IRVING -- The Dallas Cowboys are not only at the midpoint of an admittedly disappointing season but the franchise is at a crossroads with the careers of several prominent players, as well as coach Jason Garrett's job, likely on the line over the second half of the season.
Owner Jerry Jones, who is still hoping for a playoff run, says the Cowboys have better talent than their 3-5 record indicates. He is expecting them to prove it or else by getting on a run against an easier, second-half schedule starting Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles (3-5).
Two teams since 2008 have started 3-5 and made the playoffs with 8-8 records; San Diego in 2008 and Denver in 2011. Both won a playoff game. It can be done. The Cowboys, who will likely have to finish 9-7 or better, must make their move now.
Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said it's gut-check time for him and his teammates.
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"At the end of the day it is what it is," Hatcher said. "You can't change. What you can do is look yourself in the mirror and check yourself, check your character to see what kind of man you are. Yeah, you're 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's what you've got to do. Right now, I'm checking myself. I'm not giving up."
Here are the midseason grades for the Cowboys:
DQuarterbacks So far, it's been a nightmarish return to the turnover-prone ways of his early years for Tony Romo, who has a league-high 13 interceptions and two lost fumbles. Romo has been slowed by a woeful line, drops, route busts and a poor running game. He is ranked 22nd in the league in passer rating.
F Running backs They are 29th in rushing yards per game and 30th in rushing yards per attempt. The injury to DeMarco Murray was a huge blow, but the Cowboys weren't consistently running well before the injury. The line has allowed 33 tackles for loss. Felix Jones has been plagued by injuries.
D Receivers Statistically, Dez Bryant and Miles Austin are having solid seasons. Bryant has 42 catches for 503 yards and two touchdowns. Austin has 41 catches for 637 and four touchdowns. Bryant drops too many passes (six) and busts too many routes. Kevin Ogletree was a factor in only two games.
B Tight ends Jason Witten lacerated his spleen in training camp. He led the NFL in dropped passes through the first month of the season. With 58 catches at the midway point, he is again the team leader in receptions and became the club's all-time receptions leader. The only nitpick for Witten: just one touchdown.
F Offensive line Only tackle Tyron Smith has played at an acceptable level, and he's been plagued by too many penalties (six). Doug Free leads the team with seven penalties while struggling as a blocker. Guards Mackenzy Bernadeau (four sacks allowed) and Nate Livings (three sacks allowed) have played poorly.
B Defensive line Jay Ratliff missed the first four games with a high ankle sprain, but has seven pressures since his return. The Cowboys expected more than 1.5 sacks for Jason Hatcher. Kenyon Coleman and Sean Lissemore split time being injured at left end. Josh Brent is a regular in the rotation.
B Linebackers DeMarcus Ware is tied for second in the league in sacks with nine. Sean Lee was en route to possibly a Pro Bowl season before undergoing season-ending toe surgery. Anthony Spencer has 3.0 sacks and a team-high 13 pressures. Bruce Carter has been the biggest surprise with his 55 tackles.
A Secondary The Cowboys are fifth in the league in pass defense. Cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have been a hit. Barry Church was having a strong season at strong safety before suffering a torn Achilles. Fill-in Danny McCray has an interception. Gerald Sensabaugh has been steady.
C Special Teams Dan Bailey has made 15 of 17 field goals. Brian Moorman joined the Cowboys as a stopgap for the injured Chris Jones and has averaged 43.7 on 15 kicks. Lance Dunbar and Dwayne Harris have provided some juice on returns after replacing Felix Jones and Dez Bryant.
D Coaching Jason Garrett is ultimately responsible for the Cowboys' 3-5 record. The Cowboys have lost nine of their past 13 games dating to last season. Garrett is coach and offensive coordinator, and his unit ranks 26th in scoring. The Cowboys have scored 29 fewer points through eight games this year than last year when they were 4-4 at the midpoint. The improved defense can't make up for a punchless offense.
Clarence E. Hill Jr.