Week 17 not mean­ing­less for Gar­rett

10-6 looks bet­ter than 9-7 for a coach who might wind up on the hot seat

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Sports - By Tim Cowlishaw DAL­LAS MORN­ING NEWS

Once upon a time the Cow­boys suf­fered Week 17 de­feats in mean­ing­ful games that looked like they would short-cir­cuit Ja­son Gar­rett’s stay as the team’s eighth head coach. And so Gar­rett flipped the script. Now, per­haps, it’s the vic­to­ries in what the rest of the world views as “mean­ing­less” Week 17 games that will keep him around longer than any of us imag­ined.

The Cow­boys have clinched the NFC East and the Giants have clinched last place, but it won’t be a sur­prise if Gar­rett keeps key play­ers on the Met Life Sta­dium field longer than an­tic­i­pated. For sure it will be longer than nec­es­sary be­cause Dal­las al­ready knows it’s host­ing the top wild-card team next week­end.

Re­gard­less, Gar­rett has a dif­fer­ent view on these games and it may go be­yond his ro­botic ap­proach to prac­tice, meet­ings, games and all that goes into a long foot­ball sea­son. It may be how he’s sav­ing his ca­reer.

In 2014, the Cow­boys wrapped up the NFC East in Week 16 with a rout of In­di­anapo­lis, but Gar­rett kept his foot on the pedal the fi­nal week at Wash­ing­ton in a 44-17 rout of Wash­ing­ton. Tony Romo threw 34 passes. DeMarco Mur­ray, al­ready the most over­worked back in the league by a large mar­gin, had 23 more touches.

In 2016, Gar­rett got Dak Prescott off the field after the first quar­ter of a sea­son fi­nale in Philadel­phia. Maybe he re­grets it. While the Cow­boys al­ready owned the No. 1 seed in the NFC play­offs, a vic­tory that day would have made them the only 14-2 team in Dal­las his­tory.

It’s last year that tells us the most about Gar­rett’s ap­proach. Meet­ing with team lead­ers that week, just days after a home loss to Seat­tle had killed the Cow­boys’ play­off hopes, Gar­rett said, “We’re go­ing to de­fine our­selves by what we do. How we fin­ish this thing is go­ing to re­veal our char­ac­ter.”

The Ea­gles were on their way to the Su­per Bowl and sat ba­si­cally all their starters by half­time. In a game that en­tered the fourth quar­ter score­less, Dal­las man­aged a 6-0 win that gave the Cow­boys (and more im­por­tantly Gar­rett) a 9-7 record. This was not a re­turn to the days of 8-8 that marked Gar­rett’s first three full sea­sons.

“I told you ear­lier in the week it might be the most mean­ing­ful game,” Gar­rett said in the locker room after­ward. “It shows what we are all about.”

Ac­tu­ally, what it does is show Jerry Jones a bet­ter ré­sumé to pon­der when this sea­son is over. While Cow­boys fans care pri­mar­ily about next week’s out­come — most likely against Seat­tle — let’s con­sider the sig­nif­i­cance of the Giants game and its im­pact on Gar­rett’s record. If the Cow­boys fail in the wild-card round, is it harder for Jones to jus­tify fir­ing a 10-6 coach than a 9-7 one?

Over the past five sea­sons, Gar­rett has more divi­sion ti­tles than any coach in the NFC (three). Only the Sea­hawks’ Car­roll has more win­ning sea­sons than Gar­rett (5-4). How do all these im­pres­sivesound­ing num­bers — and I’m not min­i­miz­ing them, they do bear sig­nif­i­cance — play off of a failed post­sea­son record?

If Gar­rett’s teams are 1-3 in Jan­uary, does Jones fall back on the “young team’’ nar­ra­tive and cite these reg­u­lar-sea­son num­bers and tell fans that it’s time to give Gar­rett at least one more chance?

Ob­vi­ously, if the Cow­boys win next week­end, I don’t think there is any ques­tion about Gar­rett’s im­me­di­ate fu­ture. But I’d say it’s still close to 50-50 as to what Jones will do if the Cow­boys can’t es­cape wild-card week­end.

The larger body of work, the reg­u­lar sea­son, fa­vors Gar­rett. The play­off de­feats tell a dif­fer­ent tale. Only Cincin­nati’s Marvin Lewis has stuck around so long with­out more post­sea­son suc­cess, and you re­ally don’t want to pat­tern your fran­chise-build­ing the­ory on the Ben­gals’ model.

But lit­tle things mat­ter. Even last games of the sea­son when play­off fates are etched in stone. A 10-6 record sounds like that of a con­tender. A 9-7 record sounds like a team that lucked its way into the tour­na­ment.

Ev­ery­one knows what crip­pling end-of-sea­son losses did for Romo, Gar­rett and the Cow­boys at the start of the decade. Maybe the head coach is the only one who un­der­stands what end-of-sea­son wins with seem­ingly noth­ing on the line can do for him.

Ron Jenk­ins / As­so­ci­ated Press

Ja­son Gar­rett is the only NFC coach with three divi­sion cham­pi­onships in the past five sea­sons, but he’s just 1-3 in the play­offs. Will a wild-card loss do him in?

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