The Dallas Cowboys' primary issue is the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow: Jason Garrett isn't the right person to lead the team.
The second-longest-tenured head coach in the franchise's history has done nothing to build upon what little success he's experienced during his nine seasons.
Dallas went all-in during the bye week in an attempt to make a push for the NFC East crown by trading a first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for wide receiver Amari Cooper, only to fall flat against the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Cowboys' 14-point loss is their worst coming off a bye since the 2004 campaign.
"We didn't see this coming," owner Jerry Jones said after the 28-14 loss at AT&T Stadium, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "We did have a lot of time to prepare. We had a lot of time to get ready and make changes to give us a better shot that this. If you will, this is a step back for us."
The loss dropped Dallas to 3-5 overall and two full games behind the division-leading Washington Redskins. Poor preparation falls directly on the coaching staff.
Maybe criticism of Garrett attending a World Series contest during his time off when there was still plenty of work to be done had some merit, even though Jones didn't think so and is a week removed from defending his coach.
"First of all, we don't have anybody, I'm not associated with anybody that works harder than Jason Garrett," he said last week on 105.3 FM The Fan in Dallas (via ESPN.com's Todd Archer). "I can assure you that he did have his mind on our team. Like I said firsthand, we spent parts of the weekend, good parts of the weekend—in conversation Saturday and Sunday regarding this team and how we can improve it. ... I know where Jason Garrett's mind is, and I know where his work ethic is.
"A little bit of respite now, and then as far as a bye week, [it] is not an issue."
It's an issue now after they were completely outplayed by a Titans squad (4-4) with its own set of problems. Tennessee lost its previous three games and didn't manage more than 19 points in any of those. On Monday, the best version of Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota showed up against a supposedly improved Dallas defense. He completed 21 of 29 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns. The quarterback also ran for the final score with 4:38 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Titans played like the team with a new weapon to exploit, since Dion Lewis replaced Derrick Henry in the starting backfield. The 195-pound back was too much to handle for the Cowboys. Lewis led Tennessee in both rushing and receiving yards. He finished with 122 yards from scrimmage and a score on a second-quarter screen pass.
Tennessee managed 340 yards and built sustained drives.
"We're all kind of figuring out where the spaces are and understanding really when I can pitch the ball or throw it," Mariota said, per ESPN.com's Turron Davenport.
Mike Vrabel's squad scored on four of five red-zone opportunities, and it could have been even worse for the Cowboys, since Mariota missed a wide-open Corey Davis in the end zone before Ryan Succop clanged a gimme 28-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright.
Jones' frustration is becoming apparent, as captured during ESPN's telecast:
The confidence he had exuded regarding his head coach is waning.
"When you have played eight and won three, that's a cause for concern," he said, per NBC DFW Sport's Jean-Jacques Taylor.
Reporters pressed Jones on whether he can be patient with the team's current direction.
"I really don't know what that means right now," he said.
Jones wouldn't discuss is the possibility of firing Garrett at any point during the regular season. He doesn't expect any other changes in the coaching staff, either, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer.
But Jones undercut his coach earlier in the season by second-guessing a decision to punt in overtime during a Week 5 loss to the Houston Texans. And none of this is new territory—which makes a potential move all the more obvious.
The Cowboys have only made the postseason twice in Garrett's tenure. If he does finish this season and Dallas stays on its current path, the team will have had a .500 or worse record in six of his nine seasons.
Monday's performance was more of the same. Yes, Cooper provided a spark. The team's new top target caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown. He looked great running routes and creating separation. The latter point alone makes him a massive upgrade over the receivers Dallas fielded through its first seven contests.
But the main problem with the scheme didn't change with Cooper in the lineup. The Cowboys are too conservative and lack imagination in their passing game, and they didn't even attempt to hit their de facto first-round pick down the field. Instead, the offense manufactured touches through short routes to get Cooper involved.
"He's a great player," quarterback Dak Prescott said of his new receiver, per Machota. "You get the ball in his hands, he can run great routes. He's an advantage. He's a mismatch to me for those DBs. He did a good job all night getting open."
Cooper will be fine. He's an upgrade and an important piece to the franchise's future.
The same can be said of Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, but neither of these cornerstone pieces has been fully developed since their breakthrough rookie campaigns. Prescott, in particular, has regressed a lot and has yet to reach the point where he can carry the offense if/when Elliott isn't running well. Prescott forced a pass to Cooper into double-coverage that completely turned the game. He still isn't seeing the field at the level a third-year veteran should.
Furthermore, the once-vaunted offensive line is a shell of its former self. Other young players such as right tackle La'el Collins and rookie left guard Connor Williams haven't transitioned particularly well into full-time roles. Collins showed more promise at guard, while Williams may have been thrust into the lineup too early.
All of this—the lack of development, the guys slotted in the wrong spots, the regression—falls on Garrett.
So maybe the future has some potential, but the present is a mess because the staff isn't properly developing the team.
Life won't get any easier for the Cowboys in the coming weeks, either. The rest of November will decide the team's fate, with contests against the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Washington and New Orleans Saints before the Cowboys face the Eagles for a second time to open the regular season's final month.
The odds of Dallas successfully navigating that treacherous stretch to re-instill faith in its head coach are slim to none.
"As Coach Garrett said, we got a decision to make," Prescott added, per Machota. "The schedule gets tougher, but we know the team and the character of the men that we have. We've got to buckle down, lock arms and be together more than ever. ... We still got a long season to go."
At best, Garrett is a mediocre coach. At worst, he's holding back the entire organization from making legitimate progress.