The Dallas Cowboys came into the 2010-11 NFL season as one of the preseason favorites to come out of the NFC East and represent the conference in the Super Bowl...and become the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home city.
Instead, they started the season flat on their face by losing back-to-back games against Washington and Chicago. Following an upset win over Houston, things went from bad to worse in the blink of an eye.
They dropped five in a row, fell to 1-7 for the season, and pretty much eliminated all hopes they had of making the postseason.
In two of those games (Tennessee and Minnesota), Dallas was tied in the fourth quarter only to let the game slip away. Against New York, they led 10-0 in the first quarter when Tony Romo broke his collarbone, and the Giants roared back to take a 38-20 lead before ultimately holding on to the win.
And in losses to Jacksonville and Green Bay, the team might as well not even have showed up.
Jerry Jones backed Wade Phillips publicly for most of the season, but a 45-7 debacle at the hands of the Packers was the last straw. The embattled coach was fired that week, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was promoted to interim head coach, and speculation ensued as to who Jones would look for to coach this talented roster in 2011.
But even without Romo, the team has played well enough under Garrett for Jones to warrant consideration in hiring him instead of a big-name coach like Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher. They went on the road to defeat the Giants and Colts, and if it weren't for a game-saving strip from Malcolm Jenkins vs. New Orleans, this team would be undefeated in their last four games.
How has Garrett turned the ship around and brought Dallas back to respectability? Let's take a look and see if he has a chance of staying on as coach beyond this season.
The Cowboys don't really have a premier featured back, but they do have three very good ones in Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice.
But in the first eight games of the season all three struggled to find a rhythm. Dallas had just one 100-yard rusher in that span—in fact, they had just two games where one of their running backs broke 50 yards rushing.
That's not been the case in the last four games, however. After averaging a little over 75 yards per game up to the Green Bay contest, they've put up 148 on the ground since Garrett took over.
Because of that, the Cowboys have been able to dominate the time of the possession, keep their struggling defense off the field and open up the offense for receivers Miles Austin and Dez Bryant (before his season-ending injury yesterday) to make big plays downfield.
Dallas won't be posting any 1,000-yard rushers this season, but the ability to run the ball gives them an added dimension offensively and makes them far less predictable—a bonus considering that they're going with Jon Kitna at QB every week.
Under Phillips, the Cowboys were one of the league's most penalized teams, at 7.6 per game. They always seemed to come at the most inopportune teams as well, like after a big play on offense or a crucial stop on defense.
A perfect example came after a game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown against Tennessee in Week 4. It was a tough break on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (Marc Colombo got knocked to the ground in the celebration) but it was an epitome of how the season had gone up to that point.
The Titans were set up with excellent field position and marched the rest of the way for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Cowboys still rank No. 25 in the league with over six flags per game, but they've really cleaned up the mistakes on both sides of the ball since Garrett took over.
In only one of their last four games have they committed more penalties than their opponent. And they've knocked nearly 10 penalty yards per game off their season average.
Not surprisingly, several teams toward the top in fewest penalties per game are some of the league's better teams (Atlanta, Indianapolis, New England, Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore, Chicago, San Diego). Dallas has enough talent as many of those teams and, now that they're not shooting themselves in the proverbial foot as much, they're finding it easier to win games.
Dallas has a great amount of talent on offense, but when you continually give the other team multiple chances to score, it usually will come back to haunt you.
The Cowboys found that out the hard way in the first half of the year, committing 19 turnovers that, like the penalties, always seemed to come at the worst possible time.
Against Minnesota, for example, the Cowboys led 7-0 and forced the Vikings into a three-and-out to get the ball back, only to have Romo throw an interception to E.J. Henderson, giving the Vikes tremendous field position. Instead of building off the momentum from the previous drive, they allowed Minnesota to tie it right back up.
And later, with the game knotted up at 21 in the fourth quarter, Romo threw another interception to Henderson, allowing the Vikings to kick a field goal that would ultimately be the difference in the game.
But they've cleaned it up recently, with just five turnovers in four games. Not coincidentally, the one game where they had more turnovers than the opposition was the game they lost (vs. New Orleans).
And they're not only giving the ball away less, they're forcing the other team into mistakes.
Through eight games the team had just 10 takeaways—and even those numbers are a little skewed because of one game where the Giants had five turnovers against Dallas (and still won). They've already forced as many turnovers under Garrett than they did in twice as many games with Phillips.
Yesterday they intercepted Peyton Manning four times and scored 20 points off those miscues. It's not rocket science: If you win the turnover battle and can convert those mistakes into points, you've got a better chance of winning.
There's no need to sugarcoat it: A good team makes key plays when they absolutely need to.
Look at this year's New York Jets. Some might call them lucky, but other than a somewhat iffy pass interference call at Denver, they've made their own luck.
They had a big drive to force overtime against the Lions, they made a crucial defensive stand late in overtime against the Browns to set up good field position for Santonio Holmes' game-winning catch, and they engineered a great two-minute drill to come from behind and knock off the Texans.
The Cowboys had been the antithesis of that all season long. Against Washington, they tried a swing pass on the last play of the first half, leading to a strip and fumble by DeAngelo Hall that he returned for a touchdown...and turned out to be the difference in the game.
There were the previously mentioned unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty against Tennessee and the fourth-quarter interception against Minnesota.
Against Chicago, they had a chance to tie the game halfway through the fourth quarter but missed a 44-yard field goal. The Bears took the ball down the field in three plays to score a touchdown and go up by 10, effectively clinching the game.
But this version of the Cowboys is making those key plays.
After the Giants had cut the lead down to 13 in Garrett's first game, the Cowboys responded with a huge drive in the third quarter that stretched the lead back to 20 and sucked the air out of the New Meadowlands.
Trailing the Lions by two in the third quarter, the Cowboys got a break when Detroit tried to down the ball inside the 5-yard line by batting it backwards. It went right to Bryan McCann, who went 97 yards for the touchdown. Dallas scored 28 second-half points and never looked back.
And yesterday against the Colts, they got an interception off a deflected pass in overtime that allowed them to set up the game-winning field goal.
Yes, there was the Malcolm Jenkins strip that led to New Orleans' go-ahead touchdown on Thanksgiving. But getting those type of plays in three out of four games still isn't horrible.
And couldn't that have just been an unbelievable play by New Orleans that could spark them to another deep playoff than it was a costly mistake by the Cowboys?
They had been used to the momentum-shifting plays benefiting the other team. But now, they're carrying themselves with a confidence that suggests they believe they're going to make plays when it matters most.
It's easy to play the "what if" game and think about what this season would have been like for Dallas if Garrett was coaching the entire game. Odds are that it wouldn't have unfolded exactly like these last four games.
It was the perfect storm of circumstances: Garrett basically auditioning for a head-coaching job (if not in Dallas, then perhaps elsewhere), and the team was desperate to find something to rally around to save their season.
The leader of this Cowboys team doesn't necessarily need to be a big-name coach with a long track record—he just needs to be someone who can motivate these guys properly (which Phillips obviously couldn't), keep them disciplined and from beating themselves (which Phillips couldn't do) and put players in a position to succeed.
The success that Jon Kitna, of all people, is having is proof that Garrett knows how to do all three. He's not exactly tearing up the scoreboard or the stat sheet, but Kitna is playing well enough to give Dallas a chance to win some of these games. He's thrown for 954 yards and eight touchdowns with just two interceptions in the last four games.
Would you ever believe that, in the year 2010, a Jon Kitna-led team could go 3-1 in four games with wins over the Giants and Colts? I didn't think so.
That said, Dallas still has a lot to play for in their final four games. They have three division games, including a home-and-away with first-place Philadelphia and a home contest against Washington. So don't hand him the job yet.
But if Garrett wins two of those games (would put him at a 3-1 division record as interim coach), and the Cowboys show the same progress and discipline as they have recently, then there is no doubt that he deserves an opportunity to coach this team next season, as well.