Jason Garrett looking ahead

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett's first full season as Dallas Cowboys head coach ended with an 8-8 record and losses in four of the last five games, including Sunday night's de facto NFC East Championship Game against the New York Giants.

The Cowboys never admitted to 2011 being a rebuilding season even after cutting high-profile and high-priced players such as Marion Barber, Roy Williams, Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo and Andre Gurode, but Garret hinted at such in Monday's season-ending press conference.

"We had a lot of players, veteran players, who were really good players for us, Pro Bowl type players for us and we made some hard decisions to get away from those guys and move on," Garrett said. "Those aren't easy decisions to make. We went with some younger guys and we felt like that was the right decision for our football team now and going forward. We knew there were going to be some growing pains, but we felt like we had to get on that course and not only do that with a particular position but also get the structure of our team right from a financial standpoint, as well. So we started down that course and we feel like that was the right move for our team in 2011 and moving forward."

The Cowboys will have close to $28 million in dead money against the 2012 salary cap from the aforementioned players, but will carry forward a credit of around $17 million in unused space from 2011. The Cowboys can create more room by cutting cornerback Terence Newman and restructuring the contracts of other veterans.

The Cowboys had three new starters on the offensive line, including rookie right tackle Tyron Smith, and Kyle Kosier moved from left guard to right guard. The defense had four new starters. Young players such as DeMarco Murray, Sean Lee and Dez Bryant also played large roles.

But this is still a team that beat only one opponent that finished the season with a winning record (San Francisco).

Garrett acknowledged there must be improvements made in the offseason, but said he does not believe the Cowboys are far away from being a contender.

"I think the obvious answer to that for me is that we were playing for the NFC East last night, so we were that close," Garrett said "When we kicked off at 8:30 we had a great opportunity if we won that ballgame to be NFC East champs. We didn't get that done. There's no excuse for that. Give the Giants credit for getting that done. But that's our initial goal, to win our division and hopefully be able to put ourselves in position to host a playoff game, win a playoff game and take the next step. And hopefully we can build on a lot of the positive steps this year that got us to that point and correct some of the negative things going forward."

Garrett and owner and general manager Jerry Jones met with the players Monday morning. Players went through a series of meetings with their position coaches and medical staff before leaving for the year.

Some left for good. Others will be back in 2012.

"I thanked them for their approach, how each and every one of those guys -- players, coaches and staff -- came to work," Garrett said. "We started a long time ago down in San Antonio. The appreciation I have for them, the dedication they put forth, the commitment to team, those are all things I am very thankful for. We didn't get the job done. But we had a lot of really good things happen for our football team this year. We had some disappointments. Ultimately, we didn't achieve our goal of making the playoffs. Last night, we had an opportunity to win the division in New York and we didn't get the job done. Now we are watching the games this week, and I encouraged them to remember the feeling we had after last night and use that to our benefit going forward."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.