Three seasons of the same results have been long enough to determine that firing Jason Garrett must be Jerry Jones’ next move
By Matthew Postins
Jerry Jones must fire Jason Garrett at the end of this season. Let’s just go ahead and set the expectations for this column right now.
I’ve rattled that thought around in my mind the past year or so, but never found myself come to a 100 percent yes until after Sunday’s unbelievable loss to the Green Bay Packers. After Sunday it’s clear that Garrett is not working as the head coach of this team and he likely never will.
Let’s acknowledge three things before we dive in. First, Jerry Jones is the overriding problem with this franchise and that’s nearly impossible to overcome. Heck, Bill Parcells couldn’t do it. If you live in fantasy land, then you probably believe that one day Jones will come to his senses, hire a general manager and let him run the personnel side of things. But we all live in the real world and we know that won’t happen. Some people are calling Jones Al Davis 2.0. Please stop. That’s insulting to Al Davis. Davis was a football man, a former coach and general manager, before he became Raiders owner. We all know Jones was none of those things before he took over the Cowboys.
Second, the defense is absolutely horrible, near-historic horrible, and there’s plenty of blame to be laid at the feet of that unit. Yes, the defense surrendered 35 points on Sunday and that played a role in how things went down. But we all know that Monte Kiffin isn’t long for that job, and this column is about the head coach, not the assistants.
Third, firing Garrett might not solve the problem. Whoever takes the job must deal with Jones, a top-heavy salary cap situation and a roster that features aging talent and a quarterback that, when it matters most, can’t get it done. You could pay ME enough to do it. But is there an actual NFL coach out there that wants to hop on a team that looks like the NFL version of the Titanic?
I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s time for Garrett to go. It doesn’t mean that Jones will pull the trigger. But I think he should, regardless of what happens in the final two games of this season.
Garrett’s press conference on Monday was clearly uncomfortable for him. The local press corps grilled him about decision-making, the fact that the Cowboys ran the football so little in the second half after running it so well in the first half, and game management. He was asked point-blank, in a situation such as Sunday, if he asserts himself as a head coach or defers to the play caller, Bill Callahan. Garrett’s answer was a meandering opus that never actually answered the question. He talked about how they liked the balance in the first half, that the Cowboys drove the ball well a couple of times in the second half and that, looking back, they probably should have run it more.
Garrett said the Cowboys wanted to stay aggressive. He even said you could stay aggressive and run the football. But the Cowboys ran the football just two times once they had a 29-10 lead midway through the third quarter. Again, he said that, in hindsight, they should have run the ball more.
Then Garrett said on Tony Romo’s first interception, the play in which he checked out of the run play and into a pass play, the pass option was part of the play call and that everyone should have done a better job in that situation. That was in response to a question in which Garrett was asked if Romo should have even had the pass option on the play. If you ask me, he shouldn’t have had that option.
Finally, after all of the talk about hindsight, Garrett was asked point-blank why that determination couldn’t be made during the game.
“You can. You just have to implement that,” Garrett said. “You call plays because you want to help your team move the football and score points. That’s how you do it. There are things we like and when you reflect back afterward you sometimes think you should have done something different.
That was the answer that cemented it for me. Garrett has not grown as a head coach. That’s never been clearer than after this game.
Garrett has been accused in the past of poor game management as a head coach. After several gaffes last season, the belief was that Garrett was doing too much between play-calling and head coaching. That’s why Jones made the decision to remove Garrett from play-calling duties after last season. Yes, everyone sold it as a mutual decision. But that was all Jones and everyone knows it. The idea was that Garrett, unfettered from the rigors of calling plays, would be able to manage the game better.
He hasn’t. During our podcast Monday night I was reminded by our host, Bryan Houston, that the Cowboys have held double-digit leads in three of their seven losses this season. You don’t lose games with double-digit leads just because the other team rallied. Game management plays a role.
Callahan may call the plays, but it’s Garrett’s offense, and in the absence of confirmation about how the game plan is constructed — something Garrett refuses to talk about outside of everyone has input – one has to assume that he has some oversight over how the game plan is constructed. So Garrett greenlit a game plan against the Denver Broncos that, instead of running the football more to keep Peyton Manning off the field, allowed Romo to engage in a record shootout that ended in a loss. He has to take some responsibility for running the ball a paltry nine times against the Vikings in a game in which they didn’t trail until late and then had to rally to win.
He is, ultimately, responsible for what happened on Sunday. A lot of people are. But he’s the head coach and the buck stops with him. His answers on Monday were, as always, intentionally vague. After a game like Sunday, at best, it makes Garrett look powerless to influence the events around him.
Great head coaches adjust to the situation during the game. Garrett and his staff didn’t. As I told Bryan Houston during our podcast, the Cowboys spent the second half playing like the team that was 19 points down at one point and the Packers played like the team with a 19-point lead.
Remember earlier when I pointed out that the Cowboys ran the ball just two times once they had a 29-10 lead? The Packers ran it 13 times. Plus, the Cowboys threw the ball more times in the second half than the Packers threw the ball. Remember – the Packers were the team that was down 26-3 at halftime.
Unreal. Just unreal.
How does the head coach – ostensibly the final voice on the field – not step up on the Cowboys’ next-to-last drive of the game and not tell your offensive coordinator and your quarterback to run the football three straight times on that series that led to the interception? Garrett wouldn’t address it on Monday. So there’s no way to know if Garrett even has the power to override anything that goes on during the game, which underscores just how dysfunctional the whole situation has become.
But on that next-to-last drive the Cowboys ran five plays and four of them were passes. The first was, unconscionably, a bomb to Dez Bryant that fell incomplete. Romo was sacked on the next play, but he connected with Bryant on third down for a 13-yard gain and a first down with 3:57 left. Converting that third down, given the Cowboys’ woes on third down recently, was an early Christmas gift. Garrett, Callahan and Romo should have treated it with more respect.
The Cowboys had the ball at their own 31 when they finally ran the football, as Murray gained 4 yards. Green Bay called time out with 2:58 remaining. They had one time out left. So let’s say the Cowboys run the football into that stacked defensive front that caused Romo to check out of the play, gains a couple of yards, and the Packers call their final time out. The Cowboys run another play, hopefully a run. Even if they don’t convert the first down, they face fourth down and can run the clock, most likely, right down to the two-minute warning. Even if they have to punt the ball with 2:10 left, the return would probably stop the clock with two minutes left. If the Cowboys are sitting on their own 40, one yard short of the first down, a good Chris Jones punt, plus good coverage, puts the Packers, theoretically, outside their own 30-yard line. And that’s not even considering that, given how Murray and the offensive line was gashing the Packers’ defensive front seven, the Cowboys could have gotten the first down anyway and then run the clock down inside of a minute.
But, even without the first down, that’s two minutes for the Packers to drive 70 yards for a game-winning touchdown. They might have gotten it done, given how poorly the Cowboys defense played. But I would have felt a lot better forcing the Packers to drive the length of the field to win the game rather than risking a costly mistake and giving the Packers great field position to take the lead.
But that’s what happened. Make the game harder for your opponent, not easier. Under Garrett the Cowboys have made the game easier for opponents far too often.
Yes, it’s on Romo for not understanding the situation and changing the play. Yes, it’s on Callahan for even giving Romo the option.
But it’s on Garrett because as head coach it’s up to him to set the tone for how the game is managed. And it’s not clear if he even set a tone at all on Sunday against Green Bay. Even if you don’t have as much power as other NFL head coaches, if you care about what happens on the field – and Garrett clearly does – how do you not step up in that situation and yell into everyone’s headset, “run the ball no matter what.”
But, as far as we know, he did none of that. You could have asked Garrett that questions 10 different ways and he never would have answered it. I get it. Garrett has been that way since he took over as head coach. He’s not one to let you see how the sausage is made. But it just creates more questions than answers and it lends further credence to the assertion that Garrett is nothing more than the Queen of England to Jones’ prime minister.
Garrett has been given more than three years to implement his program and this team is no better than it was when he inherited it. Some of that is not on him. Jones is below-average at drafting and above-average at handcuffing his team’s salary cap with over-the-top contracts, a fact that keeps the Cowboys from adding meaningful depth to their team. But you have to do something more with what you’re given, and Garrett hasn’t done enough.
Plus, more than three years later I don’t believe Garrett is any better as a head coach than he was when he started. He doesn’t seem to have progressed as a game manager and he bears ultimate responsibility for a debacle like Sunday.
Garrett promised discipline when he took over. Did the second half of Sunday’s game look anything like discipline to you? We’ve seen scenarios like this too many times to count the past three years, but nothing like Sunday.
A Cowboys fan reminded me today that when the Cowboys were winning games in 2007 and 2009 they used Marion Barber as the hammer to close out games. Sure, Murray isn’t Barber, but he’s a tough runner and he’s been in a groove the past four games. But the Cowboys didn’t use him nearly enough on Sunday. What’s insulting is that back then, when Barber was closing out games, Garrett was the offensive coordinator. Theoretically he has more power to influence the game now as head coach, but on Sunday he didn’t. At least that’s what I think. Again, we’ll never know.
Firing a head coach is inherently unfair. Firing a Cowboys head coach with Jones as general manager is practically insulting. But it must happen because Jones has invested millions in aging talent like Romo, Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware. In order to have any hope of positioning those players for a final run at the postseason, much less the laughable notion of the Super Bowl, he needs to change the voice and the philosophy at Valley Ranch now.
I don’t know whom Jones hires, though. If history is any indication, this team is about to slip into Dave Campo territory. The first seven seasons after Jimmy Johnson the Cowboys went 63-49. Right now, nearly seven years after the departure of Parcells, the Cowboys are an eerily close 62-48.
In years 8 and 9 post-Johnson the Cowboys went 10-22. Whomever Jones hires will figure out quickly that they’re stepping onto a ship that, from my point of view, is taking on water fast.
Jones wouldn’t talk job security on Sunday. He said that door is closed. But certainly a third straight 8-8 non-playoff season would change his calculus on Garrett’s employment. Surely Jones knows that in today’s NFL he can’t keep a head coach that has only helped his team tread water the last three years.
The funny thing is Garrett may have a better feel for the pulse of this situation than he lets on. Faced with needing to win the next two games to win the division, Brad Sham asked Garrett to tell fans why they should have faith. He rattled off reasons that really weren’t reasons, just his faith that his guys can get the job done.
Then a reporter asked what in the Cowboys’ recent history gives him the belief the Cowboys can get it done in these situations, something they’ve failed to do the last two years with losses in Week 17 with the NFC East on the line.
“I have complete confidence in our guys.”
Even though there’s really no evidence to inspire such confidence.
And there’s little evidence that inspires me to believe that Garrett needs to be the Cowboys’ head coach any longer.