Cowboys at 8-8, another lost chance for veterans

Owner Jerry Jones has repeatedly said the Dallas Cowboys are

just getting started with Jason Garrett as their head coach.

For a core group of veteran players such as Tony Romo, Jason

Witten and DeMarcus Ware, losing yet another season finale with a

playoff spot on the line is another chance lost.

An 8-8 season that raises questions about the future of some of

the other players who have been around, and where the still-average

Cowboys go next after Garrett’s first full season.

”We have to take advantage of their talent and experience,

players like Romo and Witten, a lot of those players, because

they’re not going to be around forever,” Jones said. ”We have to

accept this and move forward.”

That means accepting that Dallas lost four of its last five

games, including 31-14 against the New York Giants in the finale

Sunday night that determined the NFC East champion and sent the

Cowboys home for another long offseason.

”Now we’re watching the (playoff) games this week. I encouraged

them to remember the feeling that we had after the game,” Garrett

said Monday after wrapping up individual meetings with each player.

”You have to keep that feeling, you have to make that palpable as

you go forward and use it as a motivation to get better,

individually and collectively as a team.”

This has been a very average team since winning three Super

Bowls in a four-year period in the first half of the 1990s. The

Cowboys are 120-120 in the regular season since the start of 1997,

a 15-season span with one playoff victory in seven postseason

appearances.

Romo and Witten came into the NFL as rookies together nine years

ago. Romo has been the starting quarterback for six seasons,

playing through broken ribs and a bruised throwing hand this season

after missing most of 2010 with a broken collarbone. Ware just

ended his seventh season, and the linebacker is headed to his sixth

consecutive Pro Bowl.

”It’s very disappointing, frustrating,” Romo said after the

finale.

Several veterans likely played their last games for the Cowboys,

including cornerback Terence Newman and linebackers Keith Brooking

(14 NFL seasons) and Bradie James. Newman and James were in the

same rookie class with Romo and Witten.

Garrett took over midway through the 2010 season, promoted from

offensive coordinator after the Cowboys had won only one of their

first eight games and Wade Phillips was fired.

Dallas immediately responded to Garrett and his many changes by

winning their first game, on the road against the Giants, and going

5-3 the rest of the way.

Boastful Rob Ryan was then hired as defensive coordinator,

though the NFL lockout prevented him from teaching his scheme in

the offseason to the Cowboys, who had 10 of 11 defensive starters

back after giving up a franchise-worst 436 points in 2010.

When the lockout ended, the Cowboys made several money-saving

moves. Running back Marion Barber, receiver Roy Williams and

starting offensive linemen Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo were

among several veterans released before Garrett’s first training

camp in charge.

These Cowboys were still 7-4 after sweeping through their four

November games undefeated. Then came another late-season slide.

Among plenty of near-misses were consecutive losses to start

December that ended with missed field goals at the end of

regulation after timeouts wiped out successful kicks.

There was one by Garrett during an overtime loss in Arizona and

another at home by the Giants, who erased a 12-point deficit in the

final 3 1/2 minutes for a victory that tied them for the division

lead instead of letting Dallas take a two-game lead with three

games left.

With another season-ending game with a playoff spot on the line,

they lost like three years ago, even if this wasn’t as bad as 44-6

at Philadelphia in 2008 when Garrett was offensive coordinator.

Garrett described his conversations with Jones since the

season-ending loss to the Giants as ”good” and believes Jones is

on board with his approach.

”I think the most important thing that we’ve done is we’ve

gotten the program going the way we need to believe it needs to get

going and that starts with people,” Garrett said. ”I do think

people understand the program that we’re putting in place here. I

do think we have the right kind of guys, I do think guys come to

work and do things the right way. I think we just need to get

better.”

The Cowboys started and ended their seasons with losses at

MetLife Stadium. In the September opener, the Cowboys blew a

14-point lead in the fourth quarter for the first time in franchise

history. There were two more losses in which they blew late

double-digit leads, something that had only happened twice in the

team’s 51 seasons combined.

”We showed flashes of being a very good team, then we played

where we were inconsistent,” linebacker Sean Lee said.

”It’s very frustrating,” receiver Dez Bryant said. ”I don’t

think there’s anything we missing. … We just have to close out

games whenever it’s time to do it.”

Asked if he was confident the Cowboys could do that in the

future, his response was, ”Of course, we’ll get it done. We don’t

have no choice but to get it done, and we will.”