Don't say we didn't warn you. Here we are, 65 days from being totally sure that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was going to dump head coach Jason Garrett after the season, and things have done a 180. Up is down, left is right, cats are chasing dogs and Garrett has led the Cowboys to the verge of the NFC Championship Game.
He should still be fired. The day after the Cowboys play their last game, whether it's Sunday, the Monday after the NFC Championship Game or the Monday after the Super Bowl, Jones should get rid of Garrett. He's done nothing in the 8-1 run that's followed the Cowboys dropping to 3-5 in early November to show that he's any better acclimated to the modern NFL than he was earlier this season.
Take Saturday night's 24-22 win over the Seahawks, the game that, barring an upset over the Rams this upcoming Saturday, will be the crown jewel of the Cowboys 2018 season. Throughout the game, Garrett made a series of critical errors that would've sent his team out of the playoffs, had the Cowboys been playing anyone but the similarly conservative Seahawks.
With four minutes left in the first half against Seattle, the Cowboys faced a third-and-20 at midfield with the score tied 3-3. To this point in the game, neither the Cowboys nor the Seahawks offense had been particularly effective. Inexplicably, Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan actively opened the door to the worst possible scenario for the team.
Rather than attempting to get a first down — an admittedly low percentage play, but one that has a chance for success thanks to wide receivers Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup — the Cowboys called an underneath pass to running back Ezekiel Elliott, gaining 10 yards, just enough to put the team on the extreme outside edge of field goal range.
Garrett sent kicker Brent Maher out for a 58-yard attempt. Maher missed, and the Seahawks got the ball at their own 48-yard line. In two decisions, Garrett turned a harmless situation into a massive field position swing — it was effectively a turnover — the one thing that his team couldn't afford to happen. Maher has shown the ability to make very long kicks this year — including a team-record 62-yarder — but those low-percentage kicks are best saved for end-of-half or end-of-game situations.
As they have so many times this year, the Cowboys bailed Garrett out. The defense bent but didn't break, limiting the Seahawks to 28 yards and a Sebastian Janikowski 42-yard field goal.
The decision to play for the long field goal attempt showed Garrett at his absolute worst. Too often, he makes seemingly conservative decisions that actually put the Cowboys at much higher risk for losing the game.
The prime example of this, of course, is Garrett's decision to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Houston 42 in overtime against the Texans in October. Had the Cowboys converted, they would've won the game 76 percent of the time going by stats; punting left them with a 42 percent chance to win and going for it and failing would've left the Cowboys with just a 31 percent chance to win. Despite having dynamic short- and medium-yardage personnel, Garrett is consistently an arch-conservative when it comes to strategy, doing the traditional thing — running Elliott into the center of the line — even when he does go for it on fourth down.
Garrett's offenses don't look anything like those that are on the NFL's cutting edge. They don't throw enough on first down, they don't use enough play-action and they don't throw the ball enough down the field. Some of that is on Linehan, for sure, but it's up to Garrett to design the team's strategy, if not to call every play. The Chiefs, Rams and Saints, all favorites to win the Super Bowl, have embraced NFL rule changes that have made things easy on the passing game. The Cowboys seem to take pride in going the opposite direction. Quarterback Dak Prescott may not be Patrick Mahomes, but early down play-action will make things easier on any quarterback.
For all the winning the Cowboys did in the second half of 2018, they've only outscored their opponents by 17 points total, including the win over Seattle. Their point differential reeks of a team that's due for regression, not one that should stick to the current formula. These Cowboys are winning because they play hard for each other — and for Garrett — but they aren't out-coaching anyone. Someday, in 2019 maybe, it might be nice to see the Cowboys steal a game they didn't deserve to win, rather than come close to losing a game that should've been in the bag.
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