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Cowboys' Jerry Jones is finally seeing Jason Garrett like a GM and not as a cheerleader

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist
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For Jerry Jones, frustration didn’t spawn on a rainy Sunday against the New England Patriots. Nor did it take root in the most embarrassing flop of the season against the New York Jets, or the mind-numbing missed opportunities in New Orleans. Indeed, none of the Dallas Cowboys’ five losses this season began the journey to this week’s Thanksgiving Day crossroads against the Buffalo Bills.

No, this moment is nearly three years in the making. A transformative period that has taken the Cowboys owner from being Jason Garrett’s biggest cheerleader to a more appropriate place: An expectant general manager.

Finally — perhaps even grudgingly — that’s where Jones has settled in with his head coach. A journey that looks like it suddenly and bluntly materialized after Sunday’s loss to the Patriots but actually has origins going back to January 2017. If you want to know where this all began, dial things back almost three years, to the Cowboys’ 34-31 playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. It was another intensely frustrating moment for Jones that was ultimately soothed by the same blinding optimism that has always seemed to save Garrett’s job when it was on the shakiest ground.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a pass against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Mat Otero)
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett hasn't done enough to ease the painful memory of Aaron Rodgers' stunning playoff victory against Dallas in 2017. (AP Photo/Mat Otero)

That postseason loss to the Packers is the last time I can recall sources in the franchise being this nervous about the depths of Jones’ disappointment. That crushing home loss cut down a 13-3 season and ended a campaign that Cowboys ownership believed was its best shot at a Super Bowl in years. And it came in the worst possible way: On what Jones believed was a completely unforced coaching error, when then-rookie quarterback Dak Prescott spiked a ball late in the fourth quarter, helping to maintain precious seconds for Aaron Rodgers to pull off a miraculous completion. A competition that set up an equally miraculous game-winning field goal by Mason Crosby, triggering a slow burn in Jones that began after the game and ultimately rooted itself more deeply than anyone would understand.

“There’s no moral victory here,” a visibly red-faced and sweating Jones said afterward.

That line should sound familiar to Cowboys fans. That’s precisely what Jones conveyed after Sunday’s loss to an undermanned Patriots team.

“There’s no shame here,” he said, “but there’s none of that moral victory, at all.”

In that moment — in which Jones declared that he “shouldn’t be this frustrated” — it felt like that Packers loss all over again. Jones pointed to a coaching staff that was making unforced errors, lamented lost opportunities and considered what it all meant as a measuring stick. And just like that playoff loss to the Packers, his initial response was, for lack of a better term, to be pissed. And it was going to linger.

Cowboys fans caught a glimpse of that from Jones back in 2017, when he admitted to “hind-sighting” over Garrett’s decision to have Prescott spike a football that probably shouldn’t have been spiked. But what fans weren’t able to fully absorb was how upset Jones really was. Sources in the building said the disappointment ran deep. One even said half-jokingly: “If you see Jason [Garrett] at the Senior Bowl, it means he still has his job.”

Maybe the only thing different now is that there is no punch line. Garrett’s job isn’t just in jeopardy. His next week might be on the line if Dallas suffers an embarrassing Thanksgiving loss to the Bills. Regardless of Jones’ declaration that he wouldn’t fire Garrett during the season, one fact remains: Jones is 77 and 2019 is still an opportunity inside a Super Bowl window that is quickly getting complicated by the sheer economics of his roster. An offseason of decisions lies ahead. And just like that 13-3 season in 2016, the lesson here is that every single shot at a championship has to count.

That reality is part of why Jones tucked away his cheerleading pompoms last offseason and refused to give Garrett a contract extension. Jones has been in this situation before and removed the pressure point. Certainly, there was no way he could fire Garrett after that playoff loss to the Packers — even Jones couldn’t justify that after a 13-3 season. But he could have been more irritated with how the offense sputtered in 2017 without Ezekiel Elliott in the lineup for six games. He could have made the offensive coordinator change one year earlier, focusing more closely on a scheme that was aging quickly, rather than bickering about who should have been calling the plays. That might have made the difference between a Super Bowl berth following the 2018 season, which ended in a divisional-round flameout that ultimately cost offensive coordinator Scott Linehan his job.

All of this speaks to how Dallas has gotten here. A process of Jones frustratingly continuing to back Garrett for nearly three years of troubling mistakes, as if the head coach was still learning on the job rather than making good use of all the failed experiences from the previous seven seasons. But inside that same time span, Jones has seen things that have only amplified the nagging regret of that Packers playoff loss following the 2016 season.

He watched the Atlanta Falcons surpass his franchise and earn a Super Bowl berth. He witnessed his own team get tactically bounced from the playoffs by 32-year-old Sean McVay, who turned the Los Angeles Rams into a Super Bowl competitor in only two seasons. And in what had to be the deepest cut of all, he had to absorb the agony of the hated Philadelphia Eagles winning a Super Bowl with Doug Pederson at the helm and Nick Foles taking snaps.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, right, and head coach Jason Garrett address the media during the "state of the team" press conference at the start of the Dallas Cowboys NFL football training camp Friday, July 26, 2019, in Oxnard, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett address the media during the "state of the team" news conference at the start of training camp in July. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Remarkably, all of this unfolded in the 35 months after Dallas lost that playoff game to the Packers. Just one monumental sandwich of regret and second-guessing getting served to Jones in three straight offseasons. All the while, the one thing keeping him on the rails with Garrett was the promise of 2019 — when the Cowboys would have their best roster in years and the decade of faith Jones had placed in his head coach would finally come to fruition.

That is how you get to last Sunday, with Jones staring at an 0-4 record against teams with winning records and admitting to everyone within earshot that he shouldn’t be this frustrated. And that is also how you get to Tuesday, when instead of walking back that pressure, Jones doubled-down on it, sounding more like a general manager assessing his head coach and less like a cheerleader doling out moral support and applause.

The road to this moment was paved from one disappointment following the 2016 season, to not qualifying for the postseason in 2017, to watching friend and Rams owner Stan Kroenke turn the key on a Super Bowl appearance by making a bold head coaching change.

That latter point is worth remembering because Jones took notice when Kroenke turned the Rams on a dime with a head coaching change that lit a fire under his roster. At some point, Kroenke started looking closely at all the middling football and failed results of Jeff Fisher. Then he started asking the questions that team owners are supposed to ask of their head coaches.

Questions like, what exactly do you do for me? And what exactly have you done for me?

After three burned postseason opportunities inside a Super Bowl window that is getting more complicated, these are the questions that Jerry Jones is asking about Jason Garrett right now. The cheerleading is over and Jerry Jones is looking at his head coach through the eyes of a general manager.

It’s a transition that took three years and burned through an unmeasurable amount of patience. Only one thing matters now.

What Jerry Jones does next.

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