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Cowboys 2014 Season: The Jason Garrett Watch

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The Dallas Cowboys are .500 no more. But what will it take for the head coach to keep his job?

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

So what will it take for Jerry Jones to give Jason Garrett an extension on his contract as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys?

The easy answer for this has always been that he makes the playoffs and keeps his job. No postseason play, bye-bye to the redhead.

But that might not be how it goes.  Because the NFC is so oddly clustered, with a six teams having nine wins or more, and one playoff spot going to be taken by an NFC South team that will have at least eight losses, 11 wins may not be enough to get into the playoffs this year. Even if Dallas wins the next game against the Eagles, they could still lose one game and get iced out of the postseason. That would happen if the Eagles won their last two games of the season, which is not hard to imagine since they play Washington and the New York Giants, and the other teams with nine wins or more don't lose more than one game the rest of the way. That would leave the Cowboys with an 11-5 record, and sitting idle at home courtesy of the tiebreakers. It is ironic that the most important game in ruining Dallas' chances to keep playing into January would turn out to be the seemingly inexplicable loss to a Washington team that is in the middle of (another) meltdown. It now has one of their former great players calling out the current staff.

Even with that ridiculous loss, the Cowboys are an improved team over last season. The 9-4 record says that, but more importantly is that this team has closed out games rather than letting them get away. It is not without flaws, but it has some clear strengths. The offense, when it is on its game, is a steamroller with DeMarco Murray running behind the celebrated offensive line. Tony Romo is no longer having to try to carry the team himself, and it may be making him a better player. The defense is not consistent, but in most of the games this season it has come up with enough stops.

Is the body of work this season already enough to justify Garrett's return? Jon Machota raised that question at the Dallas Morning News, and he points out that it is about more than just getting the ninth win.

The Dallas Cowboys faced a must-win game Thursday night, and they delivered. Don't think it was a must-win? Jason Garrett proved it after going for it twice on fourth down early in the second quarter. Dallas took control from there.

Those fourth down calls are one of the things that is different about the team, and the head coach, this season. No playing it safe, although the way the game unfolded, the Cowboys would likely have won anyway if they had kicked the field goal on that drive instead of pushing it all the way in. And don't forget all those predictions that the Cowboys would be doing well to get back to 8-8 before the season. Dallas has probably exceeded the preseason expectations more than any other team this season. He has certainly impressed Rick Carlisle, head coach of the Dallas Mavericks.

"Jason Garrett is one of the best coaches I've ever seen," Carlisle said during his weekly show on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM. "He continues to impress me year in, year out, game in, game out. I'll remind everybody again how they were positioning - not him, but other people in that organization - were positioning their season as, ‘Eh, you know, this may be a bit of a rebuilder.' And this guy's done the best coaching job I've ever seen."

Of course the Cowboys can win out and clinch the NFC East, and the only points to hash out for Garrett's next deal will be how much and how long. But that is hard to do. After the Cowboys face the Eagles team that humiliated them on Thanksgiving, they play the 9-4 Indianapolis Colts in the unfriendly confines of AT&T Stadium. And then they travel to Washington, which seems to only be capable of two good games a year, which are saved for when they play the Cowboys. Even though Dallas really should win that last game of the season, having both Philadelphia and Indianapolis ahead of them makes for the toughest road forward of any of the leading playoff contenders (excluding the entire NFC South, who are threatening to send a team with the worst record in NFL history to the playoffs).

Even if the Cowboys can only win one of the last three games, that is a ten-win season, and that has to be seen as a huge step forward for them. Jerry Jones would have a hard time justifying why that was not good enough to keep Garrett around for at least a couple of years. Eleven wins would almost have to guarantee some kind of extension. Only a real December swoon, dropping all three remaining games, would give Jones a clear argument that things really haven't changed, at least not enough. For the time being, however, we need to remember that Jones still has a specific role to play in the relationship.

We are all hoping for much better than that, of course, but the season has to play out. The final word on Garrett will almost certainly not come until the Cowboys are done playing, whenever that winds up being. If that is sometime after the New Year, then there is no real concerns about the head coach's job.  But if the season wraps up on December 28th, we may still see some questions being asked about what will happen to him.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB