Coaching Exam: Cowboys’ Garrett Must Find a Way to Keep Eagles from Flying High

Jason Garrett

The season is on the line when the Cowboys go to Philadelphia Sunday night, and there is nobody who’s under more pressure than Dallas head coach Jason Garrett.

The Cowboys have already exceeded expectations by winning nine of their first 13 games, and that’s put them in a tie for first place with the Eagles. When the season started, there were fears that the Dallas defense was so bad that it would sink the team and cause them to play at an expansion level. When the team let DeMarcus Ware leave through free agency and then middle linebacker Sean Lee was lost for the year in an offseason workout, this team simply didn’t have the talent to give up less than four touchdowns on an every-game basis.

Can you say 5-11? That’s what appeared to be on the horizon in Dallas.

But a funny thing happened. Instead of crumbling like a smelly tower of Blue Cheese and playing in a self-induced panic, the Cowboys came up with a brilliant season-long philosophy and combined it with cagey defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s thoughtful deployment of his troops.

The brilliant strategy involved keeping the offense on the field as long as possible by sticking the football in DeMarco Murray’s bread basket and letting him go. Murray became the best running back in football this season, and it’s likely he would have earned that title even if Adrian Peterson hadn’t been suspended (or locked out) for his beastly off-the-field “disciplinary” actions.

Murray is a powerful stud of a running back who can handle 25 carries or more on an every-week basis. He gets warmed up through his first 10-15 carries and then starts to drive the point home after that. Murray has 1,606 yards and is averaging 5.0 yards per carry going into Sunday night’s game at the Linc. He needs to have his best game of the season if the Cowboys are going to have a chance.

That doesn’t mean he has to do it all by himself, because if he is at his best, that will open things up for Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. Romo has never shown he can be the kind of quarterback who can win the crucial games in December, even though he may throw the most catchable ball in the game. His pillow-like passes have proven eminently catchable for defensive backs when he miscalculates just a bit.

He has not done much of that this season. He has been poised and under control, thanks in large part to Murray’s productivity. Romo has a 25-8 TD-interception ratio, and when he gets on a roll, he’s been at his best.

With the offense working to perfection, the Cowboys have found a way to survive. Somehow, Marinelli has been able to hide this unit’s weaknesses. The Dallas defense is 22nd in yards allowed, and they don’t have any studs. The most productive pass rusher has been defensive tackle Henry Melton, who has 5.0 sacks. Nobody else has more than 3.0 sacks.

The secondary doesn’t have lockdown cover men, and the linebackers are, well, ordinary.

The Eagles had no trouble breaking down the Cowboys on Thanksgiving Day, and dominated them in a 33-10 win.

The Cowboys fell behind early, and Garrett figured that the running game had to be abandoned. Murray had just 20 carries – one above his season low – and they resulted in just 73 yards. Garrett can’t fall victim to that kind of thinking even if the Cowboys fall behind here.

It’s the most difficult assignment of the year for Garrett. The records say the Cowboys and Eagles are equals, but anyone who saw the Eagles roll two weeks ago understands that the Eagles’ offense vs. the Cowboys’ defense is a thorough mismatch.

Garrett and Marinelli have to find a way to overcome.

If the Cowboys lose this game, they are not going to make the playoffs. In addition to a tough game in Week 16 vs. Indianapolis, the Cowboys won’t be any better than 7-5 against NFC opponents, and that won’t be good enough to beat out Detroit or Arizona/Seattle if those teams are tied at the end of the season in the Wild-Card race.

While it doesn’t seem likely that enough time has gone by since Thanksgiving for the Cowboys to come up with a more useful way of attack the Eagles, stranger things have happened. The best thing that could happen for Dallas is an early lead.

Not only would that give the Cowboys a bit of confidence, it would plant more than a seed of doubt in Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. That’s probably their best hope, because Sanchez is a man who has known more than his share of brutal failure throughout his NFL career.

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Steve Silverman
Steve Silverman is a longtime sportswriter who spent 10 years as senior editor at Pro Football Weekly and he has also written for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN Magazine, MSNBC, and Silverman currently covers all sports – including the NFL – for CBS New York and Bleacher Report.