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Garrett puts tight leash on Romo down stretch

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When the Dallas Cowboys had a chance to choke out the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, coach Jason Garrett didn't want any part of Tony Romo's(notes) right arm.

Instead, Garrett chose a cautious approach that effectively put the Cowboys' fate in Tom Brady's(notes) hands. And as the future Hall of Fame quarterback prepared to launch a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes that would give New England a 20-16 victory, Dallas owner Jerry Jones was understandably up in arms.

"They're gonna get at least a field goal," Jones grumbled in his luxury suite after the Cowboys, clinging to a three-point lead with less than three minutes remaining, punted the ball back to the Pats following three consecutive running plays. "We'll be lucky to get to overtime."

Ten plays, 80 yards and a little more than two minutes later, Jones' suspicions had been confirmed. Brady's eight-yard strike to tight end Aaron Hernandez(notes) in the back of the end zone delighted 68,756 fans and rankled numerous Cowboys players and coaches, several of whom would later question Garrett's conservative play-calling throughout the final six-and-a-half minutes – all under the condition that their names not be used.

Jones, however, went on the record with his frustration after watching his talented team fall to 2-3.

[ NFL Week 6: Five most valuable | Five least valuable ]

"When you get in a situation like that, you've got to go for the kill," Jones told Y! Sports shortly before leaving the Cowboys' locker room. "I felt like we could've been more aggressive. Our defense had been good all day, but you knew Brady had a length-of-the-field drive in him – so it didn't surprise me at all when he took them down at the end."

If Garrett, who has been a head coach for less than a year, was scared that Romo would blow this game, he made a major miscalculation. By treating his quarterback like an irresponsible teenager lobbying to take the family car on a road trip, Garrett – and not Romo – was the one who gagged under pressure.

That's because while many critics bash Romo as a second-tier quarterback whose penchant for making brutal mistakes at key moments is an insuperable flaw, Jones still believes the 31-year-old passer possesses greatness. The owner demonstrated his commitment four years ago with a six-year, $67.4 million contract extension through the 2013 season. He reaffirmed that faith on Sunday evening, just two weeks removed from Romo's miserable second half against the Detroit Lions that resulted in the biggest collapse in franchise history.

"I do have complete confidence in him making throws at the end of a ballgame," Jones said. "We've been burned a couple of times this year, but I still like his chances in those situations."

In other words, Garrett blew it by not having enough faith in his boss' faith in Romo. You can spin the coach's late-game decisions however you like – the product of post-traumatic stress from the Lions game; an endorsement of Dallas' defense, which had effectively executed coordinator Rob Ryan's shrewd game plan against the Pats' potent offense for 57 minutes; a typically puckered-up approach in a league of play-it-safe coaches – but the outcome was preventable and predictable, at least in Jones' eyes.

The owner wasn't second-guessing Garrett's calls; he hated them in the moment, too.

After all, Romo was slinging it on Sunday. Aside from a first-quarter interception to Kyle Arrington(notes), the quarterback was assertive, accurate and commanding for the balance of the afternoon. He would finish 27-of-41 passing for 317 yards and a touchdown despite being reduced to the second coming of Captain Checkdown when the game was on the line.

Following linebacker Sean Lee's(notes) interception at the Cowboys' 32-yard line with 9:08 remaining – Brady's second pick of the afternoon, and the second consecutive New England drive that ended with a turnover – Romo drove Dallas into position for a potentially monumental touchdown. But with the game tied at 13 and a first-and-goal at the 10, Garrett got squeamish.

A short screen to tight end Martellus Bennett(notes) gained five yards. A swing pass to halfback Tashard Choice(notes) fell incomplete. On third-and-goal, rather than having Romo try to throw to one of his stud receivers (Dez Bryant(notes), Miles Austin(notes)) in the end zone, Garrett called a shovel pass to Choice that was stuffed by linebacker Brandon Spikes(notes) for a two-yard loss.

Not only was Garrett's third-down call overly careful, but it also was obvious to one of the men charged with defending it. After the game, veteran New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork(notes) told reporters that he "had a feeling it was going to be some type of run or whatever it may have been. So I sent the alert and I said hey, 'Look to the run here,' and Spikes was over and we just ate it up … I sent the alert and everybody was on point and that was a huge, huge stop for us."

When the biggest dude on the defense is basically calling out your third-and-goal play before you run it, that's not an indication of offensive creativity. The Cowboys settled for 26-yard field goal and a 16-13 lead – and the sense that they missed a major opportunity.

The Cowboys' second squandered chance came with 3:36 remaining, after the Dallas defense had forced a three-and-out. With the ball at their own 28 and the Patriots in possession of all three of their timeouts, the Cowboys needed a couple of first downs to ice the game.

Instead, Garrett froze up. The drive: halfback DeMarco Murray(notes) took a handoff up the middle and was stuffed for a two-yard loss; Murray lost another yard on a slow-developing run to the right; a false-start penalty on tackle Tyron Smith(notes) moved the ball back another five yards; and Choice picked up eight yards on a draw.

Punter Matt McBriar jogged onto the field. Up in his luxury box, Jones winced. The man is a risk-taker at heart, and he believes such an approach was a big reason the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in his first seven seasons of ownership.

The first of those championships, culminating in a Super Bowl XXVII blowout of the Buffalo Bills, was preceded by Dallas' 30-20 upset of the San Francisco 49ers in the 1992 NFC championship game at Candlestick Park. On Sunday, Jones recalled the memorable play on which the Cowboys, clinging to a four-point lead with the ball on their own 20 and 4:22 remaining, stunned the Niners with an aggressive call from offensive coordinator Norv Turner (and embraced by coach Jimmy Johnson): Troy Aikman's slant to Alvin Harper that the wideout turned into a 70-yard gain, setting up the game-clinching touchdown.

"That was [almost] 20 years ago, and I remember it well," Jones said. "We knew we couldn't give [Steve] Young the ball back, because if we did, the 49ers were gonna score. So we threw when we were backed up near our own end zone, because we felt we had to. When you're playing a team with so much tradition, that's so used to winning games like that, you have to go ahead and try to kill them when you can. That's the way I felt [Sunday]."

Instead, Garrett chose a course that resulted in the Cowboys punting the ball back to the Pats and giving Brady another shot, an outcome as dangerous and dubious as kicking to the Bears' Devin Hester(notes).

Once the Pats took over at the 20, there wasn't much suspense. Brady carved up the Cowboys with relentless precision, completing eight of nine passes for 78 yards and converting the drive's lone third down with a two-yard sneak to the Dallas 27.

"It's nerve-racking watching a guy like that with the ball," Bryant said. "He's a great player … one of the best ever in the NFL."

It was the 32nd time Brady has led the Pats (5-1) to a triumph following a fourth-quarter deficit or tie, and it marked his 116th victory in tandem with Bill Belichick, tying Miami's Don Shula and Dan Marino for the most of any coach/QB combination since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

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Yahoo! Sports Radio: Devin McCourty on having Tom Brady on his side ]

It's hard not to draw a contrast between the legions of coaches who tighten up when the game is on the line, as Garrett did on Sunday, and the Johnsons and Belichicks of the world, who aren't afraid of big risks and the consequences that follow when they don't result in the desired outcome.

My advice to Garrett is to get a lot bolder in the very near future, especially as it relates to trusting his quarterback. He can still have a successful season. The Cowboys are only a game-and-a-half behind the Giants in the NFC East, and they've got a much stronger team than people realize, especially when Bryant and Austin are healthy.

Dallas' defense is much-improved under first-year coordinator Ryan, which is why Romo refused to mope after Garrett's three-handoffs-and-a-punt strategy gave Brady the chance to do that thing he does.

"I believe in my defense," Romo said. "These guys have done such a phenomenal job for us this year. I believed until the last minute. But hey, it happens. … It sucks."

Jones most certainly shared that opinion. And to the man who signs the paychecks, the worst thing about Sunday's finish was that his highest-paid employee wasn't given a chance to help prevent it.

#WINNING

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John Madden ignited the fire that will "burn forever" for fans to remember Al Davis.
(AP Photo)

Well, it's official: The 49ers aren't merely a gimmicky early season success story responding to the leadership of a high-profile, rookie coach; they're a good team getting better by the week, as evidenced by Sunday's come-from-behind, 25-19 victory over the previously undefeated Lions in Detroit. Alex Smith, the leading candidate for Comeback Player of the Century, provided the winning points for San Francisco (5-1) on a fourth-down, six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Delanie Walker(notes) with 1:51 remaining. Then, hilarity ensued. (We'll get to that shortly.) … Last week, the Raiders scored a dramatic and emotional victory over the Texans on the day after the death of legendary owner Al Davis. On Sunday, they returned to Oakland for a more thoughtful remembrance that included chilling moments like Hall of Fame coach John Madden lighting an eternal flame in the corner of the stadium. The Raiders' 24-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns included another gutty call by coach Hue Jackson: A fake field goal that resulted in a 35-yard touchdown pass from holder (and All-Pro punter) Shane Lechler(notes) to tight end Kevin Boss(notes) late in the third quarter. However, quarterback Jason Campbell(notes) suffered a broken collarbone that could end his season, a potentially significant blow for a team that currently has no general manager. As my colleague Jason Cole reported, the team is trying to swing a trade for Carson Palmer(notes) before Tuesday's deadline. One problem: According to a well-placed Bengals source, "We're not gonna trade Carson, no matter who calls." … This was a significant Sunday for three teams who steadied themselves with home victories in the wake of brutal defeats the previous week: The Giants pulled out a 27-24 triumph over the Bills to take over first place in the NFC East; the Bucs moved into a tie with the Saints atop the NFC South by beating New Orleans, 26-20; and the Bears crushed the Vikings, 39-10, at Soldier Field – and may have ended Chicago native Donovan McNabb's(notes) short, inglorious tenure as Minnesota's starting quarterback in the process.

TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND

1. How certain flight attendants on major American air carriers – including one otherwise friendly man on my flight from San Francisco to Boston on Saturday – can cop such an attitude when insisting that passengers place one of their carry-on bags under the seat in front of them. You've all heard the heavy-handed speech and know the rationale behind it: Storage space is tight, we're trying to accommodate everyone's luggage and you need to help out your fellow passengers by using the space in front of you. Except, here's the big picture: In an effort to squeeze more money out of their customers, most airlines are charging for checked luggage. That leads to more carry-on bags and, thus, a premium on overhead space. I get that, and I understand that passengers should try to share this burden equally. But legroom is terrible, especially for those of us who are relatively tall, and spending a coast-to-coast flight with even less legroom isn't especially appealing. It certainly wasn't to the senior citizen in the plaid shirt sitting near me on Saturday who was lectured before takeoff by the flight attendant, complete with the requisite guilt trip ("You're not the only passenger on this plane"), and basically ordered to put a duffel bag under his seat. He refused. Good for him.

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Sean Payton was unable to get out of the way of Jimmy Graham(notes).
(Getty Images)

2. What cosmic forces messed with the energy field at various NFL stadiums on Sunday. The weirdness included a contentious postgame handshake between the Lions' Jim Schwartz and the 49ers' Jim Harbaugh that prompted the former coach to rush the latter; two significant injuries to coaches on opposite sidelines of the Saints-Bucs game in Tampa (Saints head coach Sean Payton suffered a broken leg and torn knee ligament after being leveled by New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake tore his patella tendon while celebrating his team's game-clinching interception); Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk getting spotted flipping the bird to his own sideline following a sack of Sam Bradford(notes) (he said it was a "running joke" with some of his teammates); and Steelers safety Troy Polamalu(notes), after leaving Pittsburgh's game against Jacksonville with concussion-like symptoms, paying unintentional homage to former Saints wideout Joe Horn by talking on his BlackBerry while on the sidelines. Other than that, it was business as usual.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

I like Harbaugh. I like Schwartz. I like raw emotion. And yet: Both coaches were off the chain after Sunday's game, and each man exhibited the self-control of an eighth-grader. Thus, this being a diatribe, I am going to give them some scolding. First, Harbaugh: Dude, you won the game, and you're excited. Congratulations. Next time, however, you might want to consider building a three-second break into your victory dance so that you can give a quick, legitimate handshake to your disappointed coaching counterpart. Similarly, after shaking hands, it's probably a good idea to avoid slapping said counterpart in the back, thereby punking him in front of his assistants, his players, tens of thousands of fans and a national TV audience. Also, try offering what appears to be a sincere apology after the fact, however insincere it might be. Insincerity – that's what coaches do.

[ Related: A look back at other heated exchanges involving coaches ]

OK, now onto Schwartz: While Harbaugh's aggressive handshake, shove to the back and possible obscenity may have riled you, and I can understand why you'd approach him a second time to express your displeasure, maybe go easy on the whole Ron Artest (aka Metta World Peace) impersonation. As the Chiefs' Todd Haley can tell you, in the court of public opinion you're in a no-win situation – given that your team lost. Also, all those speeches to your players about composure lose a little bit of oomph when the man delivering the message goes berserk with the whole world watching. Besides, you should have stored up at least a little residual pleasure after referee Mike Carey validated a fourth-quarter touchdown reception by Detroit's Nate Burleson(notes) following a replay review. And since we're in the middle of a diatribe, could the NFL be any more mealy mouthed and inconsistent when it comes to enunciating and interpreting the rule which robbed the Lions' Calvin Johnson(notes) of an apparent game-winning TD catch in last year's season opener? I railed on the rule at the time, and Sunday's initial incomplete call on the pass to Burleson reinforced the notion that this is an utterly confusing state of affairs. What needs to happen is a common-sense assessment, a subsequent revision of the current language and a universal agreement on how to interpret it in a way that meshes with the logic we'd all apply in a playground setting. It shouldn't be that hard, but something tells me the NFL will continue to make it so.

TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

"Harbaughs r swag'n out right now… Swartzy ain't play'n that [expletive], he's put in work"
– Text Sunday evening from former Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes), sticking up for his former defensive coordinator.

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