At times this year, your faithful Observer sports correspondent was deeply wrong about the Cowboys. Like most of the media, local and otherwise, I declared Dallas' heroes dead and buried after their Nov. 5 loss to the Titans dropped them to 3-5. Before the season started, I even chided the Cowboys front office for mishandling David Irving's new contract. I thought he was a cornerstone the team should lock up long term, but Jerry and Stephen Jones knew better.
With that out of the way, let's look back at the end of a dispatch posted just before the 2-3 Cowboys took on the Jaguars in mid-October. In it, I warned you about what would happen if the Cowboys knocked off Jacksonville.
"[If they beat the Jaguars and turn their season around], the Cowboys get, at best, a wild-card weekend home game thanks to winning a down NFC East. They could even win it, thanks to conference-wide near-parity this season. In the next game, however, or maybe the one after it, they would get taken apart by the Rams, the NFL's best team. The Rams are exactly what the Cowboys are not — staffed with playmakers on both sides of the ball and blessed with a creative, gutsy head coach, Sean McVay, who plays to win games, not to avoid embarrassment.
So that's the best case. The Cowboys win a single playoff game after making their fans suffer through all the will they/won't they permutations over the last couple weeks of the season. Don't forget, Jason Garrett also keeps his job under this scenario, for leading these underachievers to the playoffs."
Setting aside the fact that the Cowboys actually took a few more weeks — and a key trade for wide receiver Amari Cooper — to find their footing, this is exactly what happened. The Cowboys won a weak division, squeaked by the Seahawks in the wild-card round and got waxed by the Rams — thanks in large part to McVay thoroughly outcoaching Garrett.
Rather than kicking a field goal that would've pushed his team's lead to nine with seven-plus minutes left in the fourth quarter, McVay went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, watching his team put the game out of reach on a C.J. Anderson touchdown plunge.
McVay did what he does, and Garrett did what he does, too.
Last week, I got shelled by our Facebook commenters for suggesting that Garrett should be fired, even if the Cowboys won the Super Bowl.
Jerry Monk II wondered "Why do y'all let neck beard put any articles out, especially sports?" Hunter Barnett looked for an argument in my story and couldn't find one.
"So ... were you planning on presenting an argument to support your opinion or did you just need to send in 500 words to your editor before 5am?" Barnett typed, before resorting to profanity. "Is there another section of this article that is actually, you know, a fucking article?"
One of the biggest criticisms I made of Garrett in the piece was spelled out pretty clearly: He and his now-former offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan, lack creativity in short-yardage situations:
"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."
Facing a fourth-and-one from the Rams 35 down 23-15, the Cowboys turned it over on downs on the first play of the fourth quarter, their biggest of the game. Ezekiel Elliott took a handoff from Dak Prescott and plowed straight ahead. The Rams defense knew what was coming and snuffed it out. Prescott has the skill set to be a weapon in short-yardage situations. Play-action passing, too, can be deadly in obvious run situations, and a risk worth taking when you're clearly being outplayed.
The Cowboys also stuck with their conservative play-calling on first down. From last week:
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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.
The Cowboys got the ball eight times last Saturday night. Five times, Elliott ran the ball on first down, gaining no more than five yards. Each of the three times the Cowboys passed the ball on first down, they picked up first downs, including a 20-yard completion from Prescott to Dalton Schultz and a 24-yard fourth-quarter hookup between the quarterback and wide receiver Michael Gallup.
The Cowboys' loss to the Rams doesn't fall entirely on Garrett's shoulders — as Linehan found out when he was shown the exit on Friday in Frisco — but he didn't do anything to help his team compete in a game in which they were completely overmatched. Against all odds, Garrett is on the verge of getting another multimillion-dollar extension because he did just enough to survive, same as he has throughout his tenure in North Texas.
Last Sunday, I got a couple of emails from readers — thanks Thomas Romich and Ken Shepherd — striking a far more conciliatory tone about dumping Garrett. While it might be worth arguing about whether a Super Bowl would've made the redhead's continued reign at The Star worthwhile, it seems pretty clear that another wild-card win and last Saturday night's debacle in Los Angeles aren't going to cut it. Maybe Linehan's replacement will come in, shake Garrett up and drag the Cowboys' offense into the 21st century, but it wouldn't be wise to hold your breath.