Jason Garrett auditions once more

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett wonders where the time has gone.

It's been two years to the week he was named the interim head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, replacing Wade Phillips after the Cowboys lost all hope with a 1-7 record.

Having coached an equivalent to two full seasons, Garrett has a 16-16 record after Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but the good feelings he earned for how the Cowboys closed the 2010 season have dissipated.

"Time flies when you're having fun," Garrett said. "I think anytime you're completely immersed in something in your life, things go quickly."

Garrett needs to get that 2010 feeling back in a hurry.

What Garrett has to do is channel the coach who coaxed five wins down the stretch in 2010 when hope was lost. Because in some ways, Garrett is fighting again to show he is the correct man for the job -- if not to owner and general manager Jerry Jones, who has backed Garrett throughout, then to a fan base that has grown weary.

Fair or not, Sean Payton's shadow will hang over this team for the remainder of the season.

When news broke Sunday morning that Payton could be a free agent once his suspension from the NFL is over, it was easy to connect the dots to the Cowboys.

Payton was an assistant for three years under Bill Parcells. Jones made him the team's first $1 million assistant coach when Payton decided to walk away from Oakland Raiders' head-coaching offer. Payton calls Dallas-Fort Worth home now.

But all it is right now is a dream.

For Garrett, it has the looks of a nightmare, but the outside noise is lost on him.

"There's a lot of stories that circulate around our game, so certainly some people bring those kinds of things to my attention," Garrett said. "But again, we're focused on what we need to do."

Garrett simply hits a personal mute button when discussions like this come up. He did it when Phillips appeared to be in trouble before 2010 when he loomed as the head-coach-in-waiting. He is doing it now.

His focus is on the Philadelphia Eagles, not the final eight games. He is worried about learning the tendencies of Philadelphia's new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. He is worried about fixing an offense that has failed to score more than 20 points in five of its first eight games.

Ten teams in the NFC have a better record than the Cowboys. At 3-5, they are just a half-game ahead of Washington for last place in the NFC East.

"I take full responsibility for it," Garrett said. "It's my job. I'm the head coach of the football team, so I'm responsible for 3-5 and all the issues that we have within our team. And I've got to make sure we get them right."

Garrett believes the Cowboys are close to being a good team, even if evidence shows otherwise. They have shown they can play just well enough to lose in some cases. Four of their five losses have come against division leaders (the New York Giants, Chicago Bears, Atlanta and Baltimore Ravens) and the fifth was to the Seattle Seahawks, who are undefeated at home.

If Dan Bailey's 51-yard field goal attempt is 2 feet to the right against Baltimore, Dez Bryant's fingertips don't land out of bounds against the Giants and Orlando Scandrick does not miss a third-down tackle in the fourth quarter at Atlanta, then maybe the Cowboys are fighting overconfidence and not a lack of confidence as they enter the second half.

"We've done some things that would make you think we could win those ballgames," Garrett said. "Ultimately, we didn't get the job done."

The Cowboys play only one team with a winning record the rest of the season (5-3 Pittsburgh), leading to at least a shred of hope for a second-half run. In 2010, Garrett directed a 5-3 finish with wins against two playoff teams and a 10-win Giants team. The three losses were by a combined seven points, including defeats to Payton's Saints and Philadelphia.

Garrett made a bad team competitive in 2010. He needs to have an even better finish in 2012 to quiet the growing outside noise.

But he will let others worry about that.

"After eight games, we've won three and lost five," Garrett said. "We've got to find a way to win a fourth game this week in Philadelphia."