Peter King, who happens to be one of the best NFL insiders in the business, said on Friday that the chances of Jason Garrett remaining as the Cowboys Head Coach for 2011 was roughly a 50 to 1 long-shot. I read his thoughts, and spent a portion of the weekend wondering if the results of the Jason Garrett 8-game era were going to be largely irrelevant due to the fact that as we speak, Jerry Jones is likely choosing and contacting possible successors to start afresh in 2011. Can't we all see right now a press conference during Super Bowl week to try to steal the stage back from those teams that are playing in his stadium by naming a coach that would rock the football world? If Jerry is convinced that he needs a "marquee" coach to come in here and coach his 53 players and inspire the millions of fans, then what Garrett is doing is more about getting Wade Phillips out of here than it is about giving the young coach an actual chance.
If Jerry was already 98% sure (the opposite of 50 to 1) he was not going to give Garrett a real opportunity, then the final half of 2010 is merely playing out the string with a series of individual evaluations and a number of contracts expiring (including Garrett's) precisely at the end of business on Jan 2, 2011 in Philadelphia. Then, hit the reset button and start over.
And, if Jerry was 98% sure, the players would sense that likelihood, and the response from these players - who have already demonstrated that some of them do practice the fine art of "give up" - would be less than inspired at 4:15 on Sunday at the all new Giants Stadium.
And then Sunday happened.
Before we go into all of the remarkable things we saw on Sunday, perhaps we should offer a number of disclaimers:
1) - It was only 1 game. Even some of the worst teams in NFL History could play inspired football once every few months.
2) - It is highly possible that for whatever reason (such as looking at the Green Bay game on film) the Giants were not taking this game seriously until it was too late. Even the best teams overlook a few games, and when you are a 14 point favorite, it is highly likely that you think your "B" or "C" game might still be enough to win.
3) - Despite the emotionally-charged Cowboys performance, and perhaps the emotionally-flat Giants performance, I think most would admit that the Cowboys won the game mostly on the fact that Bryan McCann jumped a slant that Hakeem Nicks cut off, and on 1 play the game was given away. Add to that a fairly fortunate holding call on another Hakeem Nicks play that looked like a TD, and the Cowboys had a few breaks go their way for once. They don't have to apologize by any means, but the final score does give the impression of a rather 1-sided contest. I think most of us know that was surely not the case.
Now, having admitted all of that, I would like to go back to one of my core beliefs about the game of football: "A football team's mentality is generally a reflection of its coach's mentality". Whether it is coached by Tom Landry, Rex Ryan, Mike Ditka, Bill Walsh, Bill Cowher or Tony Dungy, give a team a long enough time to acclimate and they will begin taking on the personality of their coach.
Sadly, to me, that was the undoing of Wade Phillips. They eventually took on the personality of their coach, which appeared to be one in which he was uncomfortable holding his players' feet to the fire when they lacked accountability or purpose. They needed someone to get in their face and demand better, but for reasons that are not totally clear, that was not the way he saw the game. Nobody doubts his knowledge or his strategic ideas, but when it comes to simply getting 45 guys ready to play on Sunday, this team eventually evolved into a team with Wade's mentality.
Is it unfair to blame a coach who won way more games than he lost for all of this mess? Absolutely. But, unless you have any better explanations, it is the only way I can describe the last 4 seasons. Early, there were enough remnants of the Parcells era that everyone could still self-motivate and hold each-other accountable. Like Jimmy Johnson, where the after effects of his teachings held together the Switzer regime for a time, the same happened with Parcells to Wade. And the 2007 team got on a roll. You don't need a resolute general when everything is going great - unless it is to be that voice in the room that reminds you that you aren't as great as they are telling you. Instead, Wade led cheers and awarded Mondays off. This team did not know how to run in the front of the pack, and as we found out this year, his team was even worse when they had to run in the back of the pack. In 2008, when the locker-room was being shredded by in-team controversy, Jimmy or Bill would have nipped it in the bud immediately. Instead, it festered and the implosion happened on schedule in December.
Which leads us to Sunday. Where suddenly, I saw 11 hats get to the ball on defense. I saw an offensive line that showed me some fight. I saw guys who don't like to tackle throw their bodies in the way of freight trains. I saw a team fight for something.
Were they playing harder for their new coach? Were they playing harder because they felt bad for their old coach? Were they playing harder because now they know they are a laughing stock? These answers will come more definitively in the weeks to come, but for now, we only know that they played as hard as they have in any week of this season.
I cannot necessarily say that Jason Garrett is responsible for all of this. But, the changes yesterday were impossible to ignore. The offensive philosophy was different. Did he put the demand all week on the offensive line to establish a running game against one of the more physical fronts in football? And when he called 16 consecutive plays to start the game without using a Shotgun set one time, did he put the onus on his offensive line to get together and demand more of themselves? It sure looked like it. There was almost no shotgun in the game aside from 3rd Down and 2-minute drill. This was the best of the 2009 Cowboys at times where they ran the ball with some effectiveness and then passed out of run-heavy personnel to cross up the defense. The Cowboys ran an offense on Sunday that began and ended with a physical offensive line leading the charge.
The cynic will ask, "well then why didn't they do that a month ago?". And I will ask, "why wouldn't this approach have worked in Minnesota instead of 17 screen plays and a game-plan that tried to remove the OL from the mix?". I don't have a great explanation for that, either. Perhaps, as an assistant coach (albeit a very well compensated one) Garrett didn't feel it was his place to challenge his offensive line all week the same way he did with his game plan on Sunday. Perhaps he was hoping this would be the week where Wade would jump down their throat in team meetings and challenge their manhood.
Meanwhile, on defense, we were all wondering who wanted to deal with these same Giants who disgraced the Cowboys a few weeks ago in Arlington. And there is very little to complain about with regards to resolve and emotion. From the very 1st play, it was evident that the Cowboys defense was playing as inspired as they possibly could. Hard to believe that is the same group that looked listless and helpless 7 days ago at Lambeau Field.
The Giants called those same WR screens early to test how bad the Cowboys wanted to tackle. And the Cowboys answered the bell with far more character than we have seen in quite a while. On 4th down, the Giants dialed up the truck called Jacobs for a short yardage ramming. And there were Cowboys who even at 1-7 and near the end of a tiring afternoon did not want to concede those 36 inches. Bradie James looked like the Bradie James we remembered. Terence Newman fought as he continues to play hurt. Even Mike Jenkins left his feet to make a tackle (and then left the game with an injury). But, you know what? Football sometimes requires an injury. The question is whether you are willing to risk it for your team. And on Sunday, the Cowboys played the game properly. It sounds like a low bar if you didn't watch the last month around here, but win or lose, yesterday was a giant step in the proper direction in a season where the Cowboys gave up a ton of ground.
Before we get carried away, we need to see this performance sustain. They still have a number of issues on this team that need to be worked out. But, it starts with everyone achieving what they can achieve. The offensive line is not as bad as it has shown. The defense is not as bad as it has shown. Yes, the Cowboys need an infusion of better talent, but there comes a point where we also have to ask if they are being "coached up" enough.
And for one Sunday, you looked at that sideline and thought you might have seen an actual head coach. It looked like they were playing hard for the same unified cause. It looked like they had a fire lit under them by the man in charge. Let's see if it was a mirage. If it wasn't, this season is not a complete loss. If they have a coach who can find the very best in each of those he has to work with, the Cowboys will not be the laughing stock of the league again anytime soon.
It's a promising start.