Coaching is about creating a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, and there could not have been a larger gap between Jason Garrett’s and Doug Pederson’s coaching skill sets than there was in the Cowboys’ 17-9 loss on Sunday. This was the biggest game of the season for both teams. A Cowboys win would have clinched the NFC East. An Eagles victory would give them the ability to clinch with a win or Cowboys loss next week, but Philly was facing an uphill battle because of injuries that had reduced the team’s receiving corps to spare parts. Yet the Eagles had a superior game plan while Dallas looked unprepared, unfocused, and undisciplined throughout the game—and the loss may have ended both Cowboys’ playoff hopes and the coaching tenure of Garrett, whose contract expires at the end of this month.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones shelled out a lot of money on his team’s homegrown talent in the past couple years, and almost nobody played up to their paycheck on Sunday. Ezekiel Elliott, the highest-paid running back in football who plays behind the league’s most expensive offensive line, managed just 47 rushing yards on 13 carries. Inside linebacker Jaylon Smith, who signed a deal with $19 million guaranteed this offseason, missed tackles left and right. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the self-proclaimed “sack master of the Dallas Cowboys” who signed a contract guaranteed for $60-plus million this offseason, finished with no sacks and just one quarterback hit and now has just one sack in 11 career games against Philadelphia. Jones didn’t get much return on his investment on Sunday, and perhaps that’s why cameras caught him leaving his owners box with 75 seconds left in the game, despite the Cowboys being down eight points and having all three timeouts.
“I’m very disappointed,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told reporters after the game. “We all expected to leave here as NFC East champs. ...This is a disappointing setback for that locker room and for all of us, and I know it is for the fans.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott, who entered the game with a shoulder injury that kept him from practicing fully for the first time in his career, struggled with accuracy all day. On crossing and outbreaking routes, Prescott repeatedly threw behind receivers or saw cornerbacks swat the ball away. On deep routes, Prescott overthrew his receivers, perhaps as he tried to overcompensate for his injury. One of those overthrows included missing a wide-open Tavon Austin late in the fourth quarter on a throw that could have been an easy touchdown to cut Philly’s lead two. Prescott finished with 25 completions on 44 attempts for 265 yards (6.0 yards per pass) and no touchdowns or turnovers, but several missed opportunities.
When Prescott did hit his receivers, they often dropped the ball. Michael Gallup caught five of his 11 targets for 98 yards, but multiple passes that would have been first downs glided through his hands, including a deep pass late that could have changed the game.
Star receiver Amari Cooper, who finished with just four catches on 12 targets for 24 yards, dropped a catch that Prescott threw into Cooper’s belly on third down that would have moved the chains late in the fourth quarter. Even tight end Jason Witten let a ball sail through his hands like a ghost passing through a wall. Cooper, the team’s no. 1 receiver, was not even on the field for the team’s final play, a contested jump-ball that Gallup couldn’t corral. Cooper told reporters after the game that he was pulled as part of the Cowboys normal receiver rotation. Garrett said after the game Cooper needed a rest because of the two-minute drill.
The result of all this incompetence was an awful performance. The Cowboys entered the week leading the league in third-down-conversion percentage (48.6 percent), but on Sunday they converted just 3 of 14 tries (21.4 percent). Meanwhile, the Eagles entered the game second in third-down-conversion percentage (47 percent) and converted 6-of-14 on Sunday (42.9 percent). The Eagles gained 431 yards on 12 drives while the Cowboys had 311 yards on 11 drives, which amounted to a full yard per play more for Philadelphia and 12 more minutes of possession.
Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, Michael Gallup, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith—that’s a lot of talent to play so poorly in such an important game, and when juxtaposed with what the Eagles were dealing with, it’s mind-blowing. Receivers Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor, and DeSean Jackson; running backs Jordan Howard and Darren Sproles; and right tackle Lane Johnson all missed the game with injuries. Tight end Zach Ertz, the team’s leading receiver, suffered a rib injury less than five minutes into the game. Cornerback Ronald Darby left shortly thereafter. The Eagles have been one of the most injured teams in the NFL this year, and this may have been their most injured game all season. They were forced to turn to former AAF receiver Greg Ward Jr., rookie second-rounder JJ Arcega-Whiteside, and rookie running back Miles Sanders to carry the load. While the Cowboys had some key injuries beyond Prescott—guards Connor Williams and Xavier Su’a-Filo and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch missing at least part of this game—Dallas’s situation pales to what the Eagles have been dealing with.
When that many Cowboys players faceplant, it falls on coaching. Jason Garrett, who is in the final year of a five-year, $30 million contract, green-lit a misguided approach from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore that did not focus on attacking the the Eagles’ main weaknesses. Philadelphia’s pass coverage outside the hash marks has been the team’s Achilles’ heel, and teams worse than Dallas were able to hit them there this season.
The Cowboys didn’t consistently throw deep outside the numbers until it was too late, and when they did, Prescott and their receivers struggled to take advantage. Garrett also declined to go for it on fourth-and-short multiple times when Dallas had a solid chance to convert. Defensive cocoordinator Rod Marinelli unable to game-plan to stop Buffalo’s Josh Allen and Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky in back-to-back weeks last month, but this Sunday’s game was one of their worst yet. Perhaps the worst indictment on Garrett’s coaching in this game, and this season, is the game was over when the Eagles took a 10-6 lead into halftime. Dallas is 0-8 this year when trailing after two quarters.
Dallas can still win the NFC East. They need to beat Washington and hope the Giants beat Philadelphia. But if that doesn’t happen, the Cowboys’ season will have essentially ended by failing to clinch the division on Sunday in Philadelphia. As ESPN’s Todd Archer noted, this is the fourth time Garrett has lost a de facto NFC East title game in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Four blown division titles is probably the charm for Garrett. His contract expires at the end of the month, and signing him to an extension is unthinkable unless he can engineer a Super Bowl appearance. Jerry Jones finally seems to have come around to the disappointment Cowboys fans have felt in the Garrett era. This Eagles loss was the most disappointing Cowboys game in one of the most disappointing Cowboys seasons in perhaps the most disappointing decade of Cowboys football. If this is the end for Garrett, it’s a fitting note to end on. Jones has assembled a great team, but he needs to find someone who can put these pieces together.