Jerry Jones can't fool himself again

IRVING, Texas -- When Jerry Jones looked at the Dallas Cowboys' roster this past January, he saw a team capable of competing for a Super Bowl.

It's important to note that Jones' definition of competing for a Super Bowl is merely qualifying for the playoffs, which is technically accurate.

But the Cowboys' owner and general manager convinced himself that his team could have done what the New York Giants did if only it had left MetLife Stadium on New Year's Day the victor in the de facto NFC East title game. Or if only a couple of plays here or there had turned out differently. Or if the Cowboys had not suffered injuries to key players.

So Jones entered 2012 believing the Cowboys were ready to close the gap with major tweaks to the secondary and minor tweaks to the offensive line when you factor in only the economics of the moves made to acquire Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings.

Jones was fooled.

On his Tuesday morning radio show on KRLD-FM, Jones acknowledged that mathematically, the 5-6 Cowboys are still alive for the playoffs, leaving unsaid that realistically the team does not look ready to roll off five straight wins to perhaps get in the tournament.

He also said the final five games of the season can serve as an evaluation period.

"You want to be playing well so you can basically look at your core and see where you are with your core and evaluate your core as far as seasons to come," Jones said.

Here's where Jones can't be fooled again: effort.

Criticize coach Jason Garrett for the team's record, the poor showing by the offense, the slower-than-slow starts to games, the penalties, the mental mistakes made on the defensive side of the ball and the special-teams gaffes all you want.

He deserves scrutiny and has said as much.

But Garrett's team has displayed effort. You don't want to go overboard praising effort because players are supposed to try. You don't get merit badges at the end of the season in the NFL for trying. It kind of goes with the job.

It doesn't mean it should be ignored, though.

The Cowboys quit on Wade Phillips in 2010, whether they want to admit it or not. The effort was not there, and it cost Phillips his job.

They have not quit on Garrett.

The Cowboys have been able to turn four double-digit deficits -- against the Washington Redskins (28-3), Giants (23-0), Cleveland Browns (13-0) and Baltimore Ravens (24-13) -- into competitive games. They were able to beat only the Browns.

When it came time for the defense to make a stop or for the offense to make a play or for the special teams to make a kick, they failed.

Frankly, the Cowboys are just good enough to lose.

Whenever the Cowboys begin to look back at what went wrong in 2012, they must be honest. They can't give the offensive line an excuse for not having its five would-be starters playing a snap together in the preseason. They can't give the defense an excuse for losing five key contributors to injury for either the season, such as the top two tacklers in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, or significant chunks of it.

"It's frustrating that we don't have a better record," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "Obviously a lot of things go into play on that, but as I've said, we're going to continue to work hard at it and continue to get better as a team, and at some point, I suspect some of the breaks will go our way."

The Cowboys hope DeMarco Murray can return this week against the Philadelphia Eagles, which should help the running game simply because it cannot be worse. The Cowboys hope Tyron Smith can come back to play left tackle this week. They hope Jay Ratliff can return from a groin injury. They hope Miles Austin's hip flexor/low back strain will be OK. They hope Mike Jenkins can play the slot cornerback role.

That's what this season has come down to: hope.

Cowboys fans, dwindling as they might be with more than a decade and a half of so-so football, have to hope Jerry Jones does not get fooled again.