With five games in the books, the Cowboys again find themselves on the downward side of another teeter-totter season, falling to 2-3 at the hands of cross-state “rival” the Houston Texans by a score of 19-16. Another milquetoast offensive effort spoils the team’s many Achilles-esque defensive stands, proving again that it’s not easy to ride your defense to a win if your offense can’t get you out of the teens.
In my last column, I was very critical of Dak Prescott because, as I’ll sadly concede, much of the blame for the team’s offensive tire-spinning can be laid at his feet. But while he was far from perfect on Sunday, I don’t think you can hang this game on him. Between one of running back Ezekiel Elliott’s career-worst games (20 carries for 54 yards); mediocre, stone-handed receivers ricocheting interceptions into the arms of opposing defensive backs; and the gutless decision by head coach Jason Garrett to punt on fourth and one in opposing territory with time waning in overtime, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
I’ve come to accept the fact that Prescott is never going to be an elite quarterback. His accuracy will always be spotty, and his near-clinical phobia of making a mistake will perpetuate his tendency to check down and throw it away rather than chance a turnover. There’s definitely no hint of Tony Romo’s gunslinging Jedi magic in him.
The thing is, he doesn’t have to be elite to be successful. Dak may not have shown much ability to bite off chunks of the field with high-risk/high-reward tight-window or downfield throws (something that Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson did time and again on Sunday), but he’s demonstrated that when the coaches play to his strengths of movement, misdirection, and mobility, he’s capable of leading his team to victories. He just needs some help. Help from his coaches in their game plan for him and help from the personnel department in getting him some more weapons, because, unlike Watson, he certainly doesn’t have a dynamic playmaker like wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins on the outside.
Which brings me to the question: Why not? Why did this team recently carry as many as seven (!!!) receivers, none of whom would be better than most teams’ third option? We’re told it’s by design. They have a plan, I guess. As the history of this club during the Jason Garrett era demonstrates, once a plan is in place, there’s no deviating from it. No outside influence, no new information, no evidence that the strategy is not working –– nothing seems to make any difference. This rigid and mulish devotion to how they do things and how things have always been done –– and unwaveringly –– will continue to be done, pervading every level of the Cowboys organization. From personnel decisions to game management (and, perhaps most obviously, play-calling), the Cowboys, from front office to sideline, do not stray from the plan. As if an NFL organization were a monorail and only destruction would result if it were removed from a predetermined track.
They do not sign even mid-level (much less premiere) free agents, regardless of whether they have, say, a viable starting safety or a No. 1 receiver. They do not take risks, no matter if punting the ball leaves the comically unsatisfactory option of a tie as the best possible outcome. In my mind, especially with the new shorter overtime period, the likelihood of the Cowboys’ defense getting a stop and then suddenly bringing to life their listless offense to move the ball into field goal range, something they were incapable of doing in that game on Sunday, was a near impossibility. They needed to go for it. Die with your rifle in hand screaming on the battlefield, not waving the flag of surrender hoping at best you’re captured and imprisoned.
They might not have even been in that position if it hadn’t been absolutely obvious they would try to shove Elliott up the middle on the play before, only to be read like the Cliffs Notes version of The Great Gatsby and have Zeke stuffed at the line of scrimmage. At this point, the Cowboys’ playbook is as predictable as the plots of third-tier network TV crime dramas. The innocuous and overly helpful witness always ends up being the killer, and the Cowboys will always run up the middle on third and one. That play is almost as easily anticipated as their apparent only option on third and long: the coronary-inflicting three-yard screen pass. (If I know that, it’s probable opposing defenses do too, yeah?)
You’re likely familiar with the expression coined by the stuffy 19th-century British historian named Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The problem with success is that it can give the successful an inflated sense of their own genius. They ultimately come to believe the mythologies they create about their acumen and expertise and, consciously or not, insulate themselves against anything and anyone who might question their aptitudes. Just ask the reality TV star in the White House.
When Garrett wins Coach of the Year as he did in 2016, it falsely reinforces in his mind that he knows what the hell he’s doing. The same is certainly the case with meandering halted-speech and rhytidectomy enthusiast (and buddy of the aforementioned reality TV star) Jerry Jones. Ripping off three Super Bowl championships pretty much right out of the gate upon taking ownership of the team (not to mention being elected to the Hall of Fame) no doubt has given Jones the validation he needs to believe that his way is the right way and the only way.
So he’ll stay with Garrett as head coach because admitting Garrett is a failure means he is a failure. And Garrett will continue to allow Scott Linehan to call predictable plays and keep the training wheels on Dak, because if the kid doesn’t screw up, then maybe Garrett won’t be seen as doing so either. So on with the plan it is. A plan that looks like it’ll be just good enough for one of Garrett’s patented 8-8 seasons. We on the outside can see the plan is not working (that is, if championships are the goal). I’m honestly not sure if the Cowboys’ brass can or not. But I do know that even if they did, they would never admit it, much less change it.