When Jerry Jones finally relented and fired Wade Phillips in the middle of the season, he realized that there was no other choice. Getting blown out on national television has a way of shining a harsh light on a team’s shortcomings. Anyone who watched the Packers dismantle the Cowboys on that fateful night in November saw a team that had no fight, and no desire to do what it takes to win games.
Certainly, the Cowboys couldn’t get any worse with Jason Garrett at the helm, and it is no secret that Jerry Jones had always thought of him as head coaching material.
Jason Garrett’s 8-week interview began with an improbable victory against the then-streaking Giants at the new Meadlowlands stadium in New Jersey. Out of nowhere, the lifeless Cowboys suddenly had a pulse. And though the game was far from perfect, it showed that the underachieving Cowboys could, in fact, play with any team in the NFL. They followed the win up with a tougher-than-expected victory against the Lions.
Most people realized that the playoffs were an extreme long shot, but at least the revitalized Cowboys gave the fans something to cheer about. When the Cowboys lost to the Saints in heartbreaking fashion on Thanksgiving Day, fans took solace in the fact that they fought hard until the end of the game. Following the disappointing last-minute loss with an exciting, overtime road win against the injury-riddled Colts had many people jumping onto the Jason Garrett bandwagon. While some may have jumped off after another heartbreaking loss to the rival Eagles, most were impressed with how hard the Cowboys fought in the game.
The next week, the Cowboys blew a big lead to the Rex Grossman-lead Redskins, but managed to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat. Optimists pointed to Jason Garrett’s 4-2 record as proof-positive that he deserved to have the interim tag removed at the end of the season. Realists, on the other hand, were greatly concerned that a quarterback who hadn’t started a game in two years was able to shred the Cowboys defense for over 300 yards passing and 4 touchdowns. Even though the Cowboys overcame adversity and managed to win the game, their performance left a lot to be desired.
The Cowboys were given a golden opportunity on Christmas night to show a national audience that they were no longer the 1-7 team that cost Wade Phillips his job. Playing against the Cardinals (a team that had lost 8 out of their last 9 games) with a rookie, third-string quarterback, the visiting Cowboys were favored to win by nearly a touchdown.
Early in the first quarter, wide receiver, Miles Austin, tripped while running his route, resulting in an easy interception return for a touchdown by the Cardinals. Less than five minutes later, wide receiver, Roy Williams, allowed a pass to bounce off of his hands into the arms of a Cardinals defender who returned yet another interception for a touchdown.
Less than a minute after a David Buehler 42-yard field goal cut the lead to 14-3, the Cowboys were once again burned by a big play. Cornerback, Michael Jenkins, was called for a pass interference penalty as he awkwardly lunged at Cardinals wide receiver, Andre Roberts. Despite the contact, Roberts blew right by Jenkins, caught the ball near the sidelines, and easily got around safety, Alan Ball, who had taken a terrible angle while attempting to make the tackle. When Roberts cruised into the end zone with a 74-yard touchdown reception, it started to feel like the Packers game all over again. But to their credit, the Cowboys didn’t quit, and ultimately clawed their way back into the game.
With quarterback, Jon Kitna, on the sidelines after being knocked out of the game, third-string quarterback, Stephen McGee, entered the game. He handed the ball off early and often to a rejuvenated-looking Marion Barber. The only thing more surprising than seeing Marion Barber burst through the line for a 24-yard touchdown, was the stupidity that he showed once he got into the end zone. As he ripped off his helmet in celebration, the yellow flags came flying onto the field.
The Cowboys cut the lead to one-point, but were forced to kick off deep in their own zone after Barber’s 15-yard penalty was assessed. Although the defense stopped the Cardinals and forced them to punt, Barber’s penalty could have resulted in a big return, which is exactly what happened in the same situation against the Titans in a loss earlier in the year.
With less than 4 minutes left in the game, the Cardinals took a 4-point lead after a Jay Feely field goal. The Cowboys, with no timeouts, and a quarterback playing in his first NFL regular season game, needed to march down the field to score a touchdown to win the game. A defensive pass interference penalty kept the drive alive, and Stephen McGee eventually connected with Miles Austin on a perfectly thrown ball for a 37-yard touchdown, giving the Cowboys their first lead of the game.
In most years, David Buehler, missing the ensuing extra point (which would have given the Cowboys a 3-point lead) would have been shocking. This year, it was just par for the course. As was Cardinals kicker, Jay Feely, kicking the game-winning field goal with 5 seconds remaining in the game.
People will most likely say that the Cowboys didn’t quit, fought back to be in a position to win, but lost because of a missed extra point. What will be swept under the rug is the fact that the Cowboys defense allowed a third-string, rookie quarterback to connect with the Cardinal’s number one receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, on 4th and 15…a completion that lead to the Jay Feely field goal.
If not for the abysmal start to the season, Jason Garrett’s 4-3 record would be looked at as a disappointment. Playing their final game of the season in Philadelphia means that Jason Garrett is likely to end up with a 4-4 record. At face value, the Cowboys turnaround from a 1-7 start seems impressive. However, if Garrett’s record was judged based on the high expectations that existed at the beginning of the year, it would have to be considered disappointing.
Jerry Jones may very well name Jason Garrett as the next head coach of the Cowboys. But if he does, it is more out of fear of him becoming the next Sean Payton (who left the Cowboys to coach the Saints to a Super Bowl victory) than it is of thinking that he is truly the best candidate to turn this team around in 2011.
Aside from the fact that the Cowboys have played better than they did for Wade Phillips, the reality is that they are still disappointing based on pre-season expectations. Sweeping changes need to be made to the roster and the rest of the coaching staff. Even if Jason Garrett was given the power to make those changes (which is debatable), would he have the guts to do what needs to be done? Somehow I doubt it.
If Jerry Jones wants to fill the seats in his massive, billion-dollar stadium next year, he needs to inspire the confidence of the fanbase. Returning this coaching staff (less Wade Phillips) is not going to do the trick. There are only a handful of coaches who will make Cowboys fans start believing again next season. All of them have won Super Bowls with other teams (with one exception).
They are as follows:
Bill Cowher – He is likely to have the opportunity to coach one of the teams on his wish list (Texans, Giants, Dolphins), but Jerry Jones should at least speak to him.
Jon Gruden – His fire is exactly what this team needs, and he seems more likely to be able to work with Jerry Jones than Cowher.
Tony Dungy – His name has rarely been mentioned; maybe he doesn’t even want to return to coaching, but Jerry Jones should at least reach out to him to see if he is interested. He would be a great fit for this team.
Brian Billick – His stock was a lot higher when he went to the Ravens. The concern would be that he won a Super Bowl, but did it with a marginal offense, even though it is his specialty.
Jim Harbaugh – He knows the pro game. He has proven that he can develop a quarterback (Andrew Luck), and that he can get his team to play to its full potential. His brother’s success in Baltimore makes this pick seem less risky than other college coaches.
Jason Garrett may end up being a great head coach someday – perhaps even next season with another team. But if he stays with the Cowboys, and keeps this staff in tact (either by force or by choice), the Cowboys will continue to falter, especially if sweeping roster changes aren’t made. Jason Garrett’s refusal to sit Barber until he was injured speaks volumes about how he judges the current players on the team.
A coach coming in from the outside will not only bring in his own staff, but he will also have no allegiance to the underachievers on the roster. If Jerry Jones hires anyone other than the five guys mentioned above, he is likely going to see less than sold-out crowds until the Cowboys start winning again.