Maybe it was the Sunday report that Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett allegedly has some fondness for the New York Giants job. Or the fact that Dallas simply can't ignore the growing 0-4 wart versus teams that are currently seeded in the NFL playoff picture. Or perhaps it's that Dallas was supposed to have made strides since an offensively flat 12-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 29 … yet the Cowboys seemed to relive that same game in a 13-9 loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday.
Or maybe — finally — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is feeling what has frustrated a large portion of his fan base for years: That this franchise is too experienced to be this inconsistent; too talented to be this maddening. And that at some point, the head coach is the guy who needs to be held responsible for the never-ending gap between expectation and reality.
"With the makeup of this team, I shouldn't be this frustrated," Jones said after Sunday's loss to the Patriots.
Welcome to the club, Jerry. That line forms at the nearest entrance to AT&T Stadium — and it's filled with fans who have been paying through the nose to witness this professional exasperation.
Not that Jones and his fan base are wrong, mind you. As I've said since July, the Cowboys have a two-deep roster that is worthy of being placed inside the NFL's top five franchises. When fully healthy, there may not be a more talented overall offense in the NFL. The defense? It's stocked with high-end players at every level and has the coaching experience to match up with nearly anyone. And the special teams — well, the kicker has a leg that extends beyond 60 yards in good weather. And that's one hell of an anchor to build around.
And yet, there was Jerry Jones on Sunday — standing in the bowels of Gillette Stadium and looking like a man trying to find his missing connection in the transit station. He’s finally realizing what his fans have known for years: that the man at the wheel of the Cowboys hype train seems to steer it into one giant circle, ultimately dropping the faithful off in the same agonizing place every single season — a crossroads of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
If you're willing to pay for the ticket, Jason Garrett will take you there.
On Sunday, Jones seemed closer than ever to understanding that. Which is saying something, considering he refused to extend Garrett's contract before this season and then awkwardly laughed off the subject when pressed about it in training camp in July. That contract expiration date has always been a significant sign from Jones — a signal flare to his fan base that he understood the stakes in 2019 and wasn't willing to put anything more than a verbal commitment behind a head coach he's been defending for basically a decade.
Even with that, Sunday evening felt like something different. Jones wasn't just irritated. He was especially angry at his coaching staff, and he made a point of repeating that fact multiple times. So much so that it feels like this is as close as Jones has come to publicly putting Garrett on notice. While he didn't say that much, the subtext was all there after the loss to a less-than-healthy Patriots team. And you didn't need a Rosetta Stone to decipher it.
This was a significant setback.
We can't come up here and play like that.
The fundamentals of football and coaching were what beat us out there today.
And the real dagger: They've got a coach who knows how to play this game and did a good job of that and my hat's off to him.
That last one should raise an eyebrow. While Jones will applaud the opposing head coaches after a Dallas loss (as he did with the Saints' Sean Payton and Minnesota Vikings' Mike Zimmer), he rarely does it in the midst of being highly critical of his own. That's because Jones is no dummy when it comes to how things will play the following week in the media. He knows how to lay cover for his coaches and usually does when they're knocked down. This time, he didn't use so much as a barren tree branch to shield Garrett.
That alone is notable. But I think Jones has shown a few times this season that he's thinking about the realities of what the Cowboys have become under Garrett. First he did it by refusing to lay down a contract extension. Then he did it on Sunday by calling out his staff — which ultimately is the responsibility of Garrett, even if part of Jones' anger was pointed at special teams.
Those weren't the only two instances that were interesting. There was another from the middle of last week. Talking on his weekly radio appearance in Dallas, Jones recounted the time when Bill Belichick once made a job pitch to him after getting fired by the Cleveland Browns. The "what-if" quality of the story was amazing. But not a word of it should have resonated more than when Jones said "I've thought about that [moment] many times. You never know where you can find a great coach."
Perhaps I'm overthinking it, but I was stunned when I heard Jones say that. It instantly made me wonder about what an admission like that does to Garrett. Stop for a moment and put it into perspective if you're Garrett. Your contract ends at the conclusion of the season. The fan base has already gone through a round of calling for your job this season. You're about to play arguably the best team in the NFL on the road in a pivotal measuring week — led by the single-greatest coach the league has ever seen in Belichick. And your team owner, who won't commit to you long term, admits on local radio (which is a hornets’ nest in Dallas) that he sometimes reminisces about the time he could have hired the coach that you are about to face.
Maybe Garrett heard that line. Maybe he didn't. And maybe it's no surprise that on Sunday, the report floats that Garrett has eyes for the archrival Giants — who also have been rumored in the past to be the apple of Belichick's eye if he were to ever leave the Patriots.
A thing like that makes you wonder if maybe Jones isn't the only one who is frustrated now. After all, Garrett is still coaching a division-leading team — even if it's only by a game and has a tough road ahead to win the NFC East and make the playoffs. Hell, maybe the head coach has his own brand of dissatisfaction, especially given that he's going to go through another meat grinder this week.
Then again, Garrett's mindset doesn't matter now. It's Jones who holds the power in the relationship — and that means it's Jones who needs to be placated with some meaningful wins. Like the three previous chances to establish a signature win against the Saints, Green Bay Packers and Vikings, the Cowboys fell short against the Patriots. And arguably at no other point was it more clear that some element of coaching and preparation had something to do with it.
Cowboys fans have been pointing at the shortcomings for years and associating them with Garrett. Ownership came closer than ever to joining them Sunday. Make no mistake: If the Cowboys head coach wasn't on notice before this weekend, he is now. Jones didn't even have to say it for his fan base to understand. After all, they've been speaking this language for a long, long time.
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