It's one thing to lose a close game. The Dallas Cowboys were overwhelmingly seen as the likely loser of the game against the New Orleans Saints. But the game turned into an embarrassing rout. It surprised a lot of people. One of the people who was caught off guard by the results is the one who can, if he so chooses, take drastic action to fix things: Owner/GM Jerry Jones.
"We got to put together a plan that allows us to get in here and have a shot at this thing," Jones said. "At the end of the day what we're trying to do [is] get to the playoffs and go from there."
Just whether the team is able to get a playoff slot this year may determine the job security of several members of the coaching staff. Three have been getting a lot of criticism for the way the Cowboys have under-performed to the point, at times, of record-setting futility: Head coach Jason Garrett, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Up until the team had its pants jerked down around its ankles on Sunday Night Football, the topic of whether any of them would be gone after this season was something that was being deferred until after things played out. Now, you have to wonder if Jerry Jones is considering what it will take to keep any of his top three coaches.
One thing he has ruled out in public statements is making any immediate changes, as documented by Dawn Macelli. There were a lot of calls in the Twitterverse and elsewhere for some heads to roll right now, but the current situation bears little resemblance to the one time Jones made a drastic firing in midseason, when he terminated Wade Phillips as head coach and gave Jason Garrett his shot. The team is not in the cellar of the NFL, but is still tied for the division lead with the Philadelphia Eagles (and holding the advantage in head-to-head record). And the rest of the season may have more winnable games than difficult ones.
As upset as many are about the way the Saints game went, or the season as a whole for that matter, there is still a very good chance that the Cowboys will wind up representing the NFC East in the playoffs. That could just lead to a similar embarrassment as the Saints game, but that is only speculation. The first game would be in AT&T Stadium, where the Cowboys have played better this season than on the road (which, atypically, had not been the case so much in the past couple of seasons).
Now, Garrett and company have a bye week. They should get some players back on the field, like Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, and J.J. Wilcox, and everyone should be in better shape after a week to rest and recover. They then get another long week off after the Thanksgiving Day game, which has historically worked in their favor. It is not at all unreasonable that they could win four of the last six games, and the resulting 9-7 might leave them on top of the division. The final game against the Eagles, which is also a home contest, may be the deciding factor for the division title, making it three deciding-games in three seasons for Dallas, with each of the other NFC East teams involved one time.
Likewise, Garrett himself is not looking to take one obvious step to give himself maximum input on making the season more of a success, and thereby likely improving his own chances of remaining in his job. He is going to leave the play-calling duties just as they are, although he maintains he has the ability to make that change any time he wants to. He says he does not feel that it would really solve anything.
"We don't want to overanalyze and overreact to certain situations," Garrett said. "We've done some good things on offense and we like the structure that we have in place. We have to, as a coaching staff, simply do a better job. Everybody."
Some will undoubtedly think this is just him trying to save face or play down the seriousness of the situation, but it does fit his style and the way he has tried to run things so far this season. And while he cautions about over-analysis, he still thinks that taking a long, hard look at what the Cowboys have done and who they have to work with is key to finishing out strong.
"You analyze your whole football team each and every week but the best chance to do that during the season is at the bye. We've already started that process as a coaching staff to really look at what we do well and what we don't do well and try to build on the good things and maybe correct or get rid of some of the bad things."
It looks like the staff has the final six weeks of the season, at least, to prove their case. The debacle on the bayou had to have turned up the proverbial heat on them, and if the team does stagger in without taking the division, I think all bets are off. Jones will have to sit down and make some hard decisions, which I really don't think he wanted to have facing him this season. That is just a general thing, of course, since most people don't really like firing someone they have been working closely with for an extended period of time. But I also think Jones has his own reasons for not wanting to fire his top people. He admitted that he saw during the New Orleans game that it is not always the coach that is the problem, and that Rob Ryan's dismissal was likely a mistake.
As Jerry Jones witnessed the defense unravel and give up 625 yards, did he feel any regret for firing Ryan?
"We thought that it was best for us to go in the direction that we are, and that doesn't look good right now," Jones said. "Hopefully we can make it look good, but I have all the feelings that you have anytime you want to look back at a decision, and I realize when some of them work you have to have a few things go along with it, and candidly we're having some of the same things that Rob had last year. He had a lot of people, frankly, to be fair to Rob, he lost a lot of guys on defense."
This leaves Jones in a bit of a quandary. The only real thing he can do to radically shake up the team is to replace coaches. But he sees that moving away from Rob Ryan did not fix things, and so far, taking the play-calling duties away from Jason Garrett has not fixed those issues. And dumping the head coach will just mean having to start over again. It may lead to better performance, or it could just be another step back.
The record over the last six games probably drives things. If the team wins four or more, or somehow sneaks into the playoff with less wins, Garrett probably gets another year. If things continue to come unglued, especially if there is an indication that Garrett is losing the team, then Jones may decide there is just no evidence that this will turn around with Garrett at the helm, and he likely will replace him - but that is not a given, because so much is in the eye of the beholder, and we have all seen that Jones does not always see things the way the rest of the world does.
For Callahan and Kiffin, things are a bit murkier. Kiffin may well take himself out of the equation. I don't think he is really happy with how things have gone. He was only on a one-year contract, and it may be that he never planned for a second season. One way or another, I suspect he is not going to be a factor here. The team may have to look outside to replace him despite having a good candidate already on staff, because while Rod Marinelli may be an excellent option to become the DC, he may want to leave the team if Lovie Smith gets a job next season.
Callahan is the most likely of the coaches to be let go, I think. Garrett seemed to be comfortable as a walk-around head coach, and there were some indications he actually prefers it. But it does not look like Callahan is the answer. To a degree, he might be the scapegoat in this, since the offense being run is still Garrett's design. Still, the play-calling this year has not looked effective. While we may not know where exactly the problems lie, I don't think many are going to stand up and defend Callahan.
It all is on the final stretch of games. I think the way the Cowboys were slapped around in the Crescent City was a bit of a wake up call, for owner and head coach alike. The future of their relationship is now in the balance, in a way it was not before the beat down.