Nearly 11 months ago, when the Dallas Cowboys had unceremoniously coughed up their last chance to secure an improbable playoff berth in the 2017 season, the measuring stick on head coach Jason Garrett was allegedly established. The 2018 season was make or break. Playoffs or bust – and the fate of the entire coaching staff depended on it.
And for 11 months, that postseason measuring stick has been misguided.
Dallas should know this by now. After all, NFL history is littered with head coaches whose most successful common thread was winning more chances than titles. Guys like Jeff Fisher, Herm Edwards and Rex Ryan. The champions of next year. Norv Turner. Wade Phillips. Jim Mora Sr. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones watched them all come and go in the NFL. He even employed a few of them.
Even with that knowledge, here we sit with Garrett, entering an opportunity-laden, six-game stretch, with the rest of the NFC East imploding around the 5-5 Cowboys. Primed for a finish that will take the fan base right back to a familiar place: Just good enough for another season of Garrett, but just bad enough to wonder how many more seasons of Garrett it will have to endure.
For Garrett’s critics, it has been a maddening velvet rut. Eight years of frustration. One hundred thirty-three games of exasperation. One playoff victory. All while Cowboys ownership continued to apply a measuring stick that lost meaning, purpose and real ambition.
Here’s a thought for Jones, whose favorite avocation lately is constantly telling everyone how badly he wants to win a Super Bowl: Stop measuring Jason Garrett against a vague playoff aspiration – and start measuring him against the franchises that actually have a chance of achieving something in the postseason. The way the Los Angeles Rams measured themselves against the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday. Or the way the New Orleans Saints measured themselves against the Rams two weeks ago. The way the New England Patriots will measure themselves against the Pittsburgh Steelers in December.
After their key Thanksgiving game against the Redskins, Garrett and the Cowboys will host on Nov. 29 a Saints team that might be the best the NFL has to offer this season. And it will be the best opportunity in 2018 to figure out the true distance between the league’s mountaintop and wherever the Cowboys are residing under Garrett. That is a meaningful measuring stick. And it should be precisely what ownership focuses on when contemplating whether Garrett deserves another roll of the dice in 2019.
Cowboys fans should take note, too. This is starting to feel like the stagnant nuclear winter the Rams experienced under Fisher. A time when ownership and elements in the front office finally crossed a boundary and had a franchise-shifting realization. In the final wheeze of that debacle, the Los Angeles brain trust realized it had become irrelevant whether Fisher could forge a winning season or even make the playoffs. The only measurement that mattered was the chasm between the Rams and legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Under Fisher, the disparity always seemed wide. So 13 games into the 2016 season, the Rams realized that gulf wasn’t closing and the Fisher cycle wasn’t changing. Tangible advancement was hard to grasp. And with a young quarterback in Jared Goff to work with, the middling cycle had to be broken – even if it meant tearing up parts of the roster.
Nearly two years later, the Rams are one of the most aggressive offensive teams in the NFL. Thanks in large part to a roster that was shaped the previous two offseasons to suit a coach who brought a dramatically different approach and mentality to the franchise. And they are heading into a home stretch in 2018 where success won’t be measured by a postseason appearance. It will be calculated according to the length of a playoff run.
But three years into Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott – with a defense that might only be a season away from top-five status in the NFL? The Cowboys are measuring themselves against a sagging NFC East and still leaning on the low bar of a playoff appearance as Garrett’s standard for success.
What ownership should be doing is looking at the Nov. 29 matchup with the Saints and asking three questions:
How far are we from that level of dominance?
Why can’t we close that gap?
Has Jason Garrett gotten us closer or further away from a vital breakthrough?
Now consider that seven seasons ago, Dallas was 7-4 and came out of a Thanksgiving Day win over the Miami Dolphins feeling like the franchise was ready to leap forward toward the next Super Bowl. Instead, the Cowboys finished 1-4, missed the postseason and launched a string of three consecutive 8-8 finishes.
It feels familiar this week to Cowboys fans because it is. Seven years have passed and little has changed. Same head coach. Same middle-of-the-road record. Same need for a big finish to squeeze into the postseason.
Maybe the most troubling of all, the same misguided measuring stick.
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