Jason Garrett at early career crossroads
Jason Garrett has been criticized for his decision-making a few times this season. (Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire)
For all intents and purposes, Jason Garrett has done a bang-up job since taking over as the Cowboys' head coach. He inherited a 1-7 team midway through the 2010 season and finished 5-3 down the stretch, and now has Dallas on top of the NFC East in his first season as the team's full-time head coach.
But then a game like this past Sunday's rolls around, and you have to wonder what exactly Jerry Jones' expectations are for Garrett.
A brief recap of Dallas' Week 13 loss, in case you missed it ...
With Dallas kicker Dan Bailey about to attempt a game-winning 49-yard field goal against Arizona, Garrett called timeout -- the snap came just a split-second later, and Bailey banged the kick through. But after Garrett's ill-fated and confusing timeout, Bailey missed the retry, sending the game to overtime. Dallas never saw the ball again, as Arizona scored a touchdown to win it.
"I was glad they iced their kicker so I didn't have to," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt quipped.
Jones said Tuesday that he's "just not going to" second-guess Garrett's decision to call the timeout -- which Garrett defended by pointing out that the play clock was running low -- and that he is "OK with how we're doing things there."
That's a pretty stark reversal from Jones' reaction to Dallas' Week 6 loss in New England. The Cowboys had a shot to win that one too, with a 16-13 lead and the ball late. Garrett, though, called for three straight run plays, then punted, and the Patriots marched for the winning score.
"When you get in a situation like that, you’ve got to go for the kill," a frustrated Jones said then. "I felt like we could’ve been more aggressive."
Jones has also questioned Garrett's use of Dez Bryant as a punt returner this season. The Cowboys owner raised his concerns after Bryant tweaked his quad returning a punt in Week 1, then again expressed his wish that Bryant be kept off special teams after Week 9.
"I'm still concerned when we had him back there about his injury, especially now that Miles (Austin) may be, or may not be, out a couple of games," Jones said. "I don't know."
Jones' decision to remove the interim tag from Garrett's title prior to the season was a bit of a double-edged sword, and we're seeing that play out this year. On the one hand, the Dallas players have responded to Garrett and he has turned them around quickly after a terrible start to 2010. But on the flip side, Garrett only made the move to the NFL coaching ranks in 2005, and he had never been a head coach before last season.
In other words, he's learning on the job. A more experienced coach may not have made that mistake against the Cardinals -- the time crunch was caused in the first place by the Cowboys' decision to run the clock, spike the ball and settle for Bailey's 49-yard attempt, instead of calling a timeout and trying to get the ball closer.
Garrett being in Dallas, under Jones' watchful eye, puts his every mistake under a little more scrutiny, whether Jones offers up criticism or not.
But beyond that, Sunday's game represented a huge opportunity lost for the Cowboys. With the Redskins and Eagles bottoming out, and the Giants dropping their fourth straight, Dallas had an opportunity to open a two-game lead in the NFC East against a very, very beatable Arizona team.
Instead, Dallas failed to deliver -- a fact that went well beyond Garrett's fateful timeout in the closing seconds of regulation.
No one will care much about that miscue if the Cowboys wrap up the division over the next four weeks, a stretch that includes two games with the second-place Giants. If Dallas fails to finish the job, though, plenty of people will point back at that loss in Arizona as a killer and a major turning point. And if Jones falls into that group of critics, Garrett's job will be a lot more difficult next season.