There are plenty of questions about the Dallas Cowboys. Why they made some highly questionable decisions in the loss to the Minnesota Vikings, such as inexcusable blunders in not having eleven men on the field and urging a fair catch when a big return was staring them in the face as well as those highly-suspect play-calls; the slow starts every week; the failures of the running game; the inability to beat good teams - all are things that have us scratching our heads and demanding answers. Through nine games, those answers are not forthcoming, at least on a consistent basis. The Cowboys manage to take care of business against bad teams (with one notable, galling exception), but keep coming up short, usually by just a few points, when the opposition is likely of playoff caliber. The seven remaining games give Dallas chances to make real improvements, and they are still in the thick of the race for the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles. The real concern, however, is exactly when will they pass the point of no return?
And there are actually two interrelated points involved. The first would be if they are eliminated from playoff contention. Obviously, that would be a horribly disappointing end to a season that opened with so much hope and promise. The second could come even if the Cowboys are still playing in January. That would be the point at which Jerry Jones decides it is finally time to go in a different direction with his coaching staff in 2020.
If the first point is reached, it will almost certainly mean the second one is, too. However, it is not impossible for Dallas to enter the playoffs and still see Jason Garrett not be offered a new contract. There is no need for an actual firing, per se, just Jones declining to extend an offer and opening up a coaching search.
Both of these issues represent moving targets. As mentioned, the Cowboys are locked in a tie with the Eagles for the division crown and the resulting trip to the postseason. At the moment, they also hold the tiebreaker of having beaten Philadelphia in their first meeting. It is looking increasingly likely that the second game against them, at Philadelphia in week 16, could be the de facto division championship if they enter it tied or within one game of each other. Both would still have one more game to play, but Dallas faces Washington, whose only current meaningful race is to the top of the draft order, and the Eagles have the New York Giants, in much the same boat. Additionally, there are certainly scenarios where that penultimate regular season game locks things up.
There is a simple reality about the remaining games for both the contenders. If one of them wins one more game the rest of the way than the other, they will have a real advantage. Should either of them fall two games behind, things are all but over.
The remaining schedules outside of that second meeting would appear to favor the Eagles, unfortunately. They have two very tough games coming up, hosting the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks back to back, but after that they have nothing but losing teams ahead in the Miami Dolphins, Washington, and both their games against the Giants. That would look like four sure wins for them, with the chance of pulling an upset against the two playoff contenders they still face. Dallas has a tougher path. The Detroit Lions are below .500, but still should not be considered a walkover. Then the Cowboys also have to play the Patriots, and they have to venture into New England in what could be very cold weather. Then they face the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving, followed by the Chicago Bears and the Los Angeles Rams before the second stanza against the Eagles.
It is possible that game may be moot, if Philadelphia wins and Dallas loses most of the intervening games. At the moment, it could go either way. The point of no return may come in just three or four weeks, or it may be forestalled until the playoffs.
For the coaching staff, the situation is rather different. There is an argument to be made that they have already reached the crucial point. Those errors against the Vikings may have tipped things. There may still be room to come back from that with much better coaching these remaining games, but this is another thing that we have seen too often. Just last year, the team struggled early due partly, and probably mostly, to errors made by the staff. That led to a shakeup last January, but now we have witnessed a new round of problems. In turn, it has brought to the fore the one true constant over that period - the head coach.
While Garrett seems one of the best in the business at inspiring and motivating his players, there is a strange, recurring struggle to get his staff working efficiently and in unison. There was the Scott Linehan drama, Bill Callahan before that, and all the way back to the Rob Ryan farce. One of the reasons that the Jones family has stuck with Garrett may be the large part the ownership has played in the assistant coaching hires. We don’t know the full extent of that, but it is reasonable, based on observation of the dynamics of the team, that it is considerable. This year, however, we got a distinct impression that Garrett finally had put his stamp on his staff.
That puts the stamp of a 5-4 start squarely in the middle of his forehead. Obviously, we have no idea exactly what is going on in Jerry Jones’ head. He may talk a lot, but if you pay attention, you will note that he only gives away what he wants to. Often he uses his seeming stream of consciousness statements very effectively to control the message. It is most likely that this is an evolving and shifting decision process for him. That it is a looming and not predetermined decision was made clear by letting Garrett coach out the final year of his contract.
The early going has not done much to support Garrett’s case. That clearly applies to the losses, but some of the wins even seem to have been despite the head coach rather than because of him. The first week of the season saw an offensive explosion from Dallas. One reason that has been posited is that Ezekiel Elliott was not ready for a full load after his holdout. That forced the team to put it in the hands of Dak Prescott - and he delivered better than we could have hoped. It seems that the more Elliott has played, the less Prescott has contributed, except in the losses where they had to go to him out of necessity. Sadly, while he kept them in contention with his performances, especially once they got out of the first quarter, he has could not quite get them over the hump. Last Sunday, after he had passed them right back into a position to win, the coaches literally took it out of his hands by calling the two run plays from the eleven-yard line. We can argue all we want about whether Kellen Moore or Garrett really drove that particular choice. No matter who had the biggest say in that, or how far under the bus Garrett seems to be trying to throw Moore, it is a buck that stops at the head coach.
It is interesting that Garrett has resorted to pointing some fingers, not just at Moore, either. That is highly uncharacteristic of him. It makes you wonder if the pressure of being in that final year combined with the lack of performance on the field is getting to him.
If he is cracking a bit, then that is another signpost that the point of no return is almost here for him, or perhaps even in the rearview mirror. He still has opportunities to right the ship. But they are running out.
We may have only seven more weeks before we know - or conceivably even less, if things go strongly one way or another.