Jones. And though his act grew tired (like his twin brother’s), defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should at least get one more season to clean up this mess. His weekly bravado was a welcome change to Garrett’s emotionless delivery, but the results weren’t there in the second half of the season.

Whether that’s the fault of Ryan or a lack of overall talent remains to be seen. Based on where the Cowboys finished in 2010, an 8-8 record might seem like an improvement. But everyone’s expectations changed once the Cowboys led the NFC East with a 7-4 record.

Like always, it’s Jones who has created a lot of the problems with this team. And unfortunately, he’ll be the main guy trying to clean it up.

Some things never change.