I couldn't help it.

As the first half in Dallas wound down, the rational side of my brain was telling me not to overreact, calmly observing that this doesn't count. But that rational side was shouted down, overwhelmed by the screams of another side that's seen all this before and simply refuses to be hurt again.

Last week, I was still fully invested in our playoff dreams. And who knows, maybe by next week I will be again. But right now, try as I might, I can't escape the dread. After Saturday's game, all my hopes have spun upside down.

Uh, Football Outsiders? I take it back. I think we're about to prove you right.

It was the preseason, but it wasn't the first game or even the second. This was the third game, the all-important dress rehearsal. You don't pull out all the stops, of course. But in a very real sense, you show the kind of team you're gonna be.

No longer can we hide behind abstract talk of will, or toughness, or discipline, or any of the other Singletarian catch-phrases that sounded so great in the peace of the offseason. It's too late for that now. What matters now is how well we play football. And if Saturday's dress rehearsal showed how well we play football, no longer can we hide behind any illusions.

This team isn't any better than it's been, six years running.

All it took was one half of one game, to turn this unwavering believer into a hardened cynic. You pick a topic, I'll give you nothing but gloom and doom. Observe:

Mike Singletary. Those brainless nutcracker drills weren't just for show, were they? I mean, beyond shutting down three players for most of camp, they had a point, right? The point, I thought, was to build toughness, to show that we could go "through" our opponents when push came to shove. Yet there we were, down by three, fourth and one at the Cowboys' six. What an opportunity to show this new toughness. Since we're all about running "at will"—and since we've done almost nothing else so far—surely we should be able to grind out a yard. Why not give it a go, especially in a preseason game? So what does Singletary opt to do? Kick the field goal. Seriously, are you kidding? Don't tell me all that talk of toughness was just talk, that once the game starts you're as soft as Mike Nolan. Don't tell me that what you really meant was "physical with a what the F." Come on. Seriously.

Jimmy Raye. I know Singletary's stuck you with his conservative philosophy. And I know you don't exactly have Montana and Rice out there. But you've got to have more in your arsenal than just runs and screens, dump-offs and draws. I mean really, a Wildcat (okay, Taser, whatever) draw on third and 10 at the Dallas 43? You've been coaching approximately forever. You do know that no matter how imposing your running game seems, it won't have a chance if you don't at least try to stretch the field, right? Or does this explain why head coaches weren't exactly beating down your door?

Shaun Hill. Congrats on getting the starting job. Now if only you'd been given the time to develop a rhythm with your receivers, a rhythm that's so clearly lacking. And when that's lacking—of course, with no help from your sieve of an offensive line and your receivers who can't separate—your lack of physical skills becomes all the more glaring. Watching you throw that deep rainbow, I couldn't help but wince. At times, Shaun, I'd swear you're the man. But at other times, like Saturday, you look just like the backup you probably should be.

The defense. I give up. It's the same old story, year after year. We don't need much. Just a stout line. Maybe a fierce pass-rush (still no real sacks?). Oh, and an aggressive secondary (Nate Clements, are you paid too little to stand in the same area code as the guy you're "covering"?). We've been looking for these things for 10 years, and we might still be looking for another 10. It just never ends with these guys.

Scot McCloughan. Ah, the architect. You needed offensive-line help, so you rolled the dice on a bad back that promptly retired. You needed a pass-rusher, but you insisted that Manny Lawson would be the answer, and you seem so outrageously wrong. And of course, while your signature draft-pick is once again your injured backup-quarterback, the quarterback you didn't take has led his team to 9 touchdowns in 12 drives. No matter how good Nate Davis might look in the long term, that's gotta be enough to drive you to drink.

It does feel good to vent a little, and we do have plenty of targets. But in the end it doesn't change the inescapable truth. The season's only two weeks away, and we are not ready. Not even close.

We've been through so much. We're so desperate to recapture that feeling, that sense of knowing we're watching genuine greatness. We're so desperate to relive that sensation, that euphoria that comes from having survived the darkness, and basking in the victory on the other side.

We are just so desperate to believe.

But no matter how desperate we are, we will not believe in what we know isn't real. We will not just blindly believe in this roster, just because our general manager offers pleasant explanations for the ways that he built it. We will not just blindly believe in these coaches, just because the coaches can give a good speech.

Beliefs like those were fine, before the games began. Once the games began, all there was to believe was what was between those lines. And as of right here, right now, I don't see any reason to believe in that.

But then again, there's always next week.