ARLINGTON, Texas – Four wins in 18 days. A gritty flag-planting victory against the New Orleans Saints. A softening schedule that might as well be a plush carpet rolled out to a playoff berth. And now, some love for Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett.
After Thursday night, he’s going to be sticking around in Dallas in 2019. Let the conflicting emotions in Cowboys Nation commence.
This should be one of the overarching takeaways from a defining 13-10 win over the Saints – Garrett having gone from seemingly certain doom at 3-5 and now earning yet another stretch of career runway in Dallas. Barring an 0-4 collapse that might be even more improbable than the current 4-0 run, Garrett isn’t going anywhere. Even if Cowboys owner Jerry Jones won’t come out and guarantee another season, there’s zero indication he’s regretting his hardened support of Garrett through the fire of the first two months of the season.
“He’s won a big game tonight. I’ll just leave it at that,” Jones said after the victory Thursday. “He won a big game tonight.”
And while that brand of Jerry Jones praise sounds conservative – well, let Jerry push back on that thought.
“I’m not [being conservative],” Jones added. “Give him everything you should give him for having just beaten the top-rated team in the NFL. You’re the wordsmith. Give it to him. I’m serious. Give it to him. Because we know how tough it is when it goes the other way. Give that to him, for sure.”
It’s often interesting what Jones says and doesn’t say about Garrett. When things are going badly in Dallas and you’re certain the head coach is headed for the guillotine, Jones is almost nonsensically strong in his praise. Conversely, when things are going well and Garrett seems as safe as ever, Jones seems to pull back with the affection. On Thursday night, Jones gave off a content vibe. Something like, Jason is just fine, let’s talk about these players.
Considering the shelling Garrett often deservedly takes, it’s fair to give him a slight reprieve from the pitchforks and torches. After all, Dallas beat the hottest team in the NFL. A Saints franchise that should again factor as an NFC Super Bowl favorite. For Dallas, it’s the kind of win that should tease what the franchise could be if the offense could ever climb into the upper half of the league.
Defensively Dallas is young, getting more dominant by the week and appears to have a championship-caliber ceiling. The trio of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch looks like it could be a consistent Pro Bowl core. And the young secondary essentially locked down a Saints passing offense that had been disassembling anyone and everyone this season. This is a talented group across the board, with some elite coaching to match between coordinator Rod Marinelli and defensive backs coach Kris Richard (who will once again get some coordinator looks across the league this offseason).
The offense is something else entirely, filled with some talented pieces but still struggling to find a way to consistently open up the scheme. That said, there’s no denying the unit has gotten better since the Amari Cooper trade. Rookie Michael Gallup has taken big strides toward cementing himself as a high-ceiling No. 2 wideout, and Dallas is figuring out that Ezekiel Elliott is capable of wrecking defenses as a receiver out of the backfield. And the coaching, well, nobody is going to sprain their wrists applauding coordinator Scott Linehan anytime soon. But he did one thing against the Saints that set a dramatic tone early: He saw cornerback Eli Apple as a potential weak link on tape. And when that materialized on the field, the Cowboys went to that well until the Saints were forced to start tilting coverages to help cover for Apple.
At the very least, that’s a stride against a New Orleans defense that is both solid and improving significantly as the season enters the final stretch. It means something mentally on offense to grind out a game and ultimately not let the defense down against a team like the Saints. Just like it means something mentally on defense to back up Lawrence’s boast about being ready to “choke” the Saints. When Thursday was over, Dallas did exactly that – on another huge prime-time stage and playing its third game in 12 days.
And they did it against Sean Payton, a head coach that Jerry Jones has long believed (in a pipe dream) to be his ideal hire if Garrett were ever let go.
“One beautiful thing about playing a team of this caliber is that every tackle, everything means so much,” Jones said. “You get to see what your best is made of. Make no mistake about it, we certainly played a team that is eligible to win this whole thing in the NFL. And they have a great coach – underline ‘great coach.’ I’m not going to sleep tonight thinking about having won this ballgame. This is big for the Cowboys.”
Big for the Cowboys. Big for quarterback Dak Prescott, whose past four games have been his most efficient run of the season. Big for the acquisition of Cooper, which looks like a very worthwhile gamble. Big for the drafting of Vander Esch, who has arguably raised the level of the entire defense with some of his playmaking.
But there’s no getting around who has reaped the most. That’s Garrett, who lit a fire under the team in a Wednesday meeting with the players, when he talked about how the Cowboys were a good team that wasn’t getting credit largely because they hadn’t yet forced everyone to take notice. Thursday was that kind of opportunity. The Saints were that kind of opponent.
As ugly as the final product might have looked on offense, the win was lucrative enough to forgive that shortfall. Now the path is laid out for this franchise to roll to a playoff berth that seemed dead less than a month ago.
Now it’s the opposite. Not just alive, but with an arrow pointing beyond this season – to another year of Garrett and a 2019 commitment to finally get it all right.
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