CHICAGO—Jaylon Smith stood with his back to the field, gesturing aggressively toward Michael Bennett. Bennett, who has been a Cowboy for only a little over a month, took the blue Microsoft Surface in his hands and threw it on the ground in front of the Cowboys bench.
Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky had just scored a rushing touchdown, breaking the pocket and making a cut to avoid a Cowboys tackle on his way to the end zone to put Chicago up 31-14 in the fourth quarter of its eventual 31-24 win.
Later in that quarter, veteran tight end Jason Witten paced in a tight circle and shouted at fellow tight ends, Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. The offense had just turned it over on downs, and Dallas was headed for its third straight loss, the fourth in their last five games.
The biggest question of the game is not the specifics of what Smith and Bennett or Witten and the tight ends were arguing about on the sideline (“It’s confidential,” Smith says, “Nobody is MF-ing each other,” Schultz says.)
The question of the game is, did this Bears team deliver the final blow to Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett?
The Cowboys and Bears entered this game in very similar situations. Both teams were talented, but 6-6, having spent the majority of the season consistently under-achieving against superior competition.
Coming into Thursday night’s game, the Bears offense was statistically awful. Chicago averaged 17.7 points per game, good for 27th in the league, 4.6 yards per play (30th), 79.3 rushing yards per game (28th) and 281 passing yards per game (28th).
This is an offense that Dallas’s defense should have been able to handle. But Dallas’s D allowed Chicago’s offense to outperform its season standard in nearly every category, matching a season-high 31 points scored. This Bears offense had been a punt party for much of the season, yet the first Bears punt in this game came in the third quarter. Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky even found his rushing attack again. Trubisky hadn’t rushed anywhere near his 2018 production this season—his highest rushing output in a game this year was just 18 yards. He had 63 rushing yards Thursday night. On the first drive alone, Trubisky rushed for two first downs, and he later added a 23-yard rushing touchdown. Trubisky entered the game with a 63.7 completion percentage on the season, but against Dallas, he completed 74.2% of his passes. Trubisky’s best games this season have come against two of the league’s worst defenses: Detroit and Washington. That’s the company these Cowboys now keep.
“They took it to us in about every way you want to list it,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the game. “They beat us tonight.”
The Cowboys opened the game with a 17-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, and then the game snowballed out of control. Cowboys kicker Brett Maher missed a field goal early in the game (his 10th miss this season). Bears rookie running back David Montgomery out-rushed Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas went 6-for-15 on third down. The only area where the Cowboys had the upper hand was the turnover battle, which is typically viewed as an indicator of victory. The Cowboys picked off Trubisky once and then forced a Montgomery fumble.
In his postgame availability, Jones didn’t directly address Garrett’s immediate future. Nothing the owner said indicated any potential coaching changes this season or any change in attitude from the comments he made last week, when he unequivocally supported Garrett after the Cowboys Thanksgiving day loss at home to Buffalo.
When asked if the public criticism of his head coach has contributed to the problems on the field, Jones said, “The same way that my praise of them is contributing. You may have noticed I have been praising them too. So much for words. Seriously, so much for words.”
“We believe in [Garrett],” says safety Xavier Woods, who missed the tackle on Trubisky’s touchdown run. “I'd never turn my back on him. He gave me an opportunity. It's on us, to go out there and win ball games.”
“I love him,” says Jaylon Smith. “Everything he stands for. He takes responsibility for it because he's the head coach, but we're grown men. And we're on the field, we're not getting the job done. It's not his fault, we gotta do it.”
While this loss isn’t as stunning as the loss to the Jets earlier this season, Garrett’s seat is certainly getting warmer. It’s unlikely Jones will make a change during the season, but Garrett’s contract expires after this season and if he isn’t extended to a new deal, this Bears loss might turn out to be the new low that makes up Jones’ mind.
For now, Jones’ intentions are murky as he’s been playing both sides. He was critical of Garrett’s coaching decisions when he vented to reporters after the loss at New England two weeks ago, but then flipped to supporting him fully after the Buffalo loss.
In a radio appearance this week, Jones said there’s no bar that Garrett has to clear to earn a new contract. "There is no bar," he said, "and when I say that, I don't mean there's not a level, a point where I determine it's just not working or I determine it's working, but there's many things, there's boxes to be checked.”
While Jones says otherwise, if such a bar did exist, allowing an offensively inept Bears team to dominate your defense late in the season in a delicate playoff chase definitely doesn’t clear the bar.
As for the player perspective, Smith says he hasn’t thought about a potential coaching change because after all, 6-7 Dallas is still first in the NFC East, an incredible stroke of fortune. While the Cowboys have been losing, it just so happens that the entire division is struggling to win.
“The beautiful thing about it is we are first in the division,” Smith says. “Any other division right now, we'd probably be chalking it up. But for us, by the grace of God, we have been given life. We just need to decide what team we want to be. And we all know what we're capable of. The entire world does. We have to put it together.”
Though this is a definitive low point for Dallas, Jones said he is not questioning his team’s talent level, or mental makeup, but rather that elusive cohesiveness. “I am questioning how to put together a coordinated [team] that complements each other, how to put together a team that can win a football game,” he said. “We're not collectively getting together as a team and doing what it takes to win a ball game.”
Smith’s message was the same. “We have to decide what we want to do,” he repeated. “For me, I'm all in. I know my brothers are all in, but we have to collectively do it together.”
Somehow, the Cowboys are still in the playoff hunt, and the NFC East will likely come down to a Dec. 22 rematch with the Eagles at Philadelphia.
The Eagles are coming off an embarrassing loss at the rebuilding Dolphins, a team that had only two wins before decidedly beating Philadelphia. While the Eagles were playing on Sunday, the Cowboys were busy practicing and preparing. Because Dallas had another Thursday game, Sunday was effectively Wednesday when it came to game prep. When the players saw the Eagles final score after they went home for the day, there wasn’t a sense of, oh thank goodness, we’re still alright.
“There's no relief because we can't be relieved in our situation right now,” Schultz says.
Says Woods, “No relief, no relief. We want to get a win. We're tired of losing.”
While getting dressed in the locker room after the game, Smith spilled bright blue mouthwash on his light blue button down shirt. He quickly washed it off and the stain mostly disappeared, just a faint wet patch on his chest. Self conscious about the spot, he asked a nearby reporter, “Can you see the mouthwash that I spilled on my shirt?”
The reporter assured Smith not to worry, the stain wasn’t too too noticeable. But still, he pulled the lapels of his extravagant cream-colored fur jacket close together to cover up the evidence.
With the playoffs still in sight, Smith, and the rest of the Cowboys, hope this four-game losing streak is a stain of the mouthwash variety. One that can be rinsed off without leaving irreparable damage.