Sorting the Sunday Pile, Week 12: Cowboys at a crossroads with Jason Garrett, Jerry Jones situation
Breaking down the biggest stories from Week 12 of the NFL season
Here we are again, a football-watching nation wondering how Jason Garrett is going to keep his job in the face of consistent failure to perform by his team. Jerry Jones' perpetual surprise at the Cowboys failings should, frankly, be the only surprise at this point. The owner is not happy, though, and it portends gloom and doom for Garrett if he can't turn things around and make a deep playoff run.
Jones' comments on Sunday afternoon, in the wake of the Cowboys 13-9 loss to the Patriots in typical November New England weather, were about . How he could be surprised that coaching was a key factor in a matchup between a Bill Belichick team and a Jason Garrett team is beyond me, but here we are anyway.
Specifically, Jones lasered in on the special teams issues the Cowboys faced.
"Special teams is a total reflection of coaching," Jones said. "To me, special teams is 100 percent coaching. It's 100 percent coaching. It's strategy. It's having players ready. ... Special teams is nothing but coaching. Special teams is effort. Special teams is savvy. Special teams is thinking."
It's a fair complaint. There were multiple situations in which coaching on special teams factored into the Cowboys struggling to find a victory.
First up is the blocked punt by Matthew Slater:
This isn't necessarily the Cowboys' fault, per se, that led to the only touchdown of the game, a Tom Brady back shoulder toss to rookie N'Keal Harry, something you should plan on seeing more of in the future. Also, I just want to point out how awesome Slater is. Look how he comes flying in for this punt block and then does a Matrix-like roll away from the punter, ensuring there won't be any roughing/running into controversy situation. Just an absolute pro.
Plus, Slater has played on 14 offensive or defensive snaps this season. He's a 34-year-old special teams player and he's been on the Patriots for TWELVE YEARS. Do you know how highly Bill Belichick has to think about you for you to be on his roster for 12 years without being an impactful offensive or defensive player whatsoever? Shoutout to Matthew Slater.
Week 12 is almost in the books and there's a lot to go over. Fortunately Will Brinson, John Breech, Ryan Wilson and Sean Wagner-McGough are here to break everything down on the Pick Six Podcast. Listen below and be sure to subscribe right here for daily NFL goodness fired into your eardrums.
Maybe you can criticize the Cowboys for their blocking scheme here? They had the punt protector rotate to the middle and it allowed Slater to come storming through. Or maybe just credit the Pats for preparing for this in a way that Dallas clearly didn't. The Pats now have three blocked punts this season, the most through 11 games by a team since the Chiefs in 1990. We are all living in a Bill Belichick fever dream.
"We had a look that we felt good about all week, and we really worked hard on that," Slater said after the game. "The way the game turned out, we didn't think we'd have a lot of chances to return the football, so we wanted to keep the pressure on them.
The Cowboys coaching staff can be criticized for how things played out in other spots, however. Early in the game, Brent Maher missed a 46-yard field goal that doinked off the upright. He had plenty of leg and enough accuracy, but in those conditions that's a really difficult kick to make. I'm not suggesting the Cowboys should have gone for it on 4th-and-6 from the Patriots 28-yard line, but I do think the third down playcall was pretty questionable.
It's 3rd-and-10 and a first down would be great, but the weather was a disaster. A smarter play might have been to set up the offense for a fourth and short. What is Dak Prescott supposed to do with this ball at the top of his drop?
He would pick up four yards on a running play, but the goal here should be to generate a convertable fourth down. The Cowboys weren't winning this game by banging down field goals. Approaching this game in a conservative fashion was silly. Dallas needed to get a touchdown early and force the Patriots to play from behind. They did the opposite.
That's game management. More concerning was a later punt from the Cowboys, in which the Patriots appeared to make a rare special teams miscue and Dallas was completely unable to take advantage of it. From their own 40-yard-line, the Cowboys lined up to punt the ball on 4th-and-13. No one was back deep to return the ball for the Patriots, which confused the Cowboys so badly they took a delay of game penalty.
What should have happened was a quick punt with a chance to pin the Patriots deep. Or, even worse, a coached-up team making a play by throwing the ball to the wide open gunner who was abandoned on the sideline.
It was 4th and 13, the weather was bad and having a punter throw the ball would be super risky. But you complete this pass and Ventell Bryant is jogging into the end zone for six points.
The Cowboys were moved back five yards and kicked again, managing to get the ball to the Patriots 18-yard line. Unfortunately there was an illegal motion penalty on Dallas, which meant a re-kick of the punt.
"How's this going?" Aikman asked sarcastically. "I thought they were going to flip field position. By the time this thing is over the Patriots might have it at midfield."
He wasn't that far off. The third time the special teams unit lined up to kick, the snap was bobbled and Rex Burkhead fielded a fair catch at the Patriots 38-yard line. That's horrific attention to detail. Jerry Jones is spot on: it's coaching and it cost the Cowboys well over 20 yards of field position in a game that was clearly going to be close. The Patriots would wind up making a field on the ensuing drive.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter, with the Patriots leading 13-6 with eight-plus minutes remaining and the Cowboys driving with a chance to tie the game. Make no mistake, this felt like Dallas' best chance to steal this victory. A Dak throw to Randall Cobb moved them all the way down the field. At this point, the Cowboys decided to run a fake end around pitch thing.
It didn't go anywhere. I admire bringing out the kitchen sink, but this was a meat and potatoes game. You're not fooling the Pats in this spot. Second down was a nice screen from Dak to Ezekiel Elliott, a tough catch and throw that Elliott managed to steal
"You just have to believe ... there's no way Dallas, this is four-down territory," Aikman remarked after the play. "A field goal does not help them."
I bring up Aikman's comments primarily because if he's the one making it clear the Cowboys can't play scared in this spot, you better believe Jerry is thinking the same thing. The whole world was thinking it. Down seven in the waning moments of a road game, this is the time to be bold.
Or you can run a preposterous option play in the weather with Dak pitching to Zeke as late as possible. Or that.
The end around and the option pitch aren't bad plays in a vacuum. But they look like plays installed by a coaching staff who didn't bother looking at a weather report. Those two plays are begging for a fumble, a Patriots recovery and the game ending. The Cowboys dodged a couple bullets, but they put themselves in a poor spot leverage-wise.
Second down had Dak throwing into the end zone at Jason Witten in double coverage. Not ideal. This was a team trying to score right then and there instead of attempting to set up a shorter third down and then potentially a short fourth down option. Third and seven was Dak throwing to Blake Jarwin in double coverage in the end zone. None of these plays were putting the Cowboys in better field position to pick up a first down and go for the touchdown. It's almost like Garrett preferred the field goal.
He got his wish. I understand 4th-and-7 is really tough. In fact, the folks at Edj Sports noted in their weekly "Risky Business" breakdown that Garrett's decision to kick here actually only cost the Cowboys 0.5 percent in terms of win percentage. I respect the math, but I would personally have it higher given the circumstances and the opponent and the weather and how the game had played out. But that's just me.
Also worth noting about that percentage? Jason Garrett wasn't factoring it in, telling 105.3 the Fan in Dallas on Monday that "we don't use those stats during the game." I don't have the option of inserting a facepalm emoji here, but if I did, I would exercise that option.
Of course, we already knew Garrett wasn't being entirely efficient with his in-game approach to managing a football game. As noted in the Edj report, the decision to kick late down a full touchdown "doesn't even qualify as one of the top three fourth-down decision errors of the game by the Cowboys." Yikes.
The bottom line: the Cowboys are consistently wasting talent with in-game decisions by their coach. And Jones may be sick and tired of it.
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