Since taking over as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in 2011, Jason Garrett has never been confused for a risk-taker. His conservative play-calling and curious time management skills, especially around midfield during end-of-half situations, have been questioned for as long as he’s been at the helm in Dallas.
In Sunday night’s win against the Eagles, he tried something he’s never come close to doing before. Just seven times in his head-coaching tenure has Garrett tried to convert on fourth down on the Cowboys’ side of the field during the first half, according to Pro Football Reference. And he had never tried converting one of those fourth downs anywhere before the Dallas 42-yard line.
But on Sunday, on the road, against the Super Bowl champs on national TV with his season and career hanging in the balance, Garrett called for a fake punt from the Dallas 31 and converted on fourth-and-two in the second quarter. And that call came after a series of false starts foiled his plans on a fourth-and-one conversion from the Dallas 40.
So in consecutive first-half series on fourth-and-short, Garrett went against nearly a decade of his history as a head coach, twice attempting for a first down deeper in his own territory than he ever had before.
“We always want to be aggressive. That’s a mantra that we have as a coaching staff and football team, to attack and stay aggressive,” Garrett said Monday, trying not to make a big deal out of something he had never done before in seven-plus years of being a head coach. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to go for every fourth down. You have to factor in the game situation, how you’re playing, how your defense is playing, where you are in the game, where you are on the field, how long it is and you make the best decision.”
There’s aggressiveness, and then there’s desperation. Garrett went for it on fourth down 19 times last season, and at 8-of-12 so far this year, he’ll likely outpace that this year after averaging 9.6 fourth-down attempts in his previous six seasons. To go for it that early in the game at that part of the field showed a different side of Garrett, one that could have been revealed due to the increasing pressure surrounding his job security.
Up 3–0 at the start of the second quarter, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-one from their own 40. Dak Prescott took the snap and rolled right with play action to Ezekiel Elliott. But before he could look up for a receiver, the play was being whistled dead for a false start by tight end Geoff Swaim. Dallas, now facing fourth-and-six from its 35, safely punted away to Philadelphia.
It would seem Garrett was determined to get a fourth-down conversion, though. On the next series he wouldn’t settle for a three-and-out. On fourth-and-two from the Dallas 31, Jeff Heath took the direct snap on the fake punt and steamrolled forward for three yards to continue the drive. Dallas would come away with a field goal and lead 6–0.
“I like going for it on fourth down. I love that,” said a beaming Jerry Jones after the game, less than a week after skipping his post-game chat with reporters following the Monday night loss to the Titans. “I just think there’s these things are so close that some of that is called for. Not every time but the risk-taking, if you will, that we did in our play-calling tonight made a big difference tonight.”
It never seemed likely that Jones would jettison Garrett during the season. The only route to that would be getting embarrassed time and again on national TV. The Sunday night win against the Eagles—and the previous week’s loss to the Titans that looked a whole lot better after they handled the Patriots—staved off that possibility.
“The biggest thing we try to do is focus on ourselves each and every day … there’s a lot of things that happen outside of our building that I’m not really aware of,” Garrett deflected on Monday. “Our players, we try to make sure they’re focused on what’s happening inside our building.”
But Jones hasn’t shied away from the obvious, mounting pressure. Sunday night Jones used the phrases “called to task” and “laid to bare.” He compared the talk about his team to his players and coaches getting operated on, and Jones promised that he has seen the wound from surgery and “it’s not terminal.”
A loss to the Eagles would have put the Cowboys at 3–6 and likely needing to win the final seven games to get into the playoffs. Instead they’re 4–5 with a road game coming against a Falcons team that looked lost in Cleveland on Sunday. A win against the Falcons would have the Cowboys, currently two games behind Washington for the division lead, at 5-5 heading into their home Thanksgiving meeting with Washington.
Perhaps Sunday night was the turn-around point that Garrett and these Cowboys needed. Jolted by desperation, Garrett could yet prove Jones right.
“Wouldn’t be something if we can come home with the same feeling after beating Atlanta? We’ll be trying,” Jones said before finishing his statement in a carol-like tune. “It’s beginning to be Christ-mas time.”