I have been writing a lot lately about what owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett have been saying about the Dallas Cowboys. And on Thursday, likely Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten added a third side to this discussion, calling this week's game against the Carolina Panthers a must-win for the Cowboys. (You can see the video of the entire interview at DallasCowboys.com.)
"Obviously, you're at a pivotal time of the season when you gotta find a way to get a win. And really not get caught up in anything else other than that. If you look at division, and really the league, teams are standing around .500, and we'll see what happens the next five to six weeks and who tries to pull away. We'll take it one week at a time, and obviously we'll need to get a big win against Carolina."
While Witten goes on to offer support for Jones' comments about the Cowboys being able to win the Super Bowl, he clearly is more attuned to the focus Garrett has on looking at things one opponent at a time, including a dash of Garrettspeak. (For a slightly different take on exactly what he said, you can check this account.)
The main reason his comments are interesting is that he is seen as one of the spokesmen for the team in the locker room. It makes sense that he gets his share of respect, given that the NFL added a rule because of one play he made without the benefit of a helmet, and for coming back from a lacerated spleen to play the first game of the season. It is another piece of evidence that the team listens to Jerry Jones, but they pay attention to Jason Garrett. Or perhaps it just shows that the head coach has a much clearer understanding of the dynamics of actually playing the game.
Is it really a "must-win" game, however? Well, there is no doubt that it is a "really, really need to win" game. It would not be impossible for Dallas to still make the playoffs with a loss at Carolina, but the climb would be much, much steeper. And the Panthers are the first opponent of the entire season that has not played some really good football this year. Also, as that OCC article I just linked points out, it does not get any easier for the Cowboys. A loss this week would not only guarantee that the Cowboys would be dead last in the NFC East, it could easily start a slide to a much higher draft position than most of us really want to see. Most crucially, it would totally nullify the positive signs from the close, frustrating loss last week. So calling this game a "must-win" might reflect a little hyperbole, but not much.
Does that put more pressure on the players? It probably does, but that should not matter. There are always going to be "must-win" games for any successful team - especially if you get into the playoffs, where they all are win or go home affairs. But how the team handles the situation is a big question mark for the Cowboys. The last time they faced a true "must-win" game, they did not acquit themselves terribly well - and instead of making their own playoff run, they saw the team that beat them in that game go on to collect the Lombardi Trophy. They cannot afford another failure to rise to the occasion.
This week will tell us less about the talent of the Cowboys than it will about their mental toughness. They need that balance between confidence in their ability to win and respecting what the other team brings to the table, plus a serious dose of consistency. And balance and consistency have not been regular components of games for Dallas this season.
In the interview, Witten sounded like he felt a bit of urgency but no panic, at least to me. Thats seems just about right for an attitude players should have about this game. The Cowboys have an opportunity to finally begin to establish a bit of an identity, besides being wildly unpredictable and inconsistent. A win gives them a chance to do that, depending on how they get there. A loss also would likely establish an identity, but it is not one we want to see.