Cowboys show promise but aren't elite

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Dallas Cowboys should be proud of what they accomplished this season.

They cleaned up their locker room, overcame the demons of the 44-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles that ended the 2008 season, won an NFC East title again and won a playoff game.

Yes, a playoff win. The first since 1996.

And while many are disappointed in the way Sunday's 34-3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC divisional round went down, it illustrated the fact that the Cowboys are not an elite team.

"I think it's as tough as you want to write it," Jerry Jones said of the Cowboys' loss. "Not getting to go forward to the championship game, that's tough."

The Cowboys have some special parts on defense that can be considered elite, or close to it, in outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

Cornerback Mike Jenkins, who knocked down two of Brett Favre's passes Sunday, and outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who picked up 10 tackles, one sack and two quarterback hurries, are talented players who have big futures.

On offense, quarterback Tony Romo hasn't reached elite status, but many believe he made strides late in the season. In the final five weeks of the regular season, Romo threw nine touchdowns and just two interceptions while leading his team to a 3-2 mark. During this span, he had three 300-yard games.

But the Romo whom many criticized last season returned against the Vikings.

He was sacked six times, mainly because of the Vikings' pass rush that was credited with 10 quarterback hurries. Jones said Romo was fighting for his life out there.

However, Romo fumbled three times Sunday to remind everyone that he's not an elite quarterback yet.

"I have done a pretty good job [on protecting the football] all season, because as I move up in the pocket, they're not around you until take another step or two," he said. "I just need to protect it from the moment I move. I am sure when I look at the tape I will realize whether I should have held it a little higher or with two hands."

The Cowboys' wide receivers have some issues to deal with.

There is Miles Austin, who earned his first Pro Bowl nod with 1,320 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Austin needs to perform at this level consistently for opposing teams to treat him as a No. 1 receiver.

The Cowboys' No. 1 receiver in name only is Roy Williams, and he has regressed. He finished with just 38 catches for 596 yards on the year.

On Sunday against the Vikings, Williams had zero catches. Austin was targeted eight times but had just four catches for 34 yards, none in the second half.

The Vikings did mix their coverages up Sunday, but not to the point that the Cowboys should have struggled on offense.

"We scored three points in a playoff game, where it meant the most," wide receiver Patrick Crayton said. "Nothing you can really say, dude. They kicked our ass; they kicked our ass. Up front, they dominated us. They were as vanilla as it comes, and we just didn't handle it."

Jones said he will evaluate every position on the team. That's not a surprise, because he does it every year, but when he looks at the running back position, he has to wonder if it's worth keeping Marion Barber.

Barber was a nonfactor, swollen knee and all, with his 1.8 yards-per-carry average against the Vikings. Felix Jones and Tashard Choice are two young players the Cowboys might think about moving forward with.

On Sunday, Jones averaged 4.9 yards per carry, and Choice had only one touch because he's mainly a third-down back and he runs the Razorback formation.

The offensive line is pretty good, but Doug Free didn't fare so well in place of an injured Flozell Adams at left tackle.

The front office is confident in what Free can do, and Jerry Jones said the third-year player practiced some at left tackle for the last two weeks of the year.

There is hope for these Cowboys. But winning games such as this one is not in their makeup.

At least for now.

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