Put-up or shut-up time for Cowboys

IRVING, Texas -- Let's put a little positive spin on all the speculation about Jason Garrett's job security: It presents a prime opportunity for the Dallas Cowboys to prove that they really have made progress in the redheaded head coach's reign.

Remember the last time the warmth of the head coach's seat dominated the discussion about the Cowboys?

That team sealed Wade Phillips' fate by quitting on their coach. They rolled over and played dead at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars and looked even more pathetic the next week when they no-showed against the Green Bay Packers in prime time. The Garrett era started the following afternoon.

If the underachieving, 3-5 Cowboys don't right the ship the rest of the season -- and if Sean Payton doesn't agree to a deal to return to the New Orleans Saints -- the Garrett era at Valley Ranch might last only a couple more months.

We're about to find out what kind of character these Cowboys have.

"What you can do is you can look yourself in the mirror and check yourself, check your character to see what kind of man you is," defensive end Jason Hatcher said. "Yeah, you're dug in a hole. Now what are you going to do about it?

"Are you going to get out of it or are you going to tuck your tail and run like a punk?"

That was a rhetorical question, but you hope recent history isn't an indication of the answer.

The Cowboys made it impossible not to fire Phillips midway through the 2010 season. Frankly, it was surprising that Jerry Jones didn't fire his head coach at the end of the 2008 season, when the owner/general manager fulfilled his promise to stick with Phillips regardless of the result of a winner-goes-to-the-playoffs game. That was the infamous Philly Flop, a 44-6 loss to the Eagles.

(In fairness, the 2009 Cowboys responded to the annual Phillips Hot Seat talk about as well as possible, starting a regular-season-ending three-game winning streak with a shocking upset over the 13-0 New Orleans Saints and actually winning a playoff game.)

Jerry can pretend that he knows nothing about Payton's contractual uncertainty with the Saints. It makes sense for Jerry to continue expressing complete faith in Garrett, because anything less would be exposing his coach to the dangers of lame-duck status.

But this is the same man who readily admits that he twists the truth when he deems doing so to be beneficial for him. In other words, Jerry has no credibility when it comes to discussing his coach's job security until a decision has been made.

The players aren't about to discuss the presence of the Payton rumors, although the honest guys acknowledge it's their responsibility to make sure that rumors don't develop into distractions. The Cowboys are adamant that their sole focus is on salvaging this season.

That process better start Sunday with a win over the Philadelphia Eagles, whose head coach's seat is several degrees hotter than Garrett's.

To the Cowboys' credit, effort has not been among their many issues this season. They've consistently played hard. They just haven't played well enough or smart enough the majority of the time.

"That's why these games are so tough right now, because you've got a lot of guys that are working together and doing it the right way, but at the end you're not coming away with those wins," said tight end Jason Witten, one of the Cowboys' captains. "You've got to find a way to do it. …

"Obviously, you want to do it for (Garrett) because he's done it the right way and players love playing for him. But we know it's a bottom-line business, and we've got to go win games."

Witten and other Cowboys will tell you they still believe in Garrett, that they still buy his philosophy even though the results haven't followed yet. Then again, we heard a lot of the same stuff about Phillips in 2010.

Garrett is searching for solutions, but his message isn't changing. He's preaching the importance of keeping faith, of staying the course, especially with the external noise reaching deafening levels.

"The best teams are mentally tough and just keep going forward," Garrett said.

The worst teams wilt like the Cowboys did in 2008 and 2010.

But this isn't about the Cowboys proving they're among the NFL's best teams. It's about them proving they're respectable. That'd be progress.