FRISCO - Exhaustingly, neither the "conservative'' nor the "kamikaze'' are the right fit for the Dallas Cowboys. And we wonder if owner Jerry Jones is as restless as the rest of us Cowboys Nation natives.
In October 2018, the Cowboys were driving in overtime at Houston. Faced with fourth-and-one at the Texans’ 42, head coach Jason Garrett eschewed a long field goal or an attempt to gain a pivotal first down and instead punted.
Eight plays later, his team surrendered a field goal and lost a game it was poised to win.
“We just felt like at that point in the game, the way our defense was playing, the idea was to pin them down there,” Garrett said in defending his play-it-safe strategy. “We felt like we’d stop them and get the ball back in pretty good shape to go score and win the ball game.”
The critics wallowed in the ugly aftermath, determining that Garrett wasn’t the right man for the NFL’s primo job because he played not win, but rather not to lose.
On Thanksgiving afternoon, the Cowboys were trailing Washington, 20-16, with 13 minutes remaining. Faced with a fourth-and-10 from his own 24, head coach Mike McCarthy eschewed a punt and okayed a fake-punt reverse. One play later – with morale visibly deflated – his team surrendered a nobody-touched-him touchdown en route to a blowout loss in a game poised to be dramatically competitive.
“You won’t get anywhere if you’re thinking about negatives all the time,” McCarthy said in defending his go-for-it strategy. “We were trying to generate a big play at that point in the game. The information that you look for going into it, it was a solid call.”
The critics are wallowing in the ugly aftermath, questioning whether McCarthy is the right man for the NFL’s primo job because he takes almost unprecedented gambles with disregard for the risk-reward ramifications.
Garrett was the coach who stands on 16. McCarthy is the coach who splits 4s. At the Cowboys’ blackjack table, neither consistently win.
So swings the pendulum, monotonously searching in vain for someone – for some style – to get "America’s Team'' back within at least shouting distance of a Super Bowl. The disease of frantic flip-flopping isn’t uniquely Dallas. But the prolonged side effects have suddenly lingered for a quarter century.
After six seasons without a playoff win, in 1988 fans were fed up with Tom Landry’s outdated stoicism. They got a rah-rah college coach as his successor, Jimmy Johnson. After winning two championships, Johnson’s selfishness gave way in 1994 to more of a company man, Barry Switzer.
The Cowboys then needed a more state-of-the-art offensive mind, and went with Chan Gailey in 1998. When that didn’t work, owner Jerry Jones pulled his usual 180 and in 2000 hired a lifelong defensive guy in Dave Campo.
Campo was deemed by some too much of a “yes man”, so enter Bill Parcells in 2003. Parcells, of course, was too gruff, prompting Jones in 2007 to swing back to a softer-touch "players’ coach,'' Wade Phillips.
A defensive genius, he was eventually too disorganized and lenient and was replaced in 2010 by a details-and-discipline offensive innovator, Garrett. But he was too vanilla-bland, so here we are in 2020 with the contrarian coach that is spilling icing all over our lap and spewing sprinkles to every corner of the kitchen.
The Cowboys haven’t won diddly squat since 1995, but you can’t blame Jones for not trying to fix – via polar opposite personas – what he surmised to be broken. He is, after all, human.
We are, after all, wired to seek anything different. Even if it’s not guaranteed to be better.
Our restless dissatisfaction with “same ol’, same ol’” is why we landed a man on the Moon and no longer travel from Dallas to Houston by wagon train. It’s why we experimented with New Coke, validated Sammy Haggar over David Lee Roth in Van Halen and keep afloat websites like Ashley Madison.
Our patience is inherently impatient.
We want our TVs bigger, our boomboxes smaller and our beef to taste like beef but be made out of broccoli.
With other DFW sports franchises confirming the pattern, the lunacy can be full-circle cyclical. One day we’re done with antiquated radio. The next, wishing someone would invent a “live podcast.”
As soon as we fully grasp The Matrix’s red pill, we clamor for the blue one. Conveniently forgetting that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.
The Dallas Mavericks evolved from disciplined taskmaster Avery Johnson to mad scientist Don Nelson and twice – only seven years apart – hired Dick Motta. The Dallas Stars hired the coach they beat for their only Stanley Cup (Lindy Ruff) and twice thought Ken Hitchcock was their coaching answer. The Texas Rangers have made 23 managerial changes in 49 seasons.
It’s not just sports. It’s us. Texan actor Matthew McConaughey’s parents got married three times – to each other.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that McCarthy’s seat is warming before Winter arrives and his honeymoon ends. In Austin, the same Texas fans that figured Tom Herman was the solution to Charlie Strong (who was the solution to Mack Brown) are now craving Urban Meyer – or even the return of Brown.
And in DFW, the same fans that wanted Garrett run out of town are now murmuring about an offensive oracle such as Lincoln Riley or even a proven defensive maestro like, sure enough, Phillips.
Garrett was too cool. McCarthy’s hair too much on fire.
Garrett coached the Cowboys like they always had superior talent and a 10-point lead. McCarthy coaches the Cowboys like they are always undermanned and trailing by two touchdowns.
Truth? The former head coach was a better gambler than the current one.
In his 9½ seasons, Garrett converted 56 percent (70 of 124) of his fourth-down gambles; McCarthy only 48 percent (12 of 25). The 2020 coach is thus far quantity over quality, his 25 fourth-down risks in 11 games already topping the most (21) Garrett attempted in a full season.
“There’s obviously film study that goes into the call, when to call it,” McCarthy said after last week’s game. “But yeah, when you call it, you’re obviously looking to convert it. You obviously understand on fourth-down calls what your options are. You either convert it, or you don’t convert it. You always know that going in. There’s flow of the game. All those things are factored in that decision. I’m very confident in our players; I’ll put them in position to make big plays.”
There are risky plays – and play-calls – that not only cost teams games, but also gut a fan base of confidence and belief in its head coach.
The beginning of the end for Landry was “No Danny, No!” against Washington in 1983. Switzer infamously called “Load Left” on consecutive plays in Philadelphia in 1995. Campo didn’t go for an obviously needed two-point conversion in a 2001 Thanksgiving loss to Denver. Garrett iced his own kicker into a key missed field goal in a loss at Arizona in 2011.
Now, just more than halfway through his rookie season, McCarthy already has a plethora of boondoggle brain hiccups that have at least temporarily tarnished his reputation.
In a must-win game that could’ve propelled the Cowboys back into the NFC East race, he approved a 7-yard pass attempt to CeeDee Lamb on fourth-and-one from his own 34 with the score tied 10-10. Mostly, he stubbornly stands behind the fake punt in which receiver Cedric Wilson took a pitch from Darian Thompson at his own 10-yard line – 24 yards from a first down.
In a 2020 that popularized Joe Exotic, McCarthy defends his bizarro-world action, calling it a “good play design.”
A record of 3-8 stinks. McCarthy only won one Super Bowl in 13 seasons with quarterbacks named Favre and Rodgers. And - while surely he'll get more rope than just this COVID/mulligan first season "I've got my guy,'' Jerry insists) - so far the head coach’s analytics and risk assessment are more liability than asset.
Cowboys Nation natives got what you wished for last Christmas; Santa Jerry gave you a new coach. Here's betting that down deep, Jones is as exhausted as you are, wondering how neither the "conservative'' nor the "kamikaze" are the right fit for the Cowboys.