HOUSTON -- Jason Garrett had a chance to make a statement about himself and his belief in the Dallas Cowboys' offense Sunday night.
Facing fourth-and-1 from the Houston Texans' 42 on the first possession of overtime, the Cowboys coach played it safe when the opportunity to be bold was staring at him in the face.
Garrett punted, trusting in a defense that held strong for most of the night.
The Cowboys never got the ball back and are now 2-3.
All they could do was watch hopelessly as Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 36-yard field goal gave the Texans a 19-16 win in front of the largest crowd to see a game at NRG Stadium, set up by a 49-yard catch and run by DeAndre Hopkins.
“We were being outplayed there, not out-efforted, but we were outplayed,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “But it’s time for risk at that particular time. That’s not second-guessing, but we were taking some risk, too, at certain points in the game.”
The differences between Jones and Garrett are stark.
Jones made his money as a risk-taker, drilling for oil in spots that many believed to be barren. Since owning the Cowboys, Jones has taken risks to great benefit (Charles Haley, Deion Sanders) and great loss (Joey Galloway, Roy Williams).
Garrett is more willing to play the percentages and is more averse to taking risk.
On Sunday, he had a chance to be bold and lead the Cowboys to a win in a game that never should have been that close.
A week earlier, the Texans were able to beat the Indianapolis Colts when their coach, Frank Reich, opted to go for it from his own 43 with 24 seconds left in overtime. Andrew Luck’s pass was incomplete, which set up Houston’s game-winning kick.
“I’ll just address it now: I'm not playing to tie,” Reich said after the game. “I'll do that 10 times out of 10. That's just the way it's got to roll."
A day later, Reich amended his “10 times out of 10,” saying it was not an absolute, but a sign of an aggressive mindset.
Garrett has been bold before.
In his lone playoff victory in 2014, he went for it on fourth-and-6 from the Detroit Lions' 42 with six minutes to play and down by three points. Tony Romo hit Jason Witten for a 21-yard gain and six plays later Romo hit Terrance Williams for the game-winning touchdown pass.
You don’t even have to go back to 2014 and the Lions. You can go back just one week ago against the Lions.
In the third quarter of the Week 4 win, Garrett elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Detroit 3. Elliott picked up 2 yards. He fumbled, but Blake Jarwin recovered the ball. On the next play, Prescott threw a touchdown pass to Geoff Swaim for a touchdown and a 20-10 lead.
Why did he go for it?
“Just to be aggressive and make it a two-score game and a tremendous belief in our offensive line and our runner against their defense in that situation,” Garrett said the day after the win over the Lions. “There's a lot of talk about analytics and when you go for it, when you don't go for it. Sometimes what's missed from that equation is the fact that it's a game played by grown men, and it starts with that. When you have a belief in the guys up front, and you can hand the ball to 21 and you feel good about that, that's really where the decision-making process starts. And we certainly feel great about those guys. That doesn't mean we're going to go for it every time in those situations, but in that situation we felt like that was the right thing to do.”
Since Elliott joined the Cowboys, they're 18-for-19 on fourth-and-1 or shorter.
If that’s how Garrett felt a week earlier, then clearly he did not feel the same confidence in the group against Houston.
“Yeah, it was a long 1,” Garrett said. “We had a third-and-2 (actually 1), and we didn’t make much on it and just felt like at that point in the game, the way our defense was playing, the idea was to pin them down there. Chris [Jones] did a great job with the punt. They got the ball on the 10-yard line, and hopefully you make a stop and you win the game coming back the other way with a game-winning field goal.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott wanted to go for it, “but in that case you don’t question the coach’s decision on defense.” Elliott agreed with Garrett. “Obviously you would like a chance to go for it on fourth-and-1, but I don’t know if that was the best decision right there,” Elliott said.
The Texans had seven second-half possessions and had as many turnovers (two) as scores (two field goals), but then Hopkins broke free and the game changed, with the moment to be bold long gone.
“Any decision he makes, he makes, and we just got to hold it down and we didn’t,” defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said.,