Jason Garrett's Cowboys are great on fourth-and-short, but he never lets them try to convert

On the first possession of the overtime period during Sunday night's battle between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans, Dallas marched the ball into Houston territory fairly quickly. The Cowboys had struggled offensively for most of the night, but within six plays, they had the ball in Texans territory and appeared to be in a very advantageous situation. 

Given the time, score, down and distance, Pro-Football-Reference.com's win probability model gave the Cowboys a 65.6 percent chance of winning the game after Dak Prescott completed an 8-yard pass to Cole Beasley in order to set up third-and-short. But Ezekiel Elliott was surprisingly stuffed for no gain on the third-down try, so the Cowboys were faced with fourth-and-1 from the Texans' 42-yard line. And then, with his expensive offensive line, his No. 4 pick running back who is one of the best short-yardage converters in the league, and his 240-pound quarterback who also excels in the running game, Jason Garrett did what he usually does: He kicked. 

Four plays later, Deshaun Watson stepped up through the pocket and found DeAndre Hopkins streaking across the field. Hopkins broke a few tackles, spun around safety Kavon Frazier and eventually gained 49 yards before he was finally taken to the ground. Three Alfred Blue runs later, Ka'imi Fairbairn was set up with a 36-yard field goal try, which he knocked through the uprights to send Garrett's Cowboys home with a loss. It is not that hyperbolic to suggest Garrett's decision to punt cost his team the game. 

And here's the thing: He does this all the time.

Garrett took over as the Cowboys' head coach midway through the 2010 season. Dallas was 1-7 at the time under Wade Phillips, but went 5-3 the rest of the way after Garrett was put in charge. He was soon named the permanent head coach, and has served in that capacity since 2011. During that time, the Cowboys have been faced with a positive-territory (i.e. across the 50-yard line) fourth down and 3 or fewer yards to go in a competitive game (i.e. within two scores) 92 times. 

On those 92 chances, Garrett has chosen to punt 17 times. That 18.48 percent punt rate is the second-highest in the NFL. He has chosen to kick a field goal 47 times. That 51.09 percent field goal rate is 14th in the NFL. In all, Garrett's kick rate (punts plus field goal attempts divided by opportunities) of 69.57 percent is the third-highest in the NFL. And Garrett has chosen to go for it on fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to go just 28 times. That go rate of 30.43 percent is third-lowest in the NFL. 

And guess what? Garrett's team has actually been really, really good at converting on these fourth and short plays. 

RankTeam1D RatePunt RateFG RateKick RateGo Rate
1PHI70.18%5.66%40.57%46.23%53.77%
2CLE58.97%14.63%37.80%52.44%47.56%
3BAL62.50%10.78%42.16%52.94%47.06%
4NOR70.73%9.38%47.92%57.29%42.71%
5SFO66.67%7.92%50.50%58.42%41.58%
6JAX48.72%11.70%46.81%58.51%41.49%
7CAR78.95%13.04%45.65%58.70%41.30%
8GNB50.00%14.12%45.88%60.00%40.00%
9CHI63.41%18.45%41.75%60.19%39.81%
10WAS63.16%12.00%50.00%62.00%38.00%
11STL51.43%8.60%53.76%62.37%37.63%
12PIT66.67%12.28%50.88%63.16%36.84%
13TAM58.62%12.35%51.85%64.20%35.80%
14CIN70.00%16.07%48.21%64.29%35.71%
15HOU59.46%15.24%49.52%64.76%35.24%
16IND56.67%13.95%51.16%65.12%34.88%
17 TEN69.44%15.24%50.48%65.71%34.29%
18DET50.00%11.70%54.26%65.96%34.04%
19NYG51.28%16.52%49.57%66.09%33.91%
20OAK48.39%15.22%51.09%66.30%33.70%
21MIA46.67%17.78%48.89%66.67%33.33%
22BUF50.00%14.43%52.58%67.01%32.99%
23DEN77.42%15.63%52.08%67.71%32.29%
24NWE77.78%8.04%59.82%67.86%32.14%
25MIN70.00%12.77%55.32%68.09%31.91%
26SEA66.67%25.44%42.98%68.42%31.58%
27ARI46.43%13.48%55.06%68.54%31.46%
28NYJ46.67%16.67%52.08%68.75%31.25%
29KAN59.38%14.29%55.24%69.52%30.48%
30DAL75.00%18.48%51.09%69.57%30.43%
31ATL54.55%12.73%57.27%70.00%30.00%
32SDG50.00%11.22%60.20%71.43%28.57%
ALLNFL61.12%13.65%50.11%63.76%36.24%

On Dallas' 28 fourth-down tries of 3 or fewer yards to go in opposition territory during that time, they have generated 21 first downs. Their 75 percent conversion rate is fourth-best in the entire league, behind only the Patriots, Panthers and Broncos. The Patriots have Tom Brady, who is nearly automatic on quarterback sneaks. The Panthers have Cam Newton, the best short-yardage converter in the league. And the Broncos had Peyton Manning, who was excellent at sneaks in his own right. The Cowboys have had Tony Romo and Dak Prescott and Marion Barber and DeMarco Murray and Ezekiel Elliott, and they almost never go for it. 

Yes, despite being one of the best fourth and short teams in the NFL for eight years, converting 75 PERCENT OF THE TIME in those situations, Jason Garrett has continued to be one of the most kick-happy coaches in the NFL in those situations. It came back to bite Garrett's team Sunday night, and it was not even close to the first time. Kicking on fourth-and-short multiple times in positive territory has played a role in each of Dallas' past two playoff losses, as field goals allowed Aaron Rodgers to rip the Cowboys' hearts out when they could have snuffed out any opportunity Green Bay had to win by being aggressive and pushing for touchdowns. 

Jerry Jones has long expressed confidence in Garrett's coaching abilities. He has referred to the former Cowboys backup quarterback as his Tom Landry. He has kept Garrett on as head coach even while the Cowboys have made the playoffs just twice in his eight-plus seasons as coach and have won just one playoff game. 

He has kept Garrett on for that long despite the fact that his six non-playoff seasons are just one less than Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells and Wade Phillips had combined. Switzer was fired the first time he missed the playoffs. Gailey was fired after making the playoffs twice in a row. Campo was fired after three straight non-playoff seasons. Parcells was fired for not going far enough in the playoffs after making it twice in four years and losing in the first round both times. 

Garrett started his Cowboys coaching career with three consecutive 8-8 non-playoff seasons and somehow kept the job. His two playoff seasons ended at the hands of the Packers, with his conservative decision-making playing a role both times. He still kept his job. Garrett was stripped of his play-calling duties years ago (2013), had them reinstated for a year, and then ceded them back to Scott Linehan in 2015. Jones did that so Garrett could focus on so-called "game management." That plan has failed many times over. 

Jerry Jones finally admitted Sunday night that he wanted to see more aggressiveness out of Garrett in those fourth-down situations, and said that he and his son Stephen Jones, who serves as the team's executive vice president and COO, were disappointed. It's about time. 

CBS Sports Writer

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer. He joined CBSSports.com in 2014 and has since spent far too much of his time watching film and working in spreadsheets. Full Bio

Our Latest Stories