During the first few heady weeks of the Jason Garrett administration, one of the Cowboys' distinguishing characteristics was that they were doing the things that allow an overmatched team (which the Cowboys usually were) to stay in a game. At least long enough to be in position to eke out a victory in the fourth quarter even when they ended up on the losing end of the score. Dallas played tough and used big plays to even out the talent differential; consider the deep passes to Dez Bryant and Bryan McCann's coast-to-coast TD return against the Giants; Miles Austin's end around and Jessie Holley's forced fumble against the Saints; McCann's electrifying punt return against Detroit; the two pick-sixes against Peyton Manning; Bradie James' third-quarter interception against the Eagles. Strangely, given the way this season has played out, I had become used to such big-play heroics from this group.
That's why, in the middle of the first quarter of Saturday night's contest, I had to rub my eyes, and suppress an urge to adjust the color on my TV screen: the guys in red were playing exactly as I had come to expect from Garrett's boys in blue. The NFL Network announcers mentioned that Arizona head coach Ken Wisenhunt had claimed that his team needed, in essence, to play as the Cowboys had in previous matchups in games against playoff caliber teams: they needed some breaks in order to keep the game close enough to win it at the end. The Garrett Cowboys had managed this by making big plays; indeed, this is precisely what the Cardinals did: two early pick-sixes felt like cosmic retribution for the Indianapolis game; a pair of rookies from college football powerhouses (cough, cough) Fordham and The Citadel came up with an unexpected big play: a 74-yard bomb in which (in an all-too familiar story) Mike Jenkins fell down and Alan Ball overran the play. What does all this amount to? Some scattered thoughts after the jump.
In his time in office, Garrett has shown that he can prepare his team to compete with better, more talented squads. Against New York, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Philadelphia, the Cowboys could have been blown out; instead, they hung in, and tallied a couple of victories in the midst of the toughest part of their schedule. What he has done less successfully, however, is to teach his guys how to step on the neck of an inferior opponent. Last week, against the Redskins, they appeared to be doing just that, extending a halftime lead with an early third-quarter forced fumble and a TD drive on a short field. Then, much to our collective dismay, Washington climbed back in the game--and, if not for a Santana Moss dropped pass, probably would have won it.
Afterward, Jenkins admitted that the Cowboys eased up after securing the big early lead. To my mind, this was one of the most telling soundbites of the season. We have heard almost verbatim statements from Cowboys players in the recent past; indeed, easing off the gas after a score or securing a good-sized lead is one of the signatures of the Wade Phillips era. This is problematic for many reasons, but most of all because of the toll it can take over the course of a season. Let's say that most football teams win roughly half of their close games; for good teams, the key is to limit the number of these games by winning decisively against lesser teams as often as possible. If a team can do this four times a season and split the remaining close contests, they'll finish 10-6, which is almost always good enough for a playoff spot. Easing off in the midst of blowouts increases the number of close contests--and thus the number of loseable games. In short, winning teams must develop a ruthlessness, relish being bullies, acquire a killer instinct.
In the last two weeks, Dallas has encountered what will likely prove to be the two weakest teams on their 2010 schedule--and, by extension, the two most clearly winnable contests. We already knew that this year's Cowboys were not the kind of "good" team that regularly beats lesser foes; nevertheless, the fact that, for two weeks running, they found a way to make both games close--and, as might be expected, split them down the middle--is troubling. There hasn't been much ruthlessness to be seen. Jason Garrett has been rightfully praised for the measure of discipline and focus he has brought at Valley Ranch. That said, he has clearly not found an answer to his players' tendency to take their foot off the pedal--and off of the opponent's neck--when they face an inferior opponent or build a sizeable lead.
What this suggests is that not all of the Cowboys' woes have easy answers or quick solutions. Its going to take a while for them to unlearn all the bad habits that have been nurtured in the past few years. As a result, Garrett might not be around when and if they do. And neither, I'd guess, will a lot of the men currently on the roster.