CHICAGO — Ezekiel Elliott sighed. Amari Cooper’s voice was hushed. Inside yet another gloomy Dallas Cowboys locker room, after yet another loss, Robert Quinn turned his palms to the ceiling and shrugged his shoulders. Outside, Jerry Jones wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“We’ve got to win a football game,” the Cowboys owner said. And then he reiterated the message. Again and again. But he couldn’t explain exactly how his team might do that. Nor could he quite explain why they hadn’t on Thursday night in a 31-24 loss to the Chicago Bears. Nor could his players.
Zeke, what happened to the offense after that machine-like opening drive?
“Uuuuummm. Ah. I mean, sh-t,” Elliott began.
Amari, is the culture here still the same as it was when things were going well?
“No, I think things have to go well for that culture to be great,” Cooper responded.
And Robert ... the defense ... what happened?
Again, Quinn’s hands began to spread, as if to acknowledge the lack of a satisfactory explanation. “They been having a struggling offense,” he said of the Bears. “We created two turnovers on defense. They still put up 31. You’re just kind of puzzled sometimes. ... I don’t think anyone saw this [coming].”
The Cowboys didn’t just lose to the Bears on Thursday night. They are lost. Stuck in a desert of Jones’ creation, with a coach whom Jones won’t fire and a roster he believes in, but a 6-7 record nonetheless. So where, Jerry, has it gone wrong?
“All these guys are talented enough for me,” Jones said postgame. “I’m questioning how to put together a coordinated [team] that complements each other, that can win a football game.”
Before he could finish his answer, one of two dozen reporters surrounding him butted in: “That’s a question of coaching then!”
Jones turned his head to face another question. It’s unclear if he agrees.
His patience with head coach Jason Garrett, to an extent, has been admirable. The answer is not always a firing. In a league that disposes of head honchos on whims, a league that is littered with directionless franchises as a result, Jones has stood by his embattled leader. That he has for nine-plus years is not necessarily preposterous. It’s not unforgivable.
It is, however, remarkable. Mind-boggling. The company it puts Garrett in is evidence that the end, surely, is near.
Garrett, in his 10th season on the job, is one of six NFL coaches with more than seven years of tenure. Each of the other five has won a Super Bowl. Garrett hasn’t even reached one. His .557 winning percentage is by far the worst of the bunch. His three playoff appearances, and two playoff wins, are less than half as many as any of the other five in his longevity tier.
Those five – Belichick, Payton, Tomlin, Harbaugh, Carroll – have Lombardis. They also have aura and apparent strengths. They do things, during the week or on gameday, that have meaningful, discernible, direct impacts on their teams’ ability to win.
Does Garrett? What, exactly, does Dallas’ head coach do?
He doesn’t call plays. Doesn’t run the defense. Manages the game, but doesn’t do it particularly well. Makes fourth-down decisions, but poor ones, apparently without consulting analytics.
Jones won’t get into specifics, so we’re left to observe. Garrett is a marvelous clapper and avid back-slapper, even when things are going awry. He claps indiscriminately during timeouts; after opponent touchdowns; after punts; after Brett Maher pushes yet another field goal wide right. His posture is generally above average. His boyish smile is charming as hell.
But what, at this point, does he do to help the Cowboys win?
He’s not exactly a CEO; that’s Jerry. At best, Garrett isn’t the problem. But there comes a time when all other potential problems have been addressed. Coordinators have come and gone. Two playoff-caliber quarterbacks have taken the reins. The roster has been stocked and restocked. The offense, handed over to 31-year-old coordinator Kellen Moore, has been one of the very best in the NFL.
And yet here the Cowboys are, below .500, with Dak Prescott, the league’s top-rated passer, losing to one of its worst. They haven’t beaten an average-or-better team this season.
They are still, somehow, in first place in the wretched NFC East. Players, even in a somber locker room, were aware of that.
“We’ve been given a gift,” Cooper said.
“I guess we’re still leading our division, so we got a chance,” Quinn added.
They’re probably still the favorite.
“But,” Quinn continues, and as he does he spits out a half-chuckle, “if we keep going back and forth, going back and forth, we’re not gonna get any consistency.”
A Week 16 win over the Eagles would likely be enough. To win the division. To host a playoff game. It’s a low bar to clear. And Cowboys players think they’re capable of clearing it. “We’re pretty even keel,” center Travis Frederick said in front of his locker.
But would that be sufficient? Enough to save Garrett’s job? Jerry, would a division title at 7-9 or 8-8 be acceptable?
“Are you asking me if I would take the division and go to the playoffs?” Jones asked rhetorically. “On any basis, the answer is yes. Absolutely, yes.”
But he wasn’t done.
“Acceptable?” Jones continued. “I don’t know.”
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