Armed with playmakers on both sides of the ball and graced with the public confidence of owner Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett entered this season with everything he needed to finally play winning football and return one of the most storied organizations in American sports to the postseason.
Garrett's job was made easier still when all three of his division rivals suffered from setbacks at the quarterback position during the early part of the season. Until Philadelphia Eagles backup Nick Foles caught fire to lead the Eagles to a 6-1 record down the stretch, it looked as though the Cowboys could play losing football and still win the NFC East.
Just before Week 16's matchup against a Washington team in free fall, ESPN's Ed Werder reported that Jones had internally drawn a very clear line in the sand:
Source says current expectation is Jerry Jones will fire HC Jason Garrett and coaching staff unless the Cowboys win NFC East, make playoffs.— Ed Werder (@Edwerderespn) December 22, 2013
All Garrett had to do to keep his job was win his last two games—and in doing so, accomplish what he hadn't been able to in two full seasons as head coach: win more games than he lost, win the division and make the playoffs.
He very nearly tripped up against a three-win Washington team. In Week 16's contest, the Cowboys spent most of the game stuck in neutral. Then, in the fourth quarter, quarterback Tony Romo bailed the whole team out with clutch back-to-back scoring drives, culminating in a game-winning touchdown pass. All was well at Valley Ranch, at least until Monday.
That's when word came down that Romo suffered a potentially season-ending back injury, per different sources with varying degrees of confirmation.
With only a division-deciding, head-to-head showdown against the Eagles left on the schedule, losing Romo—ranked eighth in both NFL passer efficiency and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, per Pro-Football-Reference.com—for any length of time is enormous.
So, what happens now? Does Garrett get a free pass? Is going into a must-win scenario with Kyle Orton under center a no-win situation?
Did Romo's injury just save Garrett's job?
Let's go back to the beginning of the offseason. Garrett's perceived underperformance had led Jones to not only bring in offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, but also force Garrett—a former Cowboys quarterback and offensive coordinator—to cede play-calling duties to Callahan.
Jones also replaced controversial defensive coordinator Rob Ryan with legendary Tampa 2 architect Monte Kiffin. Head coaches usually hire trusted colleagues as top assistants—replacing both of a skipper's coordinators is as close to firing him as it gets without actually calling security.
At the beginning of training camp, Garrett allowed Sports Illustrated sub-site The Monday Morning Quarterback to film his first speech to the team:
Garrett seemed legitimately excited for the year ahead, and with good reason. Coaching and schematic continuity issues aside, the Cowboys had enough talent in enough key spots that getting over the hump—finishing better than 8-8 for the first time in Garrett's career—should have been eminently doable.
Instead, it's been a back-and-forth struggle, with lots of close, dramatic shootouts that frequently end with either a Romo touchdown or a Romo interception. The third-ranked scoring offense is putting up points at a 27.8 points-per-game clip, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, but the 25th-ranked defense is allowing 27.2 points per game.
The results of the Cowboys scoring almost exactly as many points as they allow have been predictable: an 8-7 record and needing an enormous win to avoid going 8-8 for the third straight season.
It's tempting to think that if Jones privately declared last week that Garrett's job would be decided solely on the last two games of the season, he'd be safe no matter what. After all, he oversaw a dramatic come-from-behind win in a divisional road game, then lost his star quarterback for the second.
Here's the thing: Jones didn't draw a line in the sand last week. He did it when he replaced Garrett's coordinators and again when he signed Romo to a six-year, $108 million extension. Whether Jones made it explicit or not, 2013 was always going to be playoffs-or-bust for Garrett.
With simultaneous implosions in Washington and New York and a rocky (no pun intended) start for Philadelphia, going 8-7 over the first 15 games is a huge opportunity missed—and indeed, Garrett and the Cowboys missed many golden opportunities to do better.
Between Callahan's coming-of-age under Jon Gruden in Oakland and Garrett's entire playing and coaching career, both offensive architects are pass-first guys.
It's no wonder, then, that they lean hard on Romo and Bryant whenever the going gets tough. As Bleacher Report Lead Writer Brad Gagnon wrote, the Cowboys have a bad habit of abandoning their effective run game, even when they need to close out wins.
The Cowboys lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers by a total of just six points. Against the Chiefs and Lions, Romo played well enough to win, but the defense couldn't get a stop at the end of those games. Against the Broncos and Packers, Romo's game-winning drive attempt ended with an interception.
If the Cowboys had pulled out any of those four games, three of which were decided by a single point, they would already have secured a winning record.
Had they won just two of them, the Cowboys would already have clinched the division, Garrett's job would already be safe and Orton might have been starting against the Eagles just to give Romo a breather for the playoffs.
Instead, Garrett's proven he's just not good enough to turn this talented Cowboys squad into a contender—and just contending has never been "good enough" for Jerry Jones anyway. Win or lose, it's time for Jones to find a head coach who can get Dallas back to the Super Bowl.