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Cowboys hot topic: How Jason Garrett improved his job security by out-coaching Sean Payton

It was another surprising outcome.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

I feel like I should quote the fictitious Col Nathan Jessup here.

Face it, there is still a widespread belief that Jason Garrett is holding the Dallas Cowboys back as head coach. He is seen as doing little more than clapping on the sidelines during games and bungling most of the few decisions he does make. Mostly, so the meme goes, he just gets his marching orders from Jerry Jones and endlessly obfuscates in press conferences. There is a large group of fans and some outspoken members of the media who have been calling for Garrett’s dismissal for years, and up until the four-game winning streak resurrected the season for Dallas, it was widely assumed that he was gone after this year. But now it is looking more and more like his seat has become comfortably cool once again. Many of his media critics are disappointed or at least disapproving, and some fans even doubt the value of making the playoffs at the cost of saving his job.

So how did he go up against one of the currently acknowledged coaching geniuses in the NFL, Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, and absolutely outperform him? That is the question. The fact that Garrett did the better job is, well, the simple truth.

Admittedly, it was at least as much because of a few oddly poor decisions by Payton during the game as the good things Garrett did. There were really two errors in particular, both involving the same thing, that had a major impact on the game.

First, Payton threw his first challenge flag on a pass to Michael Thomas that was ruled incomplete. This came in the first quarter, when the score was just 3-0, but it was already becoming clear that the Saints were struggling on offense. This was a third down play, and as it was called, it was the second third-and-out to start the game for New Orleans.

Thomas came to the sideline lobbying Payton hard to throw the flag, and appeared to have influenced the decision. But listening to the player in situations like that is not wise. They are sometimes just mistaken, as Thomas was. The video of the play showed movement of the ball as Thomas was going down, so there was no real evidence to support overturning the call. I don’t know what the coaches who are supposed to advise Payton were telling him on that play, but they should have been telling him to keep the flag in his pocket. In any case, Payton challenged the play, it was upheld, and he now only had one challenge left for the rest of the game.

In the second quarter, there was another pass ruled incomplete, this one to tight end Dan Arnold. The ball was knocked loose and if the play was reversed, it would be a recovery by Thomas to give the Saints a first down at the Dallas seven yard line. At this point, the score was 10-0, and New Orleans was still trying to get something going on offense. This was their first real opportunity of the game, as they had just recovered an Amari Cooper fumble that let them start the drive at the Cowboys’ 39. Up to that turnover, Drew Brees and the league-leading Saints offense had mustered only one first down. The takeaway gave them a boost as it often does, and they had just gotten their second first down when this particular play was ruled incomplete. Payton again threw his red flag, and this time he won the challenge.

So why was that a mistake? It was Troy Aikman who pointed out the issue: Now the Saints were out of challenges, and there was still 41:31 of game to play. Had Payton not challenged, they would have had a second and ten at the 22. Brees normally can take advantage of that all day, and even if they stalled, they would still have a fairly certain field goal.

And Aikman turned out to be prophetic, as there were certainly plays late in the game, when the score was 13-10, where Payton really missed having a challenge. The most obvious was the third down pass to Cole Beasley during the next to last Dallas possession.

The biggest impact of being able to challenge that (and it would have been overturned) is that it would have giving the ball back to New Orleans with over five and a half minutes left. Given the way the Dallas defense was absolutely dominating this game, it might not have changed the eventual outcome, but it still cost the Saints about three minutes of time. Instead, they would have their last possession with 2:35 to go - and Brees did not respond well to things, throwing the interception that effectively ended the game.

Meanwhile, Garrett only had one real decision to make, and that went very well. After the Jourdan Lewis pick, Payton used his last timeout, and the Cowboys had a second and eight at the NO 14 with 2:03 left in the game. He decided to throw the ball instead of run it, because with the two minute warning coming up, the clock would stop anyway, so an incomplete pass didn’t affect that at all. A pass interference call would give Dallas a first and goal at the one, and with only 1:58 remaining, there was no need to do anything other than kneel three times - and that was also absolutely the only logical call.

Garrett won the coaching battle on the field. But that leads to two other points.

First, head coaches, especially ones who don’t serve as their own coordinator or play-caller, don’t really have that many decisions to make during games. It is just a few if any. This means that mistakes are magnified. Even when they make a good decision with a high probability of success, as the decision to go for it on fourth and goal was by Payton, it can turn out wrong. In this case, the stop just boosted the confidence of a Cowboys defense that was en route to an epic performance. And what we don’t consider enough is just how much pressure there is on coaches with these kinds of calls, especially the time crunch. With a 40 second play clock, they have to make the calls quickly, and don’t have the luxury of watching a replay over and over or even just thinking things through. They have to make snap decisions. And those are hard to get right all the time. All coaches make errors here.

Second, and more importantly, the head coach’s main job is really what happens between games. He is responsible for creating the culture, setting the tone, directing his coordinators on how some things are to be done, and getting as much as he can out of the players. That last was reportedly a big one for the Cowboys leading up to the game.

Garrett’s impassioned message at the team hotel centered on being the same team they’ve been. Although the Saints came in riding a 10-game win streak, the Cowboys were entering with a three-game win streak of their own.

”He talked about being us,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “We weren’t looking to shock the world or anything like that. It was, ‘Let’s go out there and show everybody what we’re made of.’ Jason has great leadership qualities as our head coach, but he also knows the right thing to say.”

That is something that is too often ignored in the criticism of Garrett. He has the fierce loyalty of this team (with perhaps the inevitable player or two who don’t agree - there are 53 very assertive personalities on each NFL roster, and unanimity is rare). He has never lost the team, win, lose, or 8-8 finish.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we will finally see that pay off. The roster finally looks to have a lot of talent that translates to strong performances on the field. If the offensive line had been healthy, the Cowboys would likely be right there with the Saints and the Los Angeles Rams as favorites to make it to the Super Bowl.

Don’t forget that Garrett has a strong voice in building the roster, stronger than many other head coaches. So he is due credit there, as well.

If you still want to criticize him for the 3-5 start, well, there is certainly some justification. But the way the team has turned around since the Amari Cooper trade and the promotion of Marc Colombo to coach the O line in place of Paul Alexander (and the hiring of Hudson Houck, which I always mention because I think it was also very important to help a young and inexperienced assistant make that transition) shows that the problems leading to the awful start were specific and fixable. And in Dallas, the unique role of Jerry Jones and his son Stephen as the general manager and his chief deputy means that they share some of the responsibility for setting things up for those early struggles. That also works in Garrett’s favor, as the Joneses fully accept that responsibility for their errors. They also seem to have a tremendous amount of faith in Garrett and what he does do well, especially Jerry.

The Saints win was, at all levels, a win where Garrett had a lot of impact. He probably sealed his retention for 2019, and with heavy-handed hints of an extension in the offing, well beyond that. It can all change in a hurry, of course, but if you want to see the Cowboys win now, you have to take that with it.

It’s just the truth.

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