FRISCO, Texas -- The turning point of the Dallas Cowboys’ season came Nov. 7, two days after their 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
The Cowboys were 3-5 after the loss and floundering. The trade for Amari Cooper brought a positive result quickly, with a touchdown on the second drive, but ultimately did not affect the game much. The same could have been said for the change at offensive line coach, when the Cowboys moved on from Paul Alexander and promoting Marc Colombo.
Coach Jason Garrett knew what message he had to get across to his young team.
“Just a real deep understanding of what’s required to win a game in the NFL,” Garrett said. “The play-in, play-out effort and execution and focus and concentration and mental intensity through success and through adversity. We had been inconsistent in the early part of the year, and we have a lot of young players that had not played very much. We’d done some good things, but were not able to sustain it week to week in a game.”
In many ways, Garrett’s job was on the line at the midway point of the season, even as owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he would not make an in-season change at head coach.
All of the signs then were pointing to Garrett having the same fate as the coaches fired on Monday.
The Cowboys lost just one game the rest of the way and enter the wild-card round of the playoffs Saturday against the Seattle Seahawks as one of the NFL’s hottest teams.
“It was pretty obvious at that point, but I think we all knew the kind of team we had had, and when we’re 3-5, it just didn’t feel right,” Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. “We knew we were so much better than that. Credit to the guys and the coaches for battling and not giving up on the season.”
Garrett especially deserves the credit.
For all of the barking about his incessant clapping at strange times on the sideline, time-management issues and questionable game-management decisions over the years, Garrett has never lost command of his team.
On Monday, he wanted nothing to do with a conversation about his ability to get players to buy in.
“That might be a good lemonade conversation after the year,” Garrett said. “Our focus is on what we’re doing. That’s what we try to do every day. Lock in on us, be the best versions of ourselves individually and collectively and try to bring in the right guys on the team and just try to do it all together.”
Coaches are ultimately judged by postseason success. The Cowboys are making their third playoff trip in Garrett’s eight full seasons as coach. He has won just one postseason game (a 2014 wild-card win against the Detroit Lions).
When the Cincinnati Bengals fired Marvin Lewis on Monday, it meant Garrett is now the longest-tenured coach without a Super Bowl victory on his resume.
Jones has been patient with Garrett, defending him at times when many thought the owner should have made a coaching change. He told 105.3 The Fan that he believes Garrett can be a championship coach. Garrett has the second-most wins in franchise history. He has delivered three division titles in the past five seasons.
He has had just one losing season (2015) during his tenure and for all of the talk about being 8-8 forever, the Cowboys have the most wins in the NFC since 2016 (32).
“It’s important to have everybody believe in what we’re doing,” Garrett said. “Every player, every coach, every staff member has to believe in what our approach is every day. What you try to do when you’re in a leadership role or part of a coaching staff is you try to make sure that happens, and all of the actions of everybody in the organization follow the principles and convictions you have.”
Since the Tennessee game, the Cowboys went 7-1. They might not be a Super Bowl favorite, but few thought they would even get to the playoffs after that game. They saved a season.
They enter the postseason battle-tested.
“We’ve been in games like that for the last two months,” Garrett said. “Games that have gone back and forth and had to handle success early when we’ve had the lead and they come back and then had to handle adversity.
“It’s still that idea: It’s a 60-minute game, 63 players and 25 coaches and staff members. Through success and through adversity, you’ve got to keep coming.”