Jerry Jones did what had to be done

IRVING, Texas -- It took a few weeks of watching his Dallas Cowboys get completely dominated to snap Jerry Jones out of denial.

There's no way to spin it when a team has the highest payroll in the NFL and is tied for the fewest wins in the NFC. Three and a half seasons under enabling, excuse-making coach Wade Phillips made the Cowboys so soft they couldn't be competitive despite a roster loaded with rich, recent Pro Bowlers.

That's why Jones made a wise move Monday by reversing field a few days after saying Phillips would finish the season, firing a coach in midseason for the first time in his 22-year tenure as the Cowboys' owner. Heads have to roll when a team starts a season with Super Bowl expectations and is a sloppy mess by the midway point.

"Wade today is a vivid example of accountability," Jones said.

He better not be the only example. These Cowboys need constant reminders of accountability, the kind they see when they report to work at Valley Ranch every day.

Interim coach Jason Garrett -- who didn't exactly earn a promotion through his work with a star-studded, penalty-plagued offense that ranks 19th in the league in scoring -- declined to discuss potential lineup changes. But talk of increased accountability will ring hollow if Cowboys who have been big parts of the problem don't have to compete to retain their starter status. Fringe players should fear they'll be cut.

That means guys such as running back Marion Barber, strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh, free safety Alan Ball, cornerback Mike Jenkins and most of the offensive line should feel like they have to fight for their jobs. During his talk with the team Monday afternoon, Jones tried to plant the seed that players who don't give great effort and display a will to win during the otherwise-meaningless last two months of the season will have to find employment elsewhere next season.

"Any time the head coach gets fired, it's an indictment of the football team," fill-in quarterback Jon Kitna said. "I hope it serves as a wake-up call for guys around here. When they start making decisions like that and things like that happen, it's just a prelude of things to come as far as changes on the football team."

It's been too easy for the Cowboys to be comfortable as their season swirled down the drain. That needs to change immediately.

The question is whether Garrett is capable of changing the culture. That's what Jones, who played such a huge role in creating the style-over-substance vibe at Valley Ranch, suddenly wants to happen.

There's no doubt Garrett has a much more commanding presence than Phillips, which is pretty faint praise. That doesn't necessarily mean that Garrett will get better results from the pampered players who failed Phillips.

Unlike Phillips, Garrett doesn't seem overly concerned with hurting folks' feelings. He's not a favorite in some corners of the locker room, which might be a good thing, considering how the Cowboys abused Phillips' unconditional love. However, Garrett certainly wasn't an enforcer as the assistant head coach during this dysfunctional season.

"The character and personality of that group tends to be reflected by that leader," Garrett said. "I think the personality of this group going forward will have my stamp on it more than in the past."

The pro-Garrett theory is that he didn't want to create (or enhance) the perception that he aimed to wrestle power away from Phillips. That's no longer an issue. Garrett has all the freedom to assert himself now.

Garrett gets eight games to prove he's worth considering for the job on a permanent basis. If not, no further harm done.

The important thing is that Jones was forced to recognize that the Cowboys can't come close to their potential with a cuddly coach. The warm, fuzzy Wade Phillips era is over, ending in stunning futility.

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