IRVING, Texas – The beginning was so good for the Dallas Cowboys, the kind of opening chapter that created anticipation about turning to the next page.
A prime-time victory at the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, a big-time performance in the NFL's showcase kickoff game to avenge their season-ending loss eight months earlier that kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs.
Then came those first five minutes in Seattle, when they trailed 10-0 after fumbling away the opening kickoff and a blocked punt for a touchdown.
When they finally got home, there was a defensively dominating win over Tampa Bay before Tony Romo matched a career high with five interceptions in a miserable Monday night loss to the Chicago Bears.
All those twists and turns for the Cowboys (2-2), and they're only one-fourth through their schedule and in their bye week. And already becoming pretty much the same average story again.
"That's tough," said Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten, in his 10th season with only one playoff victory. "But we're not going to quit. We're going to stay together. I believe we have the right people. Great leadership in Jason (Garrett). We'll get it turned around."
It was Witten who, only minutes after the team landed in California for the start of training camp in late July, said things had to change and that 2012 "can't be the same old story."
Yet even with big changes in the secondary, along with free agency deals and tackle switches in an attempt the strengthen the offensive line, the Cowboys already are a .500 team again — not just this season, and last year when they were 8-8, but for more than 15 years.
"We know we have a long way to go. We know we have to play better in all three phases," coach Jason Garrett said. "We're just into October. The story is going to be written on this season many more times from here on out, so we just have to make sure that we continue to improve individually and collectively and just get better."
Since the start of 1997, only their second season after winning three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span early in Jerry Jones' ownership, the Cowboys have a 122-122 record in regular-season games.
The Cowboys were one of three NFL teams that went into this weekend with that 122-122 record in that time frame.
But the Cowboys have only one postseason win during that time. New Orleans has won six postseason games including the Super Bowl three seasons ago, and San Diego has three playoff wins.
After another break-even season, the Cowboys last offseason added two cornerbacks — $50 million free agent Brandon Carr and sixth overall draft pick Morris Claiborne. They lost starting safety Barry Church to a ruptured Achilles in the third game, but lead the NFL allowing 170 yards passing per game and are fourth in total defense (278 yards per game).
"A work in progress. Everybody is still, I guess, trying to find their identity," Carr said. "But the positive is guys are still committed, guys are still scratching and clawing, trying to find every solution, every answer to get this thing back right. There is some time off for guys to regroup, refresh, get away from the game."
There is a difficult stretch when they get back.
The Cowboys play four of their next five games on the road, starting Oct. 14 at Baltimore. The only home game in a month is against the Giants, who are 3-0 at Cowboys Stadium and certainly will be looking for a different outcome than the opener.
Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff hasn't played this season because of a high ankle sprain, but practiced before the extended weekend break. He could soon be back in the lineup with linebacker Anthony Spencer, who missed the last game with a strained pectoral.
Veteran free agent guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings got multiyear deals to become offensive line starters. Ryan Cook, acquired from Miami after the preseason, became the starting center because of Phil Costa's back problems.
While Romo has completed 101 of 151 passes and is on pace for a career-high 4,592 yards, he has already thrown eight interceptions, only two fewer picks than in 522 attempts last season. He has been sacked eight times, and lost two fumbles against Tampa Bay after being crushed between defenders.
Only two teams average less than the Cowboys' 68 yards rushing per game.
Garrett, the coach since midway through the 2010 season, remains calm and collected when discussing his team. That has always been the coach's demeanor, when things are good or bad, and he said that won't change around players who know his passion and intensity for the game and "trying to get this team right" going forward.
"Jason's been great. The wins haven't shown it, but Jason's a great coach. I can't speak more highly about any coach I've had," Witten said. "He does a tremendous job of laying it out there and giving you the game plan to go succeed. He understands adjustments and all that goes into it. He's done a phenomenal job. We've just got to play better."
Better than average, or the ending will be all too familiar.
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