Yes, Jason Garrett is a problem. But after the Eagles loss, he’s not the only Cowboys issue.

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist

More often than not, there’s a stubborn reality that defines the month of December for NFL teams: After months of stitching or disguising one problem after the next, the final weeks become an unrelenting practice in nakedness.

Players are never as healthy as they could be. A large portion of the offensive playbook has been aired out. Defensive liabilities have been exposed. The coaching staff is ragged from adjustments. The personnel department is frustrated with some lack of development. And over the shoulder of the entire operation, someone in ownership is cataloguing all the defining questions for the rank and file.

In the winter of the NFL, the opportunity to hide what you are and the willingness of others to be fooled by the ruse often shrinks to nothing.

Teams reveal who they are.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, center left, walks off the field after of an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Sunday, Dec. 22, 2019, in Philadelphia (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Jason Garrett won't have a winning season in his 10th year as head coach of the Cowboys. (AP)

The Dallas Cowboys did exactly that Sunday in a 17-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. And perhaps not surprisingly, the problems appear to be running deeper than head coach Jason Garrett.

I’m sure some people have suspected this for a while now. A head coach alone can’t take what appeared to be a Super Bowl-worthy roster in September and reduce it to a middling 7-8 team after 15 games. Most Cowboys fans probably don’t want to hear that, but it’s the truth. Garrett wasn’t the only factor that caused Dallas to fold in such weird ways Sunday night on the road against an Eagles team that had the same motivations to win, but significantly less talent on the field.

This isn’t a call to acquit Garrett, mind you. Sunday’s embarrassing loss (yes, Jerry Jones, it was embarrassing) unfolded against a club that is running on fumes and held together with duct tape. And that was just entering the day, not even accounting for the multitude of injuries that occurred during the game itself, leaving Philadelphia floating into Monday morning with a character-defining victory.

No, Garrett takes the responsibility for this one, as he should. He’s at the top of the most-fireable part of the organizational chart. And it shouldn’t take showing team highlight reels every week to remind the players of what they can be or should be. Building that kind of confidence is a culture thing. The foundation is supposed to be built from February to July and then improved upon inside the season. I’ve heard Garrett remind people of this often, usually when he talks about the percentage of offseason participation or the leaders who regularly show up for “optional” portions of the spring and early summer months.

The Cowboys’ culture in 2019? It’s 7-8 and mediocre.

It’s 0-8 when trailing at halftime this season.

It’s three road wins against the three worst teams in the NFC — the New York Giants, Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions.

It’s losing to the Eagles with Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb on the sideline in vital moments.

It’s punting on fourth-and-short when the Cowboys needed to go for it, kicking field goals when touchdowns make the difference, and reaching the end zone zero times.

Most of all, the 2019 culture of the Cowboys has given us this moment that I suspect will be most defining: Jerry Jones leaving his seat late in the fourth quarter with time still on the clock, then doing something that should have the coaching staff terrified — speaking very briefly with the media, either because he has no more answers, or simply no more hopes to sell with only the faintest chances of backing into the postseason.

We don’t need Jerry’s answers. The questions are revelations in themselves. And they speak some truths about Dallas that are unsettling. And they also serve to dial up what is likely coming next, specifically a lot of change and a lot of deliberation on a roster that is talented but flawed.

Garrett may actually be the easiest call at this point. He has had a decade and produced little for the patience. He is less a part of game-planning than ever before in his Dallas tenure. His philosophies, speeches and motivational tactics are dog-eared and falling flat with the fan base. It’s how it always goes with head coaches who are granted long periods of opportunity but never deliver the requisite February victory or even appearance that makes the patience worthwhile.

So, yeah. That’s Garrett in a nutshell. He hasn’t gotten it done. You can micromanage the hell out of that statement with granular details, but those five words are all that matter after 10 years.

Now come the other questions. And these are the ones that should be tying Dallas fans in knots. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore? He’s been a revelation in the passing game and with quarterback Dak Prescott’s development. But he has shifted the balance of the scheme so far away from Ezekiel Elliott that the Cowboys’ offensive identity is unclear. There are times when the Cowboys can seem to fast-break it with anyone throwing the football. There are also times when dominating the tempo with Elliott and wearing out an already-thin opponent (see: the Eagles on Sunday) is a necessary and familiar downshift. Frankly, I’m not sure if Moore has figured out when to move from one gear to the next. He might be learning as he goes, necessitating a few more seasons of ironing out his balance. Or he might be a one-trick pony who bloats passing numbers but falls flat when Dallas has to suck the life out of a defense with a relentless and pounding drive.

The defense? The line is talented but saw important pieces fade down the stretch. The linebackers were fast but bullied at times. The secondary looks like a disjointed mess where some players are doing things inside the scheme that don’t suit their skills. Play-caller Kris Richard is fiery, but maybe to a detriment at times. If you know his history in Seattle, some players and coaches follow his lead while others chafe under his criticism. It’s tenable when the locker room is stacked with alpha personalities like DeMarcus Lawrence. But when it doesn’t, it causes divisions. And that can’t be ignored.

Special teams? Well, making the right call on a kicker too late rather than too early can cost a team at least one or two wins and maybe even a playoff spot. This is why the elite kickers get paid, while everyone else is left white-knuckling from week to week and hoping it doesn’t alter an entire season. Someone in Dallas screwed this one up and then didn’t fix it fast enough.

That’s a lot of reality to absorb. And it won’t go away if and when Garrett is fired. Nor will the decision on Amari Cooper, who can’t possibly be an $18 million to $20 million per-year wideout, and also be a player that rotates out of games in huge moments.

Dec 22, 2019; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs with the ball against Philadelphia Eagles free safety Rodney McLeod (23) at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Ezekiel Elliott reset the running back market this offseason with his new contract extension, yet this season it's unclear how he fits into the Cowboys' scheme. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Then you have Prescott, who is unquestionably better, but is either hurt or missing important passes in vital moments, leaving Dallas to measure again how much he’s worth in the coming offseason.

Elliott? Dallas paid him, so it’ll have to figure out how to make him worth the money inside whatever scheme is settled on. Jason Witten? He looks like he’s ready to move into the coaching ranks.

Those are some massive calculations lying in wait. And Garrett’s future really doesn’t change any of them.

So into Week 17 the Dallas Cowboys go. Needing to beat the Redskins at home and have the Eagles lose to the Giants on the road. A scenario that would grant a largely underserved playoff spot, prolonging this mess of decisions rather than solving any of them. Firing Garrett? It’s step one in a long offseason road.

But this is the foundation that Dallas has built. It’s naked as ever and riddled with problems. And that won't end next week, no matter what happens.

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