Cowboys give the illusion of greatness

ARLINGTON, Texas -- To borrow a phrase from their former coach, the Dallas Cowboys are what they are.

They are a 9-7 team.

Oh, they're 8-5 right now, as their current coach will probably remind us during his Monday morning news conference. But the annual December downturn has hit in the form of a two-game losing streak that isn't likely to end Saturday night at the Superdome.

They are a team that can't win in the regular season's most important month, an issue that dates to Barry Switzer's last days in Dallas. That trend is only getting worse under Wade Phillips, who is 3-7 in December as the Cowboys' coach after Sunday's 20-17 loss to the San Diego Chargers.

They are a team in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, which probably means another coach will be hired this offseason and asked to deliver the franchise's first postseason win since the 1996 season.

Folks were fooled by the 13-3 uptick in 2007, when the Cowboys had an NFL-record 13 Pro Bowlers, even though Dallas fell flat as the NFC's top seed in the playoffs. The media was fooled, considering the Cowboys a Super Bowl contender. The fans were fooled, buying into the hype. Owner/general manager Jerry Jones was fooled and overpaid with a shopping spree that spring.

Of course, Jerry won't admit that. He still sees the Cowboys, who have finished 9-7 in three of the past four seasons, as an elite team. He dismissed a question about whether it's expecting too much to envision this core of players winning a Super Bowl.

"I don't think so with [Tony] Romo," Jones said. "I don't think so at all. I think Romo is a player that can play that position, then I like some of the other players as well."

Some of those other players Jones likes are running back Marion Barber and cornerback Terence Newman. They both benefited from Jerry's generosity following Phillips' 13-win debut in Dallas, with Barber signing a seven-year, $45 million deal and Newman getting a seven-year deal worth a little more than $50 million.

They both let the Cowboys down at crucial moments against the Chargers.

Barber got stuffed on three carries from the San Diego 1-yard line in the second quarter. That's unacceptable for a guy who is considered one of the best power backs in the NFL. The blocking certainly could have been better, but an elite bruiser puts his head down and powers into the end zone when he gets three cracks from the 1. But Barber is not an elite back, as evidenced by his average production in almost two full seasons as a starter.

As usual, Barber managed to avoid the media after the loss. A 5-foot-5, 125-pound female reporter who chased him to the elevator after his escape from the locker room didn't turn out to be as tough as the Chargers' linebackers.

Newman and strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh gave up a 39-yard reception to Vincent Jackson that set up the Chargers' go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. It's tough to stop a 6-5, 230-pound receiver from grabbing a perfectly thrown pass from Philip Rivers, but elite cornerbacks make that play more often than not. Newman, whose only Pro Bowl appearance came after the 2007 season, is not an elite cornerback. He's a good player, not great.

"I'm confident in what we can do," Newman said. "I think we have a lot of guys that are confident."

That statement echoed throughout the locker room, but how could the Cowboys truly be confident? Forget for a moment their recent failures in December and January the past two seasons, although those ghosts have to be haunting them. The Cowboys have consistently failed against good competition this season. They are 1-5 against teams that have winning records.

Jones talked to his players about overcoming adversity. Several Cowboys discussed withstanding the avalanche of criticism sure to be coming their way and salvaging this season despite a difficult schedule down the stretch. They talk about believing in themselves, regardless of what everybody else thinks about a team that looks like the same, old Cowboys.

"We're defined by how well we play right now, in December, and how well we play in the playoffs," linebacker Bradie James said.

Until they prove otherwise, the Cowboys can't be considered winners when it counts, no matter what their lame-duck coach says Monday in the wake of another late-season loss.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.