IRVING, Texas -It is not the kind of statistic a team's public relations department would put out there after the game, but it is an anomaly stunning as any such record this year, or any year.
In the previous 51 seasons of Cowboys football, only twice has the team led by 12 points or more in the fourth quarter and lost. But it's now happened three times this year. That does not suggest some cosmic coincidence. It speaks to the reality that there is something definitively wrong with the way this team reacts in those situations.
Offense, defense, special teams and coaching have all played a part in the collapses, which suggests that rather than one specific facet of the roster being poisonous, the entire club is infected. This cannot happen. It is incomprehensible and indefensible that such letdowns become habit.
"I think at times we've done a really good job handling the fourth quarter situations, and other times we haven't," head coach Jason Garrett said after Sunday's come-from-in-front loss to the Giants. "Sometimes guys make penalties in certain situations because they're trying to do too much. We've talked about that, maintaining your poise and simply doing your job. I think a lot of times we're able to do that, sometimes we aren't and a couple times tonight that hurt us."
NFL games come down to the wire all the time, yet there is clearly something intrinsic to the nature of Garrett's team that makes each contest nip-and-tuck at the end. Since he took over midway through last year, 12 of the Cowboys' 20 games have come down to a field goal or less at the end, and another two were decided by only four points.
While that ratio is not particularly outlandish considering the competitiveness of the NFL, it's impossible to dismiss the fact that several of the games had no business being so close at the end, particularly this year's losses to the Jets, Lions and Giants.
"We've won four or five games this way, too," Garrett said. "The nature of our team is we've played a lot of close games. We've won maybe half of them and we've lost some other ones. You have to look at situations, see what happens, some way, somehow process it, learn from it and hopefully go forward. Just because you've figured out how to do it once doesn't mean you're going to do it all the time. I think that's the nature of the National Football League. We just need to find ways to do it much more than we have."
Garrett is not going anywhere as this team's head coach for the foreseeable future, but as the figurehead for the organization, he needs to get to the bottom of this seemingly psychological problem and end it before it carries over into the final three games of the year and beyond.
His philosophy as a coach is to be consistent in as many aspects of the job as possible, but this week he should take a detour from the script.
Garrett need not bother perpetuating the myth that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are "playing some good football," and that they pose a worthy challenge. If the coach says things like that often enough, the players might actually believe it.
The truth is the Cowboys should have a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter again on Saturday. Maybe they'll have some professional pride in themselves in the same situation, rather than a healthy respect for the other team.