Week 17 not meaningless for Garrett
10-6 looks better than 9-7 for a coach who might wind up on the hot seat
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.
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?