Working through the Cowboys' schedule before the season, it was difficult for anyone but the most hardened cynics to imagine the team doing any worse than 4-2 through the first six games. A trip to New Orleans to play the Saints and a home tilt against the Packers looked daunting, but games against the Giants, Redskins, Dolphins and Jets most certainly did not.
If you were a fan looking for the type of season Cowboys faithful have missed out on over the last quarter-century, you might have targeted 5-1. Beat the dregs, split the two tough games and head into the first of two big games against the Eagles in the NFC East driver's seat.
That didn't happen. Through three weeks, things were coming together nicely. But the Cowboys, upon facing their first resistance of the season in the Bayou City, lost their bearings. Almost mistake-free football on offense turned into turnovers and timidity, and head coach Jason Garrett's charges never even looked like winning in any of their last three games.
The Cowboys are 3-3, and the city's sports fans are up in arms. It's not a new thing, but it is something that was unexpected in mid-September.
Here's something that was true before the season and remains true today: The 2019 Cowboys are the most talented team for which Garrett has ever been head coach. All-Pros dot the offensive and defensive lines. The team's quarterback, Dak Prescott, is playing arguably the best football of his career through six games. The offense has weapons to be one of the best in football, and the Cowboys' young linebacking duo, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, might be the best in football.
Everything that's gone wrong in the last three games comes down to a lack of clear offensive identity, turnovers and, most of all, injuries. Kellen Moore can fix the first problem, simply by growing more confident as a play-caller. The Cowboys' much-criticized decision to go for a fourth-and-2 during the second quarter against the Jets was aggressive, but that doesn't mean it was wrong. What was wrong was Moore's decision to run power with Prescott, rather than coming up with a call to give his QB options.
Turnovers and injuries ebb and flow throughout the season. Winning a road game with both starting offensive tackles, two of your top three wide receivers and your best cornerback missing all or most of the game is hard in the NFL. There's no guarantee that the Cowboys are all going to get healthy at the right time this season, but with good management by the training staff, it could happen. These Cowboys are too good to be doomed, but that doesn't mean the worst can't happen.
Given the right set of circumstances, even teams with rosters as talented as the Cowboys' can totally give up. For inspiration, this year's team needs only to look as far as the 2010 team that got Wade Phillips fired, and gave Garrett the top job, or the 1997 team that finished off its playoff hopes, and head coach Barry Switzer's NFL career, with a five-game season-ending losing streak.
If the Cowboys lose Sunday against the Eagles (7:20 p.m., AT&T Stadium, NBC 5), it's not hard to see the season getting totally out of control. A trip to New England to play the Patriots in November looms, as well as home games against the Vikings and Rams. In Week 16, the Cowboys go on the road to take on the Eagles in what could be a nasty environment, should the Birds be fighting for their playoff lives.
A meltdown end to the season wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. Far from it. Garrett gets fired, the Cowboys get a premium first-round draft pick and maybe a coach willing to stand up to Jones takes over at The Star. Burning it all down, at least, would be more cathartic than the quiet desperation of the Garrett era.
The Garrett Special
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If you've been a Cowboys fan for any length of time, however, you know this team's true destiny. They will at some point, maybe even this week, win a game that could fairly be described as big. They might even win another big-ish game late in the year. That win or those wins will inspire hope that maybe, just maybe, this month's ugly losing streak was a superficial imperfection. (For reference, look to the 2018 Cowboys' wins over the Saints and Eagles, as well as the 2017 Cowboys' win over the Chiefs.)
Despite knowing better, Cowboys fans will get invested in a Jason Garrett-led team, just as they have in 2018, 2017, 2016, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011. They will watch as their heroes' playoff chances ebb and flow, as Prescott, Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott continue to put up huge numbers on offense. The defense and the coaching staff will continue to frustrate, as offensive coordinator Moore's improved play-calling puts Garrett's abominable game management in an even harsher light. The Cowboys' postseason destiny will come down to a razor-close margin.
They could get in, like they did in 2018. Or maybe the Cowboys will miss the postseason for the sixth time in Garrett's nine full seasons at the helm. Either way, a near miss or another early playoff exit — this is the Garrett special scenario, no way the team makes it past the divisional round — means another middling first-round draft pick and another offseason of thinking about how things were this close to going right.
Maybe, this time, enough's enough for Jerry Jones, and he fires Garrett to bring new blood into his 2½-decade-long attempt to win a Super Bowl without Jimmy Johnson's players. Or maybe, knowing that he's found a coach who won't embarrass him or push back against his whims, Jones finds another reason to keep Garrett around just one more year and this whole thing starts again.