For all the talk about how the 2019 Dallas Cowboys were going to be different from past editions — all the proclamations of an upper-echelon depth chart and meaningful youth development — the franchise and head coach Jason Garrett have once again reverted into a familiar seasonal groove of mediocrity.
Welcome to Fire Garrettober. Once again.
It's that month in the calendar. The painfully frustrating time marked by the autumn chill of .500 football in Dallas — leaving fans frustrated about the leap forward that never seems to happen and the promising start that is rarely sustained. Cowboys fans know this time of middling results all too well, thanks to 3-3 records after six games in 2019, 2018 and 2017. The kind of mediocrity that has become a well-known seasonal preamble for Garrett in Dallas, with an ending that always falls somewhere on the spectrum of disappointment, each punctuated with a specific set of feelings.
These are the same Cowboys.
Being led by the same head coach.
Heading for the same result.
This is the thought process that takes root when a team starts the season 3-0 like the Cowboys, then stumbles badly into a three-game losing streak — including Sunday's ugly 24-22 loss to the previously winless New York Jets. And it doesn't get any better when you see team owner Jerry Jones shaking his head Sunday night and admitting what everyone already sees in crystal clarity: This isn't one of the top NFL teams we thought it was.
"Ultimately if you're one of the really top teams, which we're not — we are not — I hope that someday this season we could be one of the top teams," Jones said. "We're certainly not tonight."
The problem isn't just that Dallas isn't a top team. It's that the Cowboys are already at a crossroads that was almost unthinkable three weeks ago: with their backs against a wall hosting the desperate Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday. After that? A much-needed bye week before a remaining schedule that is suddenly looking like a meat grinder. It’s a tough-enough road that given what the Cowboys look like right now, they could be underdogs in seven of their final nine games after hosting the Eagles in Week 7.
That slate includes three home games against the Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams, and four road games against the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears and Eagles. Even the Week 9 game at the New York Giants suddenly looks tougher, given the improvement of the team with rookie quarterback Daniel Jones at the helm and the likelihood Saquon Barkley will be back in the lineup to face Dallas. And who knows how hard the Washington Redskins might be playing for interim coach Bill Callahan by the Week 17 finale?
If that sounds like a lot of trouble for Dallas, that's because it is. And if that sounds like it could send the vultures circling Garrett, that's because it will. Starting 3-0 against a trio of creampuffs and then crashing back to earth against some lively opponents has done nothing but cast Garrett's standing into doubt yet again. Especially for those critics who have been urging Jones to fire his current head coach for years. Pleas that have come from Cowboys fans, assorted media and even former Dallas players like Terrell Owens, who called the head coach "so predictable" and wasted little time cutting straight to the heart of what so many Garrett critics have felt in recent years.
"Hey @realjerryjones!!," Owens tweeted on Sunday. "Still think Jason Garrett is the answer?! For a decade, A DECADE NOW, it's the same old song and dance! …"
Say what you will about Owens, but he's not wrong about Garrett's track record being consistent. Garrett went 8-8 in each of his first three seasons coaching Dallas from wire to wire from 2011-13. Since then, he has qualified for the postseason three times (2014, ‘16 and ‘18), but never in back-to-back years. Arguably the best thing you can say about Garrett is that he has been a mixed bag at the helm — sometimes good, sometimes bad. The worst thing you can say about him is that entering his 10th season, he has never come close to paying off on the significant patience he has received from Cowboys ownership.
To understand that, you need to only look at the longest-tenured head coaches in the league. The top six are the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick, the New Orleans Saints' Sean Payton, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Mike Tomlin, the Baltimore Ravens' John Harbaugh, the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll and then Garrett. Anyone who follows the NFL closely knows why the five guys ahead of Garrett have remained at the head of their franchises for so long: They've all won a Super Bowl. Garrett, meanwhile, has delivered a grand total of two playoff victories going into his 10th season.
In the bigger picture, that speaks to why there remains so much frustration surrounding Garrett in Dallas. He never breaks through and brings it all together at the right time. This despite having some great players on offense, some great players on defense, a handful of different coordinator changes over the years and a team owner who has always kept his payroll near the top of the NFL. From a global view, that's a pretty damning lack of success — especially when a guy like Doug Pederson walks into the Philadelphia Eagles organization and wins a Super Bowl despite a slew of injuries and the previously washed-up Nick Foles as his starting quarterback.
At some point, that long view of Garrett has to resonate with ownership. Especially in a season like this one, when Garrett is in the final year of his contract and definitely coaching for his future in Dallas. If that broader picture doesn't do the trick, the micro view of this team isn't going to do Garrett any favors. The offensive coordinator change to Kellen Moore — which once looked brilliant — has cooled considerably with injuries to key starters. There's no denying the Cowboys haven't adjusted well to the loss of left tackle Tyron Smith and regressed even further without right tackle La'el Collins on Sunday.
More concerning is quarterback Dak Prescott, who has lit up poor teams this season but been far more average against good ones. Even against a bad Jets defense, which held Prescott without a passing touchdown and limited big plays with wideout Amari Cooper knocked out of the game with a quad injury. Without Cooper on the field, Prescott has had some struggles. When he's hit consistently, Prescott also has had some struggles. And as one New Orleans Saints staffer told Yahoo Sports recently, opponents have noticed Prescott continues to have a difficult time adjusting to disguised defenses that reveal themselves only after the snap.
That's a lot to worry about when you have a quarterback who is eventually expected to sign a monster contract extension. It's even more to think about when you have an offensive-minded head coach who is expected to lead not only the quarterback to his next level, but also the young offensive coordinator. It’s why the three-loss plummet is weighing more than ever on Garrett. So many vital parts of this team and the future are at a crossroads right now. From Garrett's contract to Prescott's to Cooper's, as well. You can't have all of that in play and not expect some serious tremors from the critics when you lose to an 0-4 Jets team. Particularly when the Jets are being guided by quarterback Sam Darnold, who is still recovering from mononucleosis and hasn't seen the field since Week 1.
We could get into the defense at this point, but here's the broad stroke on that one: It doesn't seem to be coming together. Not on the defensive line, not in the overhyped linebacker unit and not in a secondary that is wildly inconsistent from one week to the next. So there's that for Garrett to worry about, too.
That's a massive swallow of sobering reality after an intoxicating 3-0 start. It's also a crossroads like no other for the Cowboys and the head coach who always seems more embattled than applauded at this time of the year. But that may also be the silver lining in all of this. One way or another, Garrett is going to be shown for what he is in the season's remaining 10 games. As familiar as this 3-3 start has been, the future of the head-coaching position and the quarterback spot and maybe even the path of the entire franchise is going to be dialed in during the final 10 games. However you slice it, Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have arrived at their most meaningful crossroads. And if this ends up being the same, old Cowboys and they are doomed to the same old disappointing result then one thing is certain.
They will not be led by the same head coach in 2020.
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