Yesterday, the Cowboys lost a game they really could not afford to lose. They have been threatening to do this for the last 3 games, and finally their tempting of fate came due and they lost a game that they were heavily favored to win and one that could prove extremely costly when they attempt to enter the playoffs and avoid the most difficult road possible.
They lost a game that now takes them out of the driver's seat and makes all of the games in December just as stressful and vital as they could possibly be, despite much of the NFC trying to do the Cowboys every favor.
And one of the reasons for this defeat - not the only reason by a long-shot - was the way their coach seemed to lose the plot a bit down the stretch in the final moments of the contest.
Jason Garrett and his offense had just converted a very difficult 3rd and 11 when Tony Romo made yet another late-game play on a throw to Dez Bryant and set the Cowboys up at the Cardinals 31-yard line. As a point of reference, there was about :25 left in the game when Dez rose to his feet. The Cowboys owned 2 timeouts at this juncture, and despite that reality, the Cowboys did not stop the clock until Romo clocked the ball with :07 left.
The waste of 18 precious seconds made very little sense really. For one thing, their kicker, Dan Bailey, was having a rough afternoon. He had missed his first field goal in almost 3 months from the 36-yard line in the first Quarter going in the same direction. On that 53-yard kick, he clearly over-kicked with all of his might to get the ball there, revealing concerns about his range from that mid-30's spot on the field. However, the hold from Mat McBriar was certainly not precise and the distance on the kick was more than enough. But, Garrett's confidence appeared shaken. On the very next possession, the Cowboys were beneficiaries of a huge Felix Jones kick return and took the ball over at the Cardinals 35. Trouble is, they were unable to move the ball forward at all (including an odd decision on 3rd and 11 to throw the ball about 1-yard down-field, and when it became decision time, Garrett sent in his punter rather than allowing Bailey to try again from 52-yards.
Two drives later, the Cowboys had yet another drive stall, this time at the Cardinals 32. On this occasion (going the opposite direction at University of Phoenix Stadium), they ran Bailey out there and let him try again. And on this kick, Bailey converted on a 50-yard Field Goal, but barely as it required a friendly carom off the uprights and through.
So, to review, "No" from 53, "Don't try" from 52, and "Yes, but barely" from 50. So, why, from 49 yards do the Cowboys act as if it is a "gimme" and allow time for 2 to 3 more snaps to run off the clock in a game of massive importance? You would have to ask the coach.
Unfortunately, when you ask the coach, the answers are a bit unclear. He suggested that he was concerned about negative plays that might have backed the team out of FG range potentially, which certainly doesn't credit his veteran QB much after his late game heroics in the last few weeks. Fear for a negative play? That, frankly, is what troubles so many about the way the game plan is assembled in so many of these scenarios. Road games, especially against teams that you are favored to beat, tend to reveal game plans that are careful, conservative (1 yard throws on 3rd and 11), and makes the opponents' job so much easier. Attacking is minimized, and the Cowboys end up not attacking for most of the game. That is why they are needing OT to beat the Redskins. That is why they need all 60 minutes to beat the Dolphins by the skin of their teeth. And now, that is why they couldn't beat a Cardinals team led by Kevin Kolb - a guy who had not won a game since Week 1 - in 60 minutes off football. I do fully understand what makes Garrett feel this way as his offensive line is still quite offensive in their performance many weeks, but at some time you have to allow your best players to overcome the performances of the others.
And then, we get to the moment of truth. Dan Bailey lines up a 49-yarder for the win with :07 left. The retelling of the story in a more dramatic way as some have attempted that, "Bailey was in his backswing when the timeout was called" is silly. The whistle happened and then a full 2-count later the ball is snapped and Bailey does what anyone would do, and gets in a practice kick that he makes with ease. But, let us not confuse this with irrefutable evidence that he would have made this kick. There was no rush and frankly no pressure once he heard that whistle.
The reasoning for the timeout in this situation is at least plausible. While it seems hard to understand why the 40-second play clock was running out after a spiked play and a field goal team that appeared ready to go do its job is irrelevant. If the play clock was down to :07 as Garrett said after the game, then I don't mind him calling a timeout to reset everything. Again, it sounds way better to say he is "icing his own kicker" in the papers, but the reality is that a frantic kick with an expiring play clock is less appealing than a calm kick from the same spot.
Of course, the kick was short and the Cowboys never touched the ball again. In overtime, the offense watched as the defense surrendered an 80-yard drive in which they never forced a 3rd Down. The final play was a brilliantly executed screen right into a Rob Ryan fire-zone blitz. It was a perfect call and a touchdown that rocked the Cowboys season. Yet another gutting loss in Glendale.
But, to me, this demonstrates a problem that I have felt has been in place since Jason Garrett was hired last November. The job of head coach is one that I believe fits him well. However, the job of Head Coach on top of his prior post of offensive coordinator is too big in my opinion for most in the early portion of their coaching career.
Very few people know how many decisions a head coach must make in 3 hours. I imagine, only those who have done it would know for sure. Now, add in a couple hundred more decisions that any offensive coordinator must make and put them all inside the head of one human. Surely, it must make someone feel like the most important human in the world to make all of those decisions for the Dallas Cowboys. But, every time I see a challenge call that should have been used, a timeout wasted, a 12-men on the field penalty, a needless delay of game (which happened about a minute earlier), or something else that proves curious (forgetting a key weapon for several possessions in a row) I always come back to feeling like Jason Garrett is trying to do too much.
Unlike many, I do believe he is the man for this job. I believe he is a leader of men and gets them to maximize their abilities and to never quit in any situation. I think Garrett, like Jimmy Johnson, may actually be a better head coach than a coordinator. But, decisions like the one he made yesterday, where he allows 18 seconds to drip off the clock when he needs 5 or 6 more yards to feel confident, make me arrive back at the spot where I have always believed the Cowboys would be better served to hire someone to call plays so that he can have a more clear vision of his head coaching post and make vital decisions at the moments they must be made.
Can certain people do both jobs? Perhaps. But, in this situation and with this team, I would suggest that Garrett could be a much better head coach if he wasn't trying to do both jobs at the same time. One of my first priorities for the off-season would be to bring in a proper play caller and allow Garrett to over-see and occasionally, to over-rule.
But, as it currently stands, it is too much on this one man's plate. The question will be whether or not he and Jerry Jones are willing to concede this.
Sometimes smart men can be exceedingly stubborn. Especially when they refuse to concede that they may have made a mistake.