Jason Garrett Doomed the Cowboys in the First Quarter, Not the Fourth

Cowboys yellow belly in chief, Jason Garrett
Cowboys yellow belly in chief, Jason Garrett Tim Warner/Getty Images
If there's one thing all but the most fervent apologists for the Dallas Cowboys head coach can agree on, it's that Jason Garrett cost his team the game Sunday night against Minnesota. Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb did the best they could to save Garrett from himself, but he insisted on shooting himself in the foot, reloading and shooting himself in the other foot.

Things get a little murkier when it comes to determining just when Garrett handed the game over. The easy answer is when he didn't do anything to stop rookie play caller Kellen Moore from running Ezekiel Elliott two more fruitless times from the Vikings' 11-yard line on second and third down as the Cowboys searched for a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes, costing Prescott a chance to win the game.

The better answer is that Garrett put his team in a 14-point hole — practically insurmountable against a run-and-screen team like the Vikings — in the first half, thanks to a series of decisions that were cowardly, even by Garrett's standards.

Cowboys fans knew they were in for a long night less than three minutes into the game. After receiving the opening kickoff, Prescott marched the offense 36 yards in eight plays to the Minnesota 39. After an incomplete pass to Cobb, the Cowboys faced a fourth and six. It's a situation that screams go for it. Prescott is having the best season of his career, and Cowboys kicker Brett Maher is 26th in the NFL in field goal percentage, making just 70% of his kicks. A turnover on downs would give the Vikings the ball wherever they stopped the Cowboys, a missed field goal would give them the ball in premium position, at their own 47.

Garrett sent the kicking team on. Maher missed the kick, and the Vikings drove 53 yards for the game's opening touchdown.

After getting the ball back, the Cowboys were on the move again. Keyed by a 15-yard pass from Prescott to Cooper, they took just four plays to again take the ball onto Minnesota's side of the field. Faced with a fourth and six from the 48 after a Prescott incomplete pass intended for tight end Jason Witten, Garrett punted.

According to the Surrender Index, an algorithm designed by SB Nation's Jon Bois to determine just how cowardly a decision to punt is, Garrett's decision was in the 93rd percentile of cowardly punts this season.
He topped himself on the Cowboys' next drive. After the Cowboys again maneuvered into Minnesota territory, this time to the 40, Garrett again decided to send out the punt team, this time on fourth and four. Garrett's decision, according to the Surrender Index, was in the 98th percentile for cowardly punts.
During Garrett's turn as the Cowardly Lion, the Vikings racked up 14 points as the Cowboys defense struggled to slow them down. Garrett was not coaching a dominating team, choking the life out of a game by keeping its opponents out of good field position. He was coaching a team that needed to score as many points as possible to stay in the game.

This — meaning Sunday night — is who Garrett is. His core philosophy as a game manager is avoiding immediate embarrassment. When Garrett was a backup quarterback, there was nothing worse than going for it on fourth down and getting stopped. Coaches heard about decisions they made for years — just ask Barry Switzer.

It's not that way anymore. Studies and analytics have proved that NFL coaches should go for it on fourth down way more often. The Cowboys are the best team in the NFL at converting third downs into first downs. They have the skill position players and quarterback to reward aggressive decisions. There's no excuse for Garrett to make his team play with one arm tied behind their collective back, but he does. Something's gotta change.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young