IRVING, Texas- Coming off a 6-10 season, the Cowboys entered 2011 with a different roster direction and the same objective as always: the playoffs. That hope only grew the day after Thanksgiving, when they found themselves atop the NFC East with a 7-4 record.
A month later, they finished 8-8 and home for the second straight year. Certainly not the ending team owner Jerry Jones expected with such bright prospects at the start of December.
"I think 'disappointing' is the bigger word for me (than 'failure')," Jones said Tuesday on KRLD-FM. "Our goals are always first to get in the playoffs, secondly to go far in the playoffs.
"I think we played some good teams. We certainly you could say gave up some big plays and at times we didn't make the plays that you would hope we would make. In general, it was very disappointing not to have a better December than we had."
The Cowboys went 1-4 in that final stretch, including consecutive losses on Christmas Eve (granted, with no Tony Romo and no Felix Jones) and on New Year's Eve. No postseason despite Romo's arguably best season as a pro - his 102.5 passer rating trailed only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady - might rankle Jones the most.
Their playoff victory total since 1996 stands at one (2009), and Jones understands why criticism points at him as owner and general manager - a dual role he plans to keep.
"The facts are that I've spent 22 years doing this exactly the same way," Jones said. "I've made a lot of changes from year to year as time goes along, but frankly, I know that when we do not have the kind of success, when we don't have expectations lived up to, then the one that should get the most heat is the one that ultimately makes the decisions, period, with the Dallas Cowboys. And that's me."
Still, Jones views the season as the first step in a new program under head coach Jason Garrett. The Cowboys made conscious decisions in the summer to get younger and cap-friendlier at certain positions, particularly the offensive line, while knowing there would be "growing pains," as Garrett put it.
There were. Romo got sacked six times in Sunday's playoff play-in loss to the Giants, and the new defense under first-year coordinator Rob Ryan regressed as the season wore on. The Cowboys allowed 347 points in 2011 - much improved from a franchise-record 436 in 2010, but still too many, particularly in two meetings with the now-NFC East champion Giants (68).
Garrett was asked Monday if his team as presently constructed is close to contention.
"I think the obvious answer to that for me is that we were playing for the NFC East Sunday night," he said, "so we were that close. We didn't get that done. There's no excuse for that.
". . . I believe people believe in the direction we're going in. I think there is evidence of positive things, positive direction we've taken. Again, we've had to make some decisions to get on the path that we're on. Hopefully, we'll continue to work through some of those growing pains and keep getting better."
Jones agrees, and he believes the organizational structure can work. He relies heavily on input from Garrett and his front office staff, and without holding the general manager title, he contends that position is subject to as much turnover as the head coach. He wants stability in both spots.
He also wants to win. It'll take a strong offseason - free agency, draft and workouts - to do it.
"I think we've got to realize that as of this year in the NFC there's been a different team go to the Super Bowl in the last 10 years. We haven't been one of them," Jones said. "That's not acceptable and we've got to continue trying to get there."