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The Cowboys Blame Index: Is It Jason Garrett’s Turn?

With their first loss in months, again to the rival Giants, Dallas fans may be wondering what, exactly, its head coach does

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

OK, everybody shut up for a week. The Cowboys lost. The coronation is on hold. The rules of fandom require silence until next week’s edition of Sunday Night Football. Then everyone who roots for the Cowboys can act like a jerk again.

Giants 10, Cowboys 7 — the game that ended Dallas’s 11-game winning streak — felt like it had been gestating for weeks. There was the 500-yards-allowed escape against the Redskins on Thanksgiving, and then the ragged and off-kilter Thursday-night game against Minnesota. The Vikings didn’t have the offense to finish off the Cowboys. The Giants did. Barely.

So what happened? This was Dak Prescott’s first you-cost-us-one game. His first interception, which came when Dez Bryant slipped, wasn’t his fault. But on the Cowboys’ fifth possession, Prescott didn’t feel the Giants’ pressure and backed his way into a sack and a fumble. (The Cowboys recovered the ball, but the play pushed them out of field goal range.) Prescott’s floater-ball interception to Leon Hall in the third quarter, which turned into an Odell Beckham Jr. touchdown two plays later, was the kind of absurdly bad rookie throw he hasn’t made much this year.

But you can’t completely blame Prescott. This game felt like it was dripping with bad juju from the beginning. The Cowboys’ return man, Lucky Whitehead, was left behind in Dallas, reportedly for having too much fun. The Giants were semidesperate and rallying after losing Jason Pierre-Paul to a season-ending injury. The setting was the kind of cold, winter road game that discombobulates rookie-laden teams the moment they step off the bus. (During games like this, I think of Jimmy Johnson scowling in an absurdly puffy jacket.)

Cowboys-Giants must have set a 2016 record for important dropped balls in a single game. Here’s a partial list: Beckham’s drop of what would have been a touchdown pass inside the 5-yard line. Eli Manning’s two fumbles. Barry Church’s almost-interception, which he caught and then dropped as he went to the ground at the Giants 30. After a Giants punt (and the inevitable Cowboys holding penalty on the run-back), Dallas took over at its own 9. It was a 61-yard swing for an offense that couldn’t get anything going.

And that doesn’t count the doinkiest kick since Cairo Santos: Dan Bailey’s 55-yarder just before halftime, which hit the crossbar and bounced out.

When I need someone to irrationally blame for a Cowboys loss, I can’t help but think of Jason Garrett. Garrett brings this on himself; he’s one of the hardest coaches in the NFL to judge. Between 2014 and this 11-game run, he has presided over two of the best Cowboys seasons since the 1990s. But beyond standing on the sideline and politely evading the press, it’s also unclear what Garrett actually does.

He’s known as a hand brake on Jerry Jones. This is an important role — a spin on Bill Simmons’s old GM of Common Sense. No, boss, we really, really don’t want to draft Johnny Manziel! The funny thing is, drafting Zeke Elliott at no. 4 overall was one of the most outrageous things Jones has done in years. It has also paid off in spades.

On the field, Garrett is even more of a cipher. Tonight, on Dallas’s second drive, Garrett went for it on fourth down from the Cowboys’ 42-yard line — a gutsy call that you couldn’t have imagined him making a few years ago. (The Cowboys went on to score their only touchdown of the game.) When Church couldn’t control that Manning throw all the way to the ground — a rule the Cowboys should know better than anyone — Al Michaels said Garrett clutched his challenge flag but didn’t throw it. Which was good: It would have wasted a timeout.

On the debit side, the Cowboys have a knack for the killer penalty. Last week, a hold on offensive tackle Doug Free wiped out a huge Elliott run. Tonight, it was a hold on Terrance Williams that took a Cole Beasley catch-and-run off the board. Two plays later, Prescott threw the floater to Hall.

The problem with not having a particular claim to your job is that you’re at the mercy of outside forces. If this Cowboys team tanks like the 2007 version (13–3 in the regular season, eliminated by the Giants in the divisional round), I could see the knives come out for Garrett like they eventually did for the man he replaced, Wade Phillips. Garrett won’t be fired right away. No chance. But Jones could start asking himself: Wait, what does he do for us, anyway?

The Cowboys’ next two games — against the Buccaneers and the Lions — look way tougher than they did at the beginning of the season. If Matt Stafford’s finger holds, the Cowboys could easily be 11–4. Or the Cowboys could be 13–2, and we Cowboys fans could be even more insufferable than you can imagine. Shhhhh. See you next week.