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Jason Garrett Is the Cowboys’ Kryptonite, and America’s Team Is at a Crossroads

Dallas has one of the best rosters in the NFL, and yet after a loss to the Patriots, the team is sitting at 6-5. Sunday’s performance reinforced everything that’s wrong with this group—and posed plenty of questions about the future.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It was a cold, wet night at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, but that didn’t stop Jerry Jones from bringing some heat. Speaking to reporters after his team’s 13-9 loss to the Patriots, the Cowboys owner had plenty to say about his club’s deficiencies. “To me, special teams is 100 percent coaching,” Jones said after the game. “It’s strategy. It’s having players ready. Special teams is nothing but coaching. Special teams is effort. Special teams is savvy. Special teams is thinking.”

Jones was referring to a punt that New England blocked late in the first quarter, which set up the game’s lone touchdown. But one special teams gaffe was far from Dallas head coach Jason Garrett’s only misstep that evening. With his team down 13-6 with 6:08 left in the fourth quarter and facing a fourth-and-7 from the Patriots’ 11-yard line, Garrett elected to kick a 28-yard field goal. Rather than going for a game-tying score on a messy night that featured only two Dallas red zone drives, Garrett decided to cut a seven-point lead to four, give the ball back to New England, and ensure that his team still needed a touchdown to win the game. All while going up against the league’s best defense. “We still got a long way to go,” Jones said. “But with the makeup of this team, I shouldn’t be this frustrated.”

He’s right. One blocked punt or botched fourth-down decision shouldn’t be enough to seal Garrett’s fate. Considering all the talent on this roster, though, Dallas shouldn’t be sitting at 6-5 and hanging on to its NFC East division lead for dear life. Dak Prescott didn’t have his best outing against Bill Belichick and a lockdown Patriots defense, but he’s been a legitimate MVP candidate for most of the season. Amari Cooper was held catchless against superstar cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but the Pro Bowl receiver has been excellent in his first full season with Dallas. The Cowboys still have one of the league’s best offensive lines, an effective (yet expensive) running back, an explosive no. 2 receiver in Michael Gallup, and a rejuvenated Randall Cobb in the slot. Passing game coordinator Kris Richard’s unit has taken a slight step back this season, but it still boasts exceptional players at every level. When this team is fully healthy, its only glaring weakness is the staff responsible for getting the most out of all that talent. That’s been the reason behind many of this team’s shortcomings this year, and it’s where Jones will have some hard decisions to make this offseason.

The Cowboys will bring back a majority of this well-stocked roster in 2020. All five starters along the offensive line are under contract for at least the next two years. Ezekiel Elliott is signed through 2026, which sounds impossible. Gallup will make just $2 million combined during the next two seasons. Prescott’s and Cooper’s situations are more complicated, given that both players are set to hit free agency in March, but the Cowboys have the money and mechanisms to keep both players on the roster in 2020—and possibly beyond.

If Dallas applies the franchise tag to Prescott and the transition tag to Cooper—which would be possible in the final year of the CBA—those two would cost about $50 million combined in 2020. That’s a big number (and one that calls into question why Dallas didn’t figure out extensions for them this offseason to maintain more financial flexibility), but it’s feasible. Dallas may have to let cornerback Byron Jones walk in free agency in this scenario, but for the most part, the Cowboys are set up for success in both the short and long term.

The question for Jerry Jones, then, is whether Garrett is the right person to lead that group. As part of a coaching shakeup last season that included the dismissal of unimaginative offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, Jones chose not to extend Garrett’s contract. Now the coach who’s led the franchise all decade is on the last year of his deal, and the Cowboys are at a crossroads. Garrett’s future in Dallas has been debated for years, but that question has never felt more pressing than now, when the roster is this good. The Patriots game was a microcosm of the past two months; the Cowboys have dropped five of eight, including a baffling defeat to the Jets. And Garrett’s performance has understandably come into question in losses to the Saints, Packers, and Vikings.

Dallas has experienced plenty of offensive success this fall as Prescott has put together the best season of his career, but that hasn’t been because of Garrett. First-year coordinator Kellen Moore has dialed up the plays that helped the Cowboys go into Sunday’s game ranked no. 1 in offensive DVOA. There has been speculation that Jones could fire Garrett and hope that the 31-year-old Moore could step in and preserve this team’s offensive success. That would be a considerable risk, but it also wouldn’t be entirely out of character for this team. Garrett spent three years as a hotshot coordinator in Dallas before taking over as the interim head coach after Wade Phillips’s firing in 2010. He was elevated to the full-time gig the next year and has held it now for nine seasons. Dallas has finished with double-digit wins in just three of those seasons and has yet to make it past the divisional round of the playoffs.

The Cowboys’ willingness to ride with Garrett over the past few years is even more puzzling when you consider that it hasn’t been necessary for them to accept the status quo. This franchise is worth $5.5 billion. Their stadium is an absurd $1.2 billion adult amusement park that happens to host football games. Their $1.5 billion practice facility, which opened in 2016, has an LED art installation in the goddamn lobby. The Cowboys have the best facilities and the deepest pockets; it shouldn’t be all that hard to attract some great candidates for this job if it opens up. The days of Sean Payton’s rumored return to Dallas are likely over, and coaxing Lincoln Riley away from Oklahoma wouldn’t be easy. But if there’s any NFL team that could make a convincing case (and write a convincing check), it’s the Cowboys. And again, there’s all that roster talent.

Dallas’s high-powered offense should be able to carry the team down the stretch for the rest of this season. Even though the Cowboys have games remaining against the wild-card candidate Bills, a Bears group with a feisty defense, the Rams, and the Eagles, their one-game lead over Philadelphia gives them the inside track to the postseason. But another 10-6 or 9-7 finish and an early playoff exit isn’t what the Cowboys envisioned when they constructed this roster. Jones is 77. He knows that his chances are starting to run out. And with the way this team is built, he shouldn’t be this frustrated.