IRVING, Texas (AP) — Owner Jerry Jones has repeatedly said the Dallas Cowboys are just getting started with Jason Garrett as their head coach.
For a core group of veteran players such as Tony Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware, losing yet another season finale with a playoff spot on the line is another chance lost.
An 8-8 season that raises questions about the future of some of the other players who have been around, and where the still-average Cowboys go next after Garrett's first full season.
"We have to take advantage of their talent and experience, players like Romo and Witten, a lot of those players, because they're not going to be around forever," Jones said. "We have to accept this and move forward."
That means accepting that Dallas lost four of its last five games, including 31-14 against the New York Giants in the finale Sunday night that determined the NFC East champion and sent the Cowboys home for another long offseason.
"Now we're watching the (playoff) games this week. I encouraged them to remember the feeling that we had after the game," Garrett said Monday after wrapping up individual meetings with each player. "You have to keep that feeling, you have to make that palpable as you go forward and use it as a motivation to get better, individually and collectively as a team."
This has been a very average team since winning three Super Bowls in a four-year period in the first half of the 1990s. The Cowboys are 120-120 in the regular season since the start of 1997, a 15-season span with one playoff victory in seven postseason appearances.
Romo and Witten came into the NFL as rookies together nine years ago. Romo has been the starting quarterback for six seasons, playing through broken ribs and a bruised throwing hand this season after missing most of 2010 with a broken collarbone. Ware just ended his seventh season, and the linebacker is headed to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl.
"It's very disappointing, frustrating," Romo said after the finale.
Several veterans likely played their last games for the Cowboys, including cornerback Terence Newman and linebackers Keith Brooking (14 NFL seasons) and Bradie James. Newman and James were in the same rookie class with Romo and Witten.
Garrett took over midway through the 2010 season, promoted from offensive coordinator after the Cowboys had won only one of their first eight games and Wade Phillips was fired.
Dallas immediately responded to Garrett and his many changes by winning their first game, on the road against the Giants, and going 5-3 the rest of the way.
Boastful Rob Ryan was then hired as defensive coordinator, though the NFL lockout prevented him from teaching his scheme in the offseason to the Cowboys, who had 10 of 11 defensive starters back after giving up a franchise-worst 436 points in 2010.
When the lockout ended, the Cowboys made several money-saving moves. Running back Marion Barber, receiver Roy Williams and starting offensive linemen Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo were among several veterans released before Garrett's first training camp in charge.
These Cowboys were still 7-4 after sweeping through their four November games undefeated. Then came another late-season slide.
Among plenty of near-misses were consecutive losses to start December that ended with missed field goals at the end of regulation after timeouts wiped out successful kicks.
There was one by Garrett during an overtime loss in Arizona and another at home by the Giants, who erased a 12-point deficit in the final 3 1/2 minutes for a victory that tied them for the division lead instead of letting Dallas take a two-game lead with three games left.
With another season-ending game with a playoff spot on the line, they lost like three years ago, even if this wasn't as bad as 44-6 at Philadelphia in 2008 when Garrett was offensive coordinator.
Garrett described his conversations with Jones since the season-ending loss to the Giants as "good" and believes Jones is on board with his approach.
"I think the most important thing that we've done is we've gotten the program going the way we need to believe it needs to get going and that starts with people," Garrett said. "I do think people understand the program that we're putting in place here. I do think we have the right kind of guys, I do think guys come to work and do things the right way. I think we just need to get better."
The Cowboys started and ended their seasons with losses at MetLife Stadium. In the September opener, the Cowboys blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter for the first time in franchise history. There were two more losses in which they blew late double-digit leads, something that had only happened twice in the team's 51 seasons combined.
"We showed flashes of being a very good team, then we played where we were inconsistent," linebacker Sean Lee said.
"It's very frustrating," receiver Dez Bryant said. "I don't think there's anything we missing. ... We just have to close out games whenever it's time to do it."
Asked if he was confident the Cowboys could do that in the future, his response was, "Of course, we'll get it done. We don't have no choice but to get it done, and we will."