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ARLINGTON, Texas – After four long years with nothing to show for all the angst and hundreds of millions in salaries spent, the Dallas Cowboys got vindication for a moment.
Jerry Jones will take it and sleep well for a night.
He’ll take it after all the postgame miseries the past four years, when the Cowboys owner awoke to his seasonal media guillotine. He’ll take it after the offseasons he was denounced for either being frustratingly passive or nonsensically aggressive. He’ll take it for the fading glories and missed opportunities that left him beaten in so many Januarys. He’ll take it because he doesn’t have many of these campaigns left, something that hit home hard when friend and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair died in November.
But maybe more than anything, he’ll take it for some simple vindication for himself and head coach Jason Garrett, two men who have clung together through nearly a decade of seasons that ended in bankruptcy.
“I do [feel vindication],” Jones said after Saturday night’s 24-22 wild-card playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks. “It is a feeling that I’m proud for [Jason]. I know how hard he works. … That’s supposed to pay off.”
For a moment, it has. Delivering the Cowboys to the second round of the playoffs for the third time in five seasons – two by virtue of a wild-card win and a third from a top-seeded bye after the 2016 regular season. But this one might be sweeter than the rest in Garrett’s tenure, having come from a 3-5 pit in early November that threatened sweeping January change in the franchise. A hole that forced Jones toward a retooling that he didn’t want to fathom because it meant frittering away more of his remaining years on rebuilding, recalculating and reminiscing.
History will show that in the face of that, Jones stuck by Garrett. For better or worse. And that in 2018, it improbably turned out for the better, thanks in part to an aggressive Jones-inspired move at the trade deadline to acquire wideout Amari Cooper. Thanks to that trade, some patience with an offense that still tests ownership’s will and a defense that has risen in pressurized moments, Dallas has its second playoff win in the past nine seasons.
That should matter, even if it counts for one small step in the grand pursuit of another Super Bowl. It should matter because a lot of critics (including me) questioned whether Jones was making the right decision with Garrett. And it should matter because there is something at least modestly admirable about changing a hair-trigger penchant for firing coaches and stubbornly extending a seemingly unparalleled amount of patience.
It should also matter because a quarter of the NFL is scavenging for head coaches right now, hoping for someone new and fresh to turn around organizations or kickstart the growth of young quarterbacks. That’s a reality not lost on Jones, who feels like he’s once again found a head coach simply by hanging on to one.
“I think this win against a very credible Seattle team will make people think more highly of Jason,” Jones said. “You look around at all the teams that are on the search for Red October, out here trying to find them a head coach right now. We’ve got one that has got a lot of experience on our dime over the last several years. And I’d like to use him.”
So use him the Cowboys will, in Round 2 against one of the NFC’s high-powered offenses, promising a stauncher test than the Seahawks, who were good but not elite in 2018. Whether it’s the Los Angeles Rams or the New Orleans Saints (again), the real test of how special Dallas can be starts now. Beating Seattle promised another week. Beating the Rams or Saints would suddenly tease something far more spectacular. The kind of thing this franchise hasn’t seen since the cobwebbed memories of the 1990s.
Whether this Dallas edition is capable of that kind of success is still a stretch of the imagination. Even with a defense that flashes brilliance in segments. Even with a special teams that looks a little more dangerous with the return of Tavon Austin. Even with a Dak Prescott-led offense that has at least figured out that dominating tempo with Ezekiel Elliott and the running game can translate into wins.
In that vein of forward progress, Jones and the Cowboys can claim victory. Since the 3-5 start, parts of this team have gotten better. The resolve has gotten grittier. The confidence has gotten a little more bold. And the quarterback, well, as Elliott said Sunday, he had back-to-back weeks of playing like “a grown ass man.”
That’s something for Dallas. Call it progress. Call it a hurdle cleared. And for Jones and Garrett, call it a night of vindication that has granted a more special round of opportunity. And believe that both men know this coming week is where things can truly change in Dallas, exchanging all those spent dimes and earned lessons for something that will actually last.
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