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Jason Garrett’s Aggressively Conservative Playcalling Could Be His Downfall

The Cowboys’ head coach is known for being risk averse to a fault, something which may have cost his team a game against the Patriots on Sunday—and maybe could have a greater impact down the line.

No one is asking Jason Garrett to be Kevin Kelly, the prolific high school coach who refuses to punt. They’re not even asking him to be John Harbaugh, who, out of all the coaches in the NFL, has led the way by firmly embracing analytical decision-making.

But it might be nice to see the league’s most risk-averse coach resemble something other than a compensated advertiser for a minivan manufacturer, the kind of person who happily melts at the idea of being as safe and conventional as possible. It cost the team a signature win on Sunday—or at least the chance of attaining one.

For those who missed it in the 4:25 p.m. window: Dallas was trailing New England 13-6 in the fourth quarter with a little more than six minutes to play. The team got as far as the Patriots’ 11-yard line, but after failing to convert a passing play on third-and-seven, the Cowboys opted to kick a nonsensical field goal that brought the score within four points. Dallas later got the ball back with 2:38 to play but failed to get the ball past midfield, and the Patriots walked away with a 13–9 win.

Garrett’s decision to kick a field goal was confounding on multiple levels:

• First, there is the fact that New England’s defense is the best in football. Dallas had only crossed midfield four times on the night and inched inside the 25-yard line twice, with the second time during the drive in question. What led them to believe they could do something like that a third time, but with a compressed clock that largely takes away their best offensive asset in Ezekiel Elliott? In that same breath, New England’s offense only cracked Dallas’ 25-yard line twice all game. What are the odds they’ll do it after starting deep in their own territory (assuming the worst case scenario, that Dallas doesn’t convert and hands New England the ball at their own 11-yard line).

• Second, there is the play-calling itself. The Cowboys ended up taking two totally unnecessary end-zone shots when the first down was far more attainable and would have given them a chance to set up a short yardage situation that could attack the lesser of two evils in the Patriots’ defensive scheme.

• Third is sort of the root of the problem to begin with. Because Garrett was never not going to kick the field goal, he approached third down like he always does— the end of the line. However, when a coach allows himself to see a series in four-down increments, they can change the way they call plays on second and third down to better set themselves up for a successful fourth down. They could have, for example, run Elliott, who was averaging 4.1 yards per carry, on second and even third down.

We’re all talking about what Jerry Jones said (or didn’t say) about Garrett and his staff following the 13-9 loss, but we’re not talking about how Garrett’s attitude toward some of the most commonly misunderstood and misinterpreted decisions in the NFL have been applauded at the highest levels of the Cowboys organization years prior. At some point this was thought of as good coaching; it became part of Garrett’s milieu. Now it could come back to hurt him.

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There is probably not going to be the drastic type of analytical revolution in football that we saw in baseball, which saw teams that refused to adjust suffer from almost a decade of futility. But as smart minds with an eye on this kind of thing have told me, it will cost NFL teams a game or two every season. Compound that over the course of a career—or in this case, an especially critical season that could decide whether or not Garrett is invited back to coach the Cowboys—and it could end up meaning everything to someone.

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THE BEST OF AROUND THE INTERNET: Michael Bennett wasn’t feeling very warm and fuzzy about returning to Foxborough. … Sean Payton and the referees trying to respond to the mess he created: An act in 1,000 parts. … The Titans will not die. … Attention fans in quarterback hell: Trevor Lawrence is playing really well. … The Browns want Mason Rudolph again…. Browns owner Dee Haslam wears a Myles Garrett hat to the game on Sunday….Rudolph denies using a racial slur toward Garrett last week after Sunday’s game (he was also benched).

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THE KICKER: “Look here, Junior: Don't you be so happy, and for Heaven's sake, don't you be so sad.”

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