ATLANTA – Amidst the hushed tones and discarded tape of another losing Dallas Cowboys locker room – 19-13 to the Falcons this time – Jerry Jones was asked about the man of the moment:
Sean Payton, Mr. Potential Coaching Free Agent.
"I have no idea about that," the Cowboys' owner/general manager said Sunday night at the Georgia Dome. "I have no understanding of anything to do with his or any of the [New Orleans] Saints business or contracts. That was news to me."
It was news to just about everyone on Sunday. It didn't take more than a couple seconds, however, to digest the fall out and begin the speculation.
The NFL reportedly voided Payton's 2011 contract extension with the New Orleans Saints due to language the league found unacceptable, according to ESPN. Payton was suspended for the season for his role in the Saints' bounty scandal. Although questions remain if the league actually can kill the deal, and the chances Payton would even leave a town he brought a Super Bowl to are minimal, he conceivably could jump to another franchise at the end of the year.
Like the 3-5 Dallas Cowboys, where fan patience with the floundering Jason Garrett era only continues to wane.
Dallas is now 4-9 in the last 13 games and Garrett's offense was a combination of predictable, inefficient and sloppy here. It wasted a strong defensive effort against the now 8-0 Falcons. Dallas gets Philadelphia, Cleveland and Washington next. A turnaround is more than possible, but the Cowboys never should've gotten to the point where one is needed.
"I have a lot of faith in Jason," Jones said. "I think Jason's future is ahead of him. I know how hard he works. I like his philosophy. So I've got a lot of faith, a lot of confidence … in our head coaching and our coaching in the future."
We've heard more ringing endorsements, but it hardly matters. Jones has taken great effort in being supportive of his young coach and former backup quarterback.
The question is how long can that continue?
Payton, 48, is beloved in New Orleans, where he led the post-Katrina Saints to a long-awaited Super Bowl. It's difficult to see him turning his back on the loyalty the city has provided, particularly during his suspension, where "Free Payton" signs and shirts are everywhere.
That doesn't mean Jones shouldn't attempt to test those ties by parking a Texas-sized Brink's truck in front of his home and offering up the keys to the kingdom. Payton was a Cowboys assistant from 2003-05. His soon-to-be ex-wife and children live in suburban Dallas. It's worth a try. If not, there's always Jon Gruden or Chip Kelly or someone to chase that might create a spark.
Jones doesn't look like he's having much fun right now; his franchise is not just losing but playing uninspired, difficult-to-watch football. This is everything he doesn't want the Cowboys to be. The old rub was they won just a single playoff game in 15 years. At this point they'd be happy just getting into the postseason chase.
"Obviously we put ourselves in a hole," quarterback Tony Romo said. "We need to find a way to get a win."
Jones, 70, isn't one to embrace irrelevance but that's where the team is right now. There is plenty to blame about his work as a general manager, of course. He said in a pregame interview with NBC that if anyone else had his track record of late, they'd be fired.
"What I really meant was, one of the things you do is you've got a GM who, in this particular case, owns the team, then you go in and you look in the mirror," Jones said after the game.
[Winners/losers: Andrew Luck gaining ground on Robert Griffin III]
The mirror gaze might produce some tweaks to the process, but Jones isn't replacing himself.
"I think that I know how our organization runs and the best way to make decisions for us and that's the best way," he said. "That's what motivates me and causes me to do the best job I can. I would've liked to have won more games than that over the last 13 games. So we've got to evaluate that. What I'm going to do, if possible, is win our next eight games so we can even that up."
Well, it's a plan. Jones knows he can't get all new players either. Struggles in the red zone and a failure to capitalize on opportunities cost the Cowboys this game. Yet late in the game when Dallas went up-tempo, Romo completed all 10 of his passes, including one for a touchdown.
"I was surprised we didn't get more touchdowns," Jones said. Mainly he seems surprised to be in this position: a promising season teetering on the brink, his franchise hurtling toward predicable failure. This was a third loss in four games, each by six points or less. Dallas played hard Sunday, it played with passion and it stood up to a high-powered offense.
The Cowboys just didn't get it done. Again.
"We had some guys do some good things although I will say I'd have liked to have seen more bigger plays," Jones said. "They just made more bigger plays than we did. At the end of the day we had seven penalties, they had two. They're a team that plays without mistakes …"
Some of that, no matter how much Jones admirably wants to support Garrett, comes from coaching.
"We have got to find a way to do more," Garrett said.
Garrett is now 16-16 as a head coach [he took over the Cowboys in the middle of the 2010 season]. He was a gamble then. He is no less a question mark now.
Jones, reminded of his forever optimism, recited a past comment where he said he liked the direction of the franchise.
"Well, I liked the direction when I said it," he acknowledged. "So I'm just saying I don't like our direction when we're sitting here having lost [Sunday night]."
The Cowboys' owner letting off steam in a quiet, frustrated locker room is becoming a common occurrence. The NFL may have just sprung Sean Payton into free agency at season's end.
It's a long shot marriage, but at some point what does Jerry Jones have to lose by asking?
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