One more game and the regular season is over for the Dallas Cowboys. There is a very good chance they will miss the playoffs, but we won’t know with certainty until the games play out Sunday afternoon. Dallas hosts Washington, while keeping an eye on the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants to see if the Giants can pull out a win and give the Cowboys a chance to get in the postseason with a victory of their own.
Some thoughts about that, and the now very uncertain future for Dallas.
There are lots of feelings about this season, but the biggest is just embarrassment
Some of the performances on the field the past several weeks have been just pitiful. Mistakes have plagued this team all year. When that happens, this edition of the Cowboys doesn’t rise to the challenge. It tends to just fold up on itself and let things get completely out of hand.
The impression this team gives is softness. The spine is jello. During that initial three-game losing streak, they seemed to grow used to having their own miscues and mental errors lead to failure. Now they seem to expect it, and unless things go almost perfectly, the way they did against the Los Angeles Rams, Dallas just hunkers down and waits for the bad things to come.
This team seems to fight back only with wild, out of control swings. There still seem to be a lot of players putting out as much individual effort as they can, but either it is out of sync and uncoordinated, or the effort has poor results, as happened to Dak Prescott against the Eagles.
They just seem lost.
It makes no sense to have mixed feelings about a playoff appearance - but I do
If it does happen that the Cowboys back their way into the postseason (and the way things have gone in the NFC East, it would not surprise me in the least), it will feel somehow dishonest. This team has repeatedly demonstrated that it does not belong in the playoffs.
Should they get there, maybe just cringe and wait for the inevitable further embarrassment. They have fooled us too many times. I just don’t expect them to suddenly get their act together and make a serious run. That is something I have never experienced, with the possible exception of the 2015 season, when the lack of quarterback competence with Tony Romo hurt made it clear it was a lost year.
This simply should not have happened. The Cowboys have had good health most of the way, except for left guard, and that has been just the latter part of the season. This still looks like a talented roster on paper, and it even seemed to have gelled at times. It didn’t take for long, and would soon fall apart.
There is even some thought in my mind that if they did make the playoffs and win that first game (they have done better in certain facets of the game at home than on the road this year) it would just muddy things. Yes, I am firmly in the camp that things need to change. And increasingly, I think a simple, sometimes overlooked factor is very important.
The basic issue with the coaching may just be staleness
Outside of a few rare exceptions, like Bill Belichick and Sean Payton, head coaches almost always wear out their welcome. And the reason the two examples cited have not is largely because they exhibit something rare: An ability to adapt and change their approach as needed.
Most head coaches have a specific approach and style. It is what they stick to in the belief that it will eventually yield results, even when those results remain elusive. Some have several years of success, even getting to the Super Bowl, but then start to fall behind as the roster churns and the game continues to evolve and change. Being an NFL head coach requires a strong belief in yourself and your abilities, and that is hard to work around. Simply put, they have great difficulty seeing and understanding the evidence that they are now part of the problem.
When you try to describe Garrett, things like adaptability, flexibility, innovation, and comfort with change don’t exactly leap to mind. He is a known advocate of a steady, constant process. His entire tenure in Dallas has been built around that. Now that it has come up snake eyes, there seems to be no way he can make the necessary moves and adjustments to change the course of this team.
A new head coach is no guarantee that things will get better. It is just the only viable way to try.
That is why one name that I personally find intriguing, and am in a minority in that, is Mike McCarthy. He went through the same kind of cycle with the Green Bay Packers, but of course had that climb to the pinnacle with Aaron Rodgers leading the way. But unusually, he seems to have realized his own limitations, and deliberately held his name out of contention for a new job for a year while he studied the game and worked on finding a new approach. That includes an openness to the idea of incorporating analytics, which Garrett has publicly stated is not something he plans to do.
Whoever winds up coaching the Cowboys, they need to bring a new approach. There is a thing called the Hawthorne effect, which kinda says that any change can have positive outcomes, even if the changes themselves are not really improvements. It is more about the participants in the endeavor at hand believing in doing something new, and responding with more effort and focus. That may be the most single important thing a new regime can bring - at least for a few years.
This team has taken playing down to the competition to a new level
While Dallas has not seen many significant injuries, at least the kind that put players on IR, it has faced many teams that were in much worse shape. And often lost to them. The Eagles were just the latest example, but it has happened time and time again. In other cases, they have made players like Mitchell Trubisky look far better than they have in most of their other games.
Maybe it is a lack of a killer instinct on the field, or just an unconscious belief that they don’t have to work as hard against players who have not been doing well before facing them. There has long been a trend that opponents just “show up” under the spotlight that comes when the Cowboys are on the field with them. Whatever the cause or causes, this team keeps coming up short when every indicator is that they should win. In all but one of their losses, I believe, they were the favorite coming into the game according to the betting lines.
It is both mystifying and frustrating.
This may seem contradictory to earlier points, but I still want to see the Cowboys win this week. I want the Eagles to lose to help them. Plus, I always want the Eagles to lose. In case that does all come about, I will be rooting for them to win from then on.
I just don’t know how that will affect them going forward. If they pull a miracle run, then you have to reconsider Garrett’s job. And yes, if he defied all the odds and got another banner hung in AT&T Stadium, then it would be worth seeing him stick around for a while.
I just have so little hope that it can happen, or belief that it will. It is a strange mood indeed.