If there ever was an easy win to be had this year for the Dallas Cowboys, last night's Christmas match-up with the Arizona Cardinals was it.
University of Phoenix Stadium, as usual, was packed with Cowboys fans in the tens of thousands. The Cardinals were 4-10 and had lost eight of their last nine games, including last week against the Carolina Panthers, who have the NFL's worst record at 2-13. Arizona started third-string quarterback John Skelton. And Dallas, of course, was supposedly a changed team under interim head coach Jason Garrett, who had led the team to a 4-2 record following the firing of Wade Phillips.
In the end, the Cowboys held the Cardinals to 10 first downs while nabbing 24 of their own, and Skelton completed just 44 percent of his passes. Dallas also ran the ball effectively, gaining 183 rushing yards on 34 carries for an average of 5.4 yards per attempt. And although Jon Kitna would leave with a strained left oblique near the end of the first half, the team's third stringer, Stephen McGee, played well in his first NFL action, completing 11 of his 17 passes for 111 yards and an impressive 37-yard touchdown throw to Miles Austin. Even the beleaguered secondary would stop wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's streak of games with multiple receptions at 97.
Yet they still lost 27-26 and were denied an opportunity to win in overtime because kicker David Buehler botched an extra point attempt following McGee's pass to Austin.
"You can't make this stuff up," said Matt Millen of NFL Network after Buehler pulled the extra point left of the upright.
No, you can't make this stuff up. It's all too real and all too familiar.
As Millen and Joe Theisman pointed out at several points during the game, there's not a heckuva lot different between the Cowboys that took the field last night and the one left behind by Phillips. And that's exactly why Garrett can't be brought back next year. This club needs a coaching enema. As the saying goes, you can't fire the players. Some will be released or won't have their contracts renewed, but ditching everyone that needs to be ousted would gut the team.
Austin has dropped numerous balls this season and continues to make mistakes while running his routes, none more damaging than falling down last night with a Kitna pass on its way, which allowed cornerback Dominique Rogers-Cromartie to intercept the ball and run it along the sideline for a 32-yard touchdown.
At the end of the game, Austin traded jerseys with Fitzgerald less than two weeks after Tashard Choice asked Michael Vick for an autograph, but Austin's act was actually more offensive. Choice had already ticked off a huge segment of the fan base by doing what he did, and Austin and Fitzgerald actually arranged to do the exchange ahead of time.
Do Choice and Austin take their jobs seriously? How can they think that the fans want to see them kissing up to opposing players, especially following a devastating loss? And if they're just too tempted at the thought of getting an autograph or jersey from the other team, do it behind closed doors, not in front of everyone to see. It's frankly embarrassing and unacceptable, and Garrett's reluctance to publicly condemn their actions is telling.
Down 7-0 early, it was time for yet another gaffe from Roy Williams, who let a catchable pass thrown by Kitna bounce off him and land into the hands of Greg Toler, who would then scamper 66-yards for another defensive TD.
Following a 42-yard field goal by Buehler, Mike Jenkins tried to tackle wideout Andre Roberts during his route, but Roberts barely missed a step and caught a 74-yard bomb from Skelton to put the game seemingly out of reach at 21-3.
The Cowboys would bounce back with a touchdown pass from Kitna to Jason Witten on fourth and goal and a nice run by Marion Barber for a 24-yard score, but Barber, who celebrates nearly ever carry as if he's just won the Super Bowl, ripped off his helmet after the TD -- a blatant 15-yard penalty.
Finally, Buehler missed the extra point as Dallas took the lead 26-24 on the pass from McGee to Austin, but the defense allowed Fitzgerald's only catch of the night -- a 26 yarder on fourth and 15 from Arizona's own 19 yard line -- and a 19-yard pass to Max Komar put the Cardinals in field-goal range.
The game appeared to end on a Cardinals' penalty, but they were flagged for illegal formation instead of a false start, so there would be no 10-second runoff of the clock with only 10 seconds remaining. A 48-yard field goal by Jay Feely secured victory for Arizona.
In his post-game press conference, Garrett described the game as "an illustration of guys battling hard." Not what I wanted to hear.
I was looking for something more like: "We made the same dumb-ass mistakes today that we've been making all season, and that's not only a slap to my face, it's a slap to the millions of Cowboys fans that expect more from this team."
In a pre-game interview with NFL Network, Jerry Jones said Garrett "has exceeded my expectations."
"The facts are that he's had five games to be a football coach," he added.
Um, no. It was actually six games before last night's loss, which dropped Garrett's record to 4-3.
Jones refuses to reduce his role with the club and allow someone else to come in as general manager, stressing that he'll continue to "shop for the groceries" because he has to "eat them too." So a lot of next year's hope will be pinned on a new head coach.
Thankfully, Jones might not be as happy with Garrett as he's leading on.
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"I'm a big believer in a challenge -- doing something that's never been done before," he told the NFL Network's Deion Sanders when asked about possibly hiring Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher, both of whom have Super Bowl rings as a head coach. "There's never been a head coach that won a Super Bowl with one team that won it with another. Never."
"Oh, you said a mouthful!" Sanders replied.
A mouthful indeed. Dallas is playing undisciplined and dispassionate football, and because the Cowboys can't afford to hand walking papers to Austin, Williams, Barber, Buehler and everyone else who's let the team down during what has become the franchise's most disappointing season, it's time to end the Garrett era no matter what happens next week in Philadelphia against the Hated Eagles. Dallas needs of a real leader to turn this organization around.
And I've seen enough of Garrett to know he's not the one.