Cowboys' attitude-adjustment road win might spark second-half spurt
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No team can completely change in a matter of six days, even if they do fire their head coach. But the Giants did not see the same Cowboys that lost to the Packers 45-7 last week. They didn't see the same Cowboys that they beat 41-35 in Week 7. They didn't see the same Dallas team that scuttled to a 1-7 start and defied all the experts who predicted they'd compete in a home Super Bowl next February.
The Cowboys couldn't stop Eli Manning or the Giants' running game in Dallas last month. On Sunday, they held New York to 107 rushing yards and stuffed Brandon Jacobs at the line of scrimmage on a key fourth-and-1 in the second half. They used zone defenses early to slow down Manning; and by the time the Giants started getting the matchups they wanted in the secondary, it was too late.
The Cowboys offense had shown no balance or big-play ability in recent weeks. Dallas established enough of a running game early to open up plays downfield for quarterback Jon Kitna, who took advantage, completing 13 of 22 passes for 327 yards -- more than 25 yards per completion.
The 2010 Cowboys had continually sabotaged themselves with frivolous penalties and costly turnovers. On Sunday, that was the Giants, who derailed their comeback attempt with penalties at the exact wrong moment, and had three costly turnovers. Kitna threw one meaningless interception, the Cowboys didn't lose a fumble and managed to avoid any costly flags.
Something changed over the last week since Garrett took over. The one-time coach-in-waiting turned disgraced offensive coordinator tried to instill order in the Cowboys' locker room this week. Based on the way the club played, it worked for at least one game.
Only one major question remains after this win: Why did it take Cowboys owner Jerry Jones so long to make a change at head coach?
"I'm not going to make too big a deal of this as far as the future goes," Jones said. "But Jason delivered some good feelings when we haven't had a lot of that in some time."
Jones was careful to be cautious about his new head coach, with speculation running wild all week about the next big-time name that will come in and save the Cowboys next season. But after so many players appeared to have quit on this season, Jones had to be impressed with how they responded to their new head coach.
Garrett immediately tried to change the attitude of a team that had become steadily less focused under Wade Phillips. Garrett stole a page out of Giants coach Tom Coughlin's playbook and started meetings early. He practiced in pads during the week. And he reportedly didn't start running back Marion Barber after he broke the team dress code. This wasn't the same Cowboys this week ... and apparently it wasn't the same Jason Garrett some of the players know.
"Here comes this guy from Princeton. Red-headed. He gets up there and starts talking like he's somebody else," Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said. "But then it worked. We got out there and played football like we can."
Garrett's fiery first week contrasts sharply with Phillips' player-friendly approach. When Phillips came in after Bill Parcells, his attitude was appreciated and the Cowboys did win. But the results on the field clearly indicated Phillips had lost control. Based on just one week, the players responded well.
"He's asking us to do some things that aren't very comfortable," Kitna said. "He's laid out the expectations well and guys responded and played with a a spark [Sunday]."
Garrett said he spoke to the players before his first practice as head coach and explained to them things had to change. "We got together on Wednesday morning and said, 'Hey, it starts now. Let's have great days, let's be as good as we can be each and every day. Let's go about ding things the right way, everything we do, really every time we do it and that will give [us] a chance.'"
When Phillips was fired, some thought Garrett was lucky he wasn't shown the door, as well. The Cowboys entered Sunday with the NFL's 20th-ranked scoring offense and their multitude of supposed stars were underperforming. When Tony Romo hurt his shoulder, the Cowboys' inconsistent offense seemed dead in the water and was given little chance against the Giants' top-ranked defense. But Garrett kept the Giants off-balance with a mix of run plays, screens and deep passes.
"If we weren't talking about his first game as a head coach, we would talk about the job he did as an offensive coordinator," Jones said. "I thought he came up with a really creative gameplan."
The 38-year-old Kitna wasn't a likely candidate to solve a Giants defense that has been punishing quarterbacks of late. But remember, Kitna has had six seasons of throwing for more than 3,000 yards in a season and has come up with big seasons when people have least expected it. And most importantly for the Cowboys, he avoided the kind of mistakes the offense had been making all season.
"The one thing you have to do as a quarterback is protect the football and then you have to make some little plays and you have to make some big plays when they're there," Garrett said. "I think he did all those things."
Kitna will face defenses that have more film on him in the coming weeks and Garrett will have to continually innovate with the offense. But Dallas has a good chance to go on a mini-roll. The Cowboys host a Lions team that hasn't won on the road since 2007 next Sunday and then play the Saints on Thanksgiving in Big D. The Cowboys have a tough trip to Indy after that, and then an NFC East-heavy slate to finish the season.
The playoffs are out of the picture, but if they continue to play with pride, the Cowboys could put Jones in an interesting position. The Dallas owner was uncharacteristically restrained in the locker room after the win, possibly hoping to keep his options open down the road. If the Cowboys continue to play with this kind of effort the rest of the season, Jones could find himself in a difficult spot.
If he really wants to start over after the season, he'll have to bring in a whole new coaching staff. Garrett and his players showed on Sunday they're going to at least try to make that a difficult move.