Just a few short weeks ago, the chorus of cries to fire Jason Garrett was very loud. Dallas sat at 5-6 after dropping a game to the hated rival Washington Redskins. Dallas was down by 25 points at halftime in that game, and many blamed Garrett’s poor play calling for the Cowboys' ineptitude on offense.
Rumors circulated that former Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren was in line to take over for Garrett once the season was over. Because, you know, it was already determined that team owner Jerry Jones would fire Jason Garrett as soon as time ticked off of the final game's clock.
But things are different now, as the Cowboys have won their last three to improve to 8-6, tied for the division lead and possessing a real shot at making the postseason.
How does Jason Garrett look now?
In fact, things are going so well for the redheaded coach that ESPN.com NFC East blogger Dan Graziano wrote an entire article titled “Can we stop firing Jason Garrett yet?”
Garrett has his team on a three-game winning streak, they have scored at least 20 points in all three games and quarterback Tony Romo has thrown for 912 yards during the streak.
For Garrett and the Cowboys, things are looking up, right? Short answer is maybe.
Here's the thing about the Cowboys and their new favorite head coach: They are wildly inconsistent, very undisciplined and will have to end the season on a five-game winning streak to make the playoffs.
Is it possible? Sure. Will it happen? That’s where the water gets a little muddy.
Consider what Garrett has faced since the beginning of the season (and I’m actually on the side of keeping him for another season): The team lost starting middle linebacker Sean Lee to a season-ending toe injury in Week 7, emerging linebacker and defensive leader Bruce Carter to an elbow injury on Thanksgiving and nose tackle Jay Ratliff recently to sports hernia surgery.
At the time of Lee’s injury, he led the team in tackles, and the same for Carter. When Lee went down, Carter took over as the team’s tackle machine. When he dislocated his elbow, he was the team’s tackle leader.
That is on top of not having running back DeMarco Murray for six games due to a sprained foot, being without starting center Phil Costa for the bulk of the year with a bad back and injured ankle, defensive end Sean Lissemore’s ankle issues, being shorthanded in the defensive backfield without corner Orlando Scandrick (broken hand) and seeing Mike Jenkins go on and off the field due to a myriad of injuries.
The sad part is that this is just a peek into the injury problems for the Cowboys in 2012. Not many coaches would be able to hold their teams together with so many key players missing. Not only has Garrett done so without much fanfare, but his team is winning with a real chance at making some serious noise in the playoffs.
But Dallas has to get there first, and that is where the issues start.
On Sunday, the Cowboys play host to the New Orleans Saints. If they win, they keep their playoff hopes alive. If they lose, their season may be over.
The last time these two teams tangled, the Saints beat the Cowboys by three points on Thanksgiving in 2010. The high-octane offense of New Orleans has sputtered for a major part of the season. They lost their first four games of the year and currently boast a record of 1-3 in their last four games.
New Orleans beat up on the Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday by a score of 41-0, but it did little to aid their dying playoff hopes. So as the Saints step on the field in Dallas on Sunday, they will have nothing to play for besides pride. Playing the role of spoiler will be their main intention.
This is where the rubber meets the road for Jason Garrett. Fans have often criticized Garrett for coming up small in big moments, calling off-the-wall plays when the situation doesn’t call for it and, maybe most important, not having his team ready for big games.
Last season, the Cowboys were in a win-or-go-home situation in the last game of the year. They traveled to New York to face the Giants: With a win, they were in the playoffs; with a loss, they were back home in Dallas licking their wounds.
The Giants beat up on the Cowboys 31-14, jumping out to a 21-0 lead by halftime. That loss, in the eyes of many fans, set Garrett up for what we are witnessing in 2012: a win-or-go-home season.
If Garrett is able to keep his team focused on the last two weeks of the season and help them post two more emotional victories, like when they beat the Bengals after losing a teammate and when they beat a fierce rival in overtime, then Garrett will earn the respect of many.
He will have led his team to the playoffs and will have a very good chance of making the Super Bowl in a competitive, but fragile, NFC, as the Falcons haven’t proven that they are capable of making it out of the first round, the 49ers are a tough defensive team, the Seahawks are surging and the Packers can be an enigma.
The opportunity to pounce is rife.
In the end, it all depends on Garrett’s ability to make the playoffs. If the Cowboys sink in the last two weeks, I believe his job is on the line. I don’t believe he will be fired as soon as the year ends, but Jones will be forced sit and think of making a change.
If the Cowboys are able to beat the Saints and Redskins to make the playoffs, Garrett is safe. The injuries and emotional stress are enough to break a regular human being, let alone the head coach of “America’s Team.”
Garrett hasn’t saved his job yet, but if he wins, the heat on the bottom of his coaching seat will cease for now.