The title of interim head coach often implies that a team is just biding its time with a placeholder until it can find someone else to run the ship. And when Jason Garrett took over as head coach for Wade Phillips at the start of last week, most of the talk gazed skyward for whom Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would go after following the season, someone larger, someone grander. Bill Cowher. Jon Gruden. You name it. But a strange thing happened Sunday: The Cowboys rose up and played their best game of the season under Garrett in his first game, and it gives him a fighting chance to keep the job next year if he can keep the team playing at the level it played at on Sunday.
The PFW Spin
There's an old anecdote to keep in mind that has some value when approaching the Cowboys' situation.
There was once a dog food manufacturer that hired a well-regarded ad agency to help promote his product. The agency put together a major campaign to redesign the label, which earned them high regard and made for improved sales. But eventually, sales dropped off to their original level. The manufacturer, irate, demanded answers from the ad agency for why this happened. After further extensive research, the answer became clear and simple: "The dogs didn't like the dog food," the head of the agency revealed.
In a way, this is what happened with the Cowboys. Jones went out and spruced up a talented roster with lots of bells and whistles, playing in a rock-star venue, and forgot an essential element for success: The product can't just look good; it has to be good.
Upon first glance, the early moves of Garrett — one being his expecting his team to dress better — would appear to fall in line with Jones' window-dressing tendencies. But those are ancillary details. The new coach knew that his team needed to be two things, motivated and focused, to get back to playing good football. So he changed the recipe of the dog food.
The game plan Sunday was simple and direct. It was pared down and fresh. It held everyone accountable and gave young players the chances to make the best of a bad situation. Garrett made it a one-game season, talk that usually is held for teams that are trying to clinch playoff spots or stave off elimination. The Cowboys are in neither of those situations, but they played like the game really mattered. That's all you can ask from a team, really.
Felix Jones has had trouble running inside? Throw it to him on a screen. Dez Bryant looks like the best playmaker on the field? Get the ball in his hands in crucial situations. The inside linebackers, Keith Brooking and Bradie James, have been quiet of late? Challenge them, and here's what you get: the two leading tacklers in the game.
The Cowboys played loose, but they also got going from the opening kickoff. They came out and took control of a Giants team that gave them an opening. And unlike in Week Seven, when the Giants staked the Cowboys to a 20-7 advantage in Dallas, there was no comeback, no melting under the klieg lights that Jones' teams always find themselves splashed under. In fact, the Cowboys turned out the lights — quite literally when the New Meadowlands Stadium's power flickered twice, no doubt providing a moment of rare, disarming Schadenfreude for Jones in these tough times — on the Giants in their own building.
We said a week ago that Garrett would have to win with these Cowboys to keep his job. There would be no chance for a free-agent splash or a blockbuster trade. Those darts have been sheathed until the offseason, when Jones does his busiest work. But perhaps Jones will keep them that way if Garrett can prove to him that less, sometimes, can be more. Take away a few ingredients, highlight what matters most, and the dog food really can taste good again.