There was never a danger of the Dallas Cowboys being eliminated from playoff contention regardless of the outcome against the New Orleans Saints. Win or lose, Dallas would likely be playing for something heading into next weekend’s regular season finale at Washington against the Redskins.
Still, I don’t think anybody will accuse the Cowboys of not giving a maximum effort to win a ballgame that went to overtime—again—only to see Dallas come up short much the same way they have all season.
And again in 2011.
And the season before that, and the one before that, and the one before that and going all the way back to 2007.
That was the year head coach and offensive play-caller Jason Garrett arrived at the insistence of owner and general manager Jerry Jones. Having served just two seasons prior as a quarterbacks coach in Miami, Garrett was thrust into the spotlight of offensive coordinator.
Continuing the trendy decision to share the load at running back which began after the departure of Emmitt Smith in 2002, Garrett has maintained one common denominator throughout his tenure in Dallas.
Garrett is not going to run the football any more than he can get away with, and it doesn’t matter who running back is.
Sunday’s entertaining, if not heartbreaking, defeat to New Orleans was yet another snapshot of how poor Garrett is at exploiting an opponent’s weaknesses.
It was no secret that the Saints came into Cowboys Stadium with a defense that scared absolutely nobody. Combine that fact with a Dallas offensive line that has improved substantially over just a month ago, and the formula was there to hammer New Orleans.
The Cowboys had a healthy DeMarco Murray and a red-hot connection between quarterback Tony Romo and receiver Dez Bryant. They also had a tight end that is having a career season catching the football.
Many picked Dallas to win this game, largely because of those things just mentioned, provided that the Cowboys did the obvious:
Run the football.
Garrett could not have been less interested, and it was obvious from the very beginning.
Dallas took the ball for the first time trailing 7-0 following the Saints' opening possession, which ended with a touchdown. Murray was given the ball on the second play from scrimmage and picked up a first down on an eight-yard gain. But that possession sputtered, as Romo would pass on the next three plays while getting sacked on the final attempt.
The Cowboys had to punt.
Murray wouldn’t touch the ball again until close to a quarter later as he picked up six yards off left tackle. Bryant would score his first 58-yard touchdown on the very next play.
Murray’s next two carries came in the middle of the second quarter, when he rushed for nine and five yards, respectively. Bryant scored his second 58-yard touchdown three plays later.
The Cowboys began their final possession of the first half in a 14-14 knot with New Orleans. With 1:11 remaining before halftime, Dallas had just enough time to move into field-goal range.
Murray was averaging just over seven yards per carry.
Three straight passes gained seven yards and burned a meager 15 seconds off the clock.
That’s right, a 15-second drive!
So instead, the Saints would drive downfield for a field goal and a three-point lead at intermission following a Dallas punt.
In fact, while we’re talking about short drives, would you believe that Dallas had seven drives that lasted under two minutes—two under 15 seconds!
Time of possession went 41:59 to 22:28 in favor of New Orleans.
This is inexcusable, and Garrett seems to have to learn this lesson each and every month.
Garrett knew his defense would likely struggle to limit Saints yardage and points in this game. The most significant part of that task was going to be running the football. But despite those big gains from Murray early on, Garrett could only get him the football 10 times in the backfield prior to overtime.
This averages out to just two and a half carries per quarter. That will not win many football games.
Even more disheartening is the fact that Murray still took a four-yard average per carry into overtime, when Murray would carry just once for no gain.
Clock management has never been a Garrett quality or strength. I can’t understand how one gets to be head coach in the NFL unless a fundamental like this is just second nature.
But a lack of rushing yards continues to keep Dallas in the middle of the pack, and this will not change until Murray either carries the ball 20 times or more or can amass over 150 all-purpose yards. If this happens then other points will likely emerge for an offense that has huge potential and firepower.
But you can’t score from 60 yards away every possession—not in the NFL.
But this is all Garrett’s offense ever provides. If the big play isn’t working, then the Cowboys are not scoring.
It seems like Garrett really feels like he is trailing by seven when he’s only actually down by three.
If he’s down by seven, it feels like 14, and if Garrett trails by 14 then you’ll never see the running game again.
This is why the Cowboys are generally scrambling near the end of games to either tie or win a game with a one-dimensional offense—much like their season, at this point, heading into Washington with everything on the line.