Mike Jenkins has plenty to prove

SAN ANTONIO -- The Dallas Cowboys' front office and coaches keep expressing extreme confidence in a guy who was one of the NFL's worst cornerbacks last season.

What else are they supposed to say? They need Mike Jenkins to perform like a first-round pick to give the Cowboys a chance to contend. At least they have relatively recent proof it can happen.

"I'm going to be very positive about it," owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, "because we've seen him do it."

They've seen Jenkins play in the Pro Bowl after what was believed to be a breakout 2009 season. They saw him make five interceptions while consistently giving quality receivers fits in press coverage for a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFC that season. They've seen him play a starring role on an NFC East championship team in his second season.

That's what made Jenkins' miserable 2010 so disappointing. It wasn't a matter of misevaluating a first-round pick's talent. Jenkins had already displayed that he had the ability to be a great -- if not elite -- cornerback.

It was just an extreme case of underachieving.

Jenkins was absolutely awful last season. It's not a coincidence that the Cowboys allowed the most points in the NFC, not to mention the most in franchise history.

There's no sugarcoating just how much Jenkins stunk last season. Here's some evidence, with the ugly numbers provided by Stats, Inc.:

* The Cowboys allowed 935 yards on 87 passes -- an inexcusable 10.7 yards per attempt -- when Jenkins was targeted. Washington's DeAngelo Hall was the only defender to allow more yardage.

* Jenkins led the league with six pass interference penalties, five of which were accepted for 89 yards. He also was flagged twice for defensive holding and once for illegal contact.

* Quarterbacks, who were intercepted only once by Jenkins in 2010, had a 113.0 passer rating when throwing his way. To put that in perspective, the Patriots' Tom Brady led the NFL with a 111.0 passer rating.

At least Jenkins isn't in denial about 2010, although it's not exactly something he wants to discuss. He didn't want to talk to the media this season, but he consented to an interview after Saturday afternoon's practice.

To his credit, Jenkins offered brutal honesty in his self-evaluation.

"I just had a bad year, period," Jenkins said. "I don't want to make no excuses or blame it on anything. As long as I play football, as long as I have a new down and new play, I'm always going to come out with confidence. You always have to have confidence playing cornerback."

No question that cornerbacks have to have confidence, but there is plenty of doubt about whether Jenkins did last season.

Jenkins certainly didn't play with the same swagger as he did the previous season. That was shaken as soon as Chicago's Johnny Knox caught a crucial bomb against Jenkins in the Bears' Week 2 win. It was shattered when Tennessee's Kenny Britt beat Jenkins deep a few weeks later and obliterated when a flag against Jenkins essentially sealed the Cowboys' loss to the Vikings.

"I think confidence was an issue there," secondary coach Dave Campo said. "When they started getting a few of those penalties -- which, I've got to be careful so I don't get fined -- but there were some things that kind of put it in the back of his mind ...

"We can't let that happen. He's just got to play football because he's a good football player."

The optimistic view is to hope his terrible 2010 will help Jenkins grow, harden him. He claims that he's all but wiped it from his memory, showing something an NFL cornerback must have: the ability to forget when something goes bad.

"I let it go. I let it go," Jenkins said. "It's in the past."

The pessimistic view is to wonder whether Jenkins has the mental toughness to fulfill his potential at a position where mistakes are so obvious and harshly scrutinized. That's a fair question for a player who has been sensitive to criticism and twice in three seasons has committed the cardinal football sin of quitting on plays, avoiding contact instead of attempting to make tackles on touchdowns in lopsided road losses against the Giants in 2008 and Packers in 2010.

Jenkins has as much to prove as any player on the roster, but there are more reasons for optimism. Some of that comes with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's scheme, which Jones refers to as "corner-friendly." Jenkins' practice performances so far in training camp are more convincing.

His battles with Dez Bryant are must-see events. Jenkins got the better of Bryant on Saturday afternoon, highlighted by an interception on a Tony Romo deep ball after Jenkins roughed up one of the NFL's strongest receivers at the line of scrimmage.

"Every time he gets up, I'm definitely going to try to be the guy to go against him," Jenkins said. "That's the only way any of us can get better."

Jenkins' swagger is back, at least for now. If that continues, he can go from being a liability last season back to being one of the NFC's best cornerbacks.

If not, Jenkins will be classified as a first-round bust and the Cowboys will probably be playoff spectators again.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.