FRISCO, Texas -- At 3-5, the Dallas Cowboys' season seemingly was over.
The all-or-nothing trade for Amari Cooper and the change at offensive line coach did not favorably impact the Cowboys in their Nov. 5 loss to the Tennessee Titans. It all looked bleak, especially for Jason Garrett.
Eight full seasons was enough. Two playoff appearances were too little. The whispers for Lincoln Riley to be the next head coach became louder, as anybody but Garrett would do.
And the chatter about Garrett's clapping. Clapping when a fourth-down chance goes awry. Clapping when there is a penalty. Too much clapping.
That would be the lasting memory of the Garrett era, the clapping.
But in the month since, the Cowboys have not lost. Their most recent win came on Thursday when they beat the best team with the best offense, the New Orleans Saints, 13-10.
Now 7-5, they are in first place in the NFC East as December begins and the favorites to win the division with four games to play.
“Really just had to dig back in, focus on the first day of our preparation for the next opponent and really try to get everybody dialed back in to moment-by-moment, day-by-day, hour-by-hour preparation,” Garrett said, remembering the message to the players after the Tennessee loss. “I think the guys understand that’s when you play your best, perform your best. If you’re disciplined enough to get locked in on the task, that’s something we try to instill on the team and just keep banging away.”
The recent success, however, does not mean Garrett is off the hook.
If anything, there is more pressure on Garrett.
The four-game winning streak has brought expectations. The win against the Saints has some thinking bigger things than just making the playoffs. The Cowboys don't have any opponent with a winning record the rest of the way.
“He does a good job conveying the message to us and making it very clear of where we stand and where we need to go,” cornerback Byron Jones said. “You can see it throughout the team, people are bought in.”
After the victory over the Saints, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was somewhat muted in his praise of the coach.
“Well, he’s won a big game tonight,” Jerry Jones said outside the locker room. “I’ll just leave it at that. He won a big game tonight.”
Was there any reason Jones was holding back?
“What? I’m not. Give him everything you should give him for having just beaten the top-rated team in the NFL,” Jones said. “You’re the wordsmith. Give it to him. I’m serious. Give it to him, yes, because we know how tough it is when it goes the other way. But give that to him, for sure.”
It’s always tricky to read into Jones’ words one way or the other. He backed Garrett in the difficult times at the start of the coach’s career during three straight 8-8 finishes. At the start of this season, he said Garrett was not on the hot seat. Jones said after the Tennessee loss that he would not make an in-season head-coaching change.
Almost every time Garrett has been counted out, the Cowboys have responded.
Garrett was in the final year of his initial contract when the Cowboys went 12-4 in 2014 to earn him a five-year, $30 million contract. After an abysmal 4-12 finish in 2015, Garrett took the Cowboys to an NFC-best 13-3 record in 2016 with fourth-round pick Dak Prescott taking over for an injured Tony Romo. Even last season after three straight losses without a suspended Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys won three straight to remain in the playoff chase until Week 16.
This season, the Cowboys have again rallied, looking to become the first team in franchise history to open the season with a 3-5 mark and make the playoffs.
Garrett’s steady hand and process-oriented way can be frustrating for those who want to see emotion, but it has been clear he has the players’ ears.
On the broadcast during the Saints game, much was made of Garrett’s Wednesday night speech. In the postgame locker room, players were perplexed by the question. Garrett’s speech was the same as it had been since Nov. 5.
“You’ve got to understand, there’s no more room for error for us,” Byron Jones said. “We’re deep in November and it’s almost December football. This is the time you got to win. You can’t look back. You can’t go back.”
Even though the Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East with four games to play, Garrett’s message will not change.
“I think they understand where we are,” Garrett said. “Our backs continue to be against the wall. We have to continue to fight, continue to battle. We’ve done some good things the last few weeks, but that doesn’t matter now.”