Jason Garrett isn't exactly known for his aggressiveness when it comes to fourth down. In fact, no team has attempted fewer fourth downs over the last two seasons than the Cowboys with a combined 12. Twenty teams attempted more than that this year alone. It's not his thing, preferring the old-school approach of field position, which at times, especially last season, was maddening considering the defense wasn't exactly resembling the 1985 Chicago Bears.
That changed against Detroit on Sunday, in the playoffs no less. Trailing late in the third, Garrett went for it on fourth-and-1, with DeMarco Murray bouncing off left tackle for the score. He could have settled for the field goal, but this time, he simply said, here's my offensive line, here's my stud back, everyone knows what's coming, stop it. Yeah, No. 1 rushing defense, stop it.
That wasn't a stunner, though. Am guessing the overwhelming majority of head coaches make the same decision.
Not so much with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, trailing by three, at Detroit's 42-yard line, fourth-and-6, a long six at that. Now, the decision wasn't a quick one, at least the play-call itself, and Tony Romo was forced to call a timeout. Still, we're going to let that one slide considering the result, a curl route by Jason Witten, who calmly caught the 971st pass of his career, regular season and playoffs combined, and rumbled for some real estate, 21 yards total. First down. Nine snaps of the football later, Romo to Terrance Williams, touchdown.
Make no mistake, to this point, that's the most important reception of Witten's Canton-bound career.
"I thought it was fitting that it went to Witten, one of the most reliable football players that I've ever been around," Garrett said. "He comes up big in that moment."
As for the call itself, Garrett said, "Well, it was certainly a consideration to do the other thing and you have to work it all out. But what kept going through my mind was 'when you get the chance to go play at the Masters, you don't lay up. You go after it a little bit.' And again, a lot of confidence in the guys to go out and execute it. They play football better than I swing a golf club."[embeddedad0]
The comment made me think back to the 2011 game at New England in Week 6. The Cowboys had the ball late, with a 16-13 lead, and they ran the ball three times, including on third-and-13. They punted with 2:42 remaining, and sure enough, the Patriots came down and scored with 27 seconds left. Ballgame.
This time Garrett gave his guys the chance to win or loss the game. That scenario is a lot easier to live with than running the ball three times, punting and hoping for the best. Allow your players to win or lose the game and it's a lot easier to sleep.
"I sure agreed with going for it on fourth down at the end of the game," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "Jason and Scott (Linehan) are to be commended for that call. That was a winning call. You do that to win. That was the game-changing call in my opinion."
Garrett has evolved so much these last four-plus seasons as a head coach. And know what else? His record is quite impressive considering they were more or less rebuilding the roster those first few years. He's 41-31 in the regular season and 1-0 in the playoffs. And he's never coached a meaningless game since being named permanent head coach following the 2010 campaign. The Cowboys have been alive for the playoffs in all 72 of his regular-season games.
There were a lot of reputations altered at AT&T Stadium Sunday. Garrett was just one of them. Here are some others:
- Brandon Carr– Almost seems as if the cornerback legally changed his name to "much-maligned" this season, although it's worth pointing out that he's played much better the last few weeks. This was Calvin Johnson, though, the All-World wideout who torched Carr for 14 catches, 329 yards and a touchdown last season. Those numbers don't happen in video games, never mind real life.
This time around there was more over-the-top help from the safeties, but still, for the most part, it was Carr matched up with Johnson. And collectively, Cowboys Nation held their breath. Johnson finished with a quiet five grabs for 85 yards while Carr tallied six solo tackles and a pass defensed. He played tough, too, bump-and-running, some nice tackles. Guess the best way to say it is that Carr left it on the field. In football, there is no greater compliment.
"Fantastic," Garrett said of Carr's play. "We did a better job as a coaching staff, to be honest with you, giving him some help against 81, who is a great, great player. We all know that. Brandon did a really good job putting last year behind him and just saying, 'the hell with that. I'm going to play this guy.' And we helped him with some different coverages, but he stood in there, he was physical with him at the line of scrimmage, he was physical with him at the top of routes contesting throws. I think he played a really good football game."
- Bruce Carter – Perhaps no one took more blame for the defensive struggles of a season ago than the former second-round pick. Following the 2012 campaign, Carter appeared headed for stardom with athleticism and talent in abundance. And while he wasn't as bad as many portrayed him to be, Carter took a step back in 2013, and in numerous instances, was benched in favor of Ernie Sims. Instead of pouting, though, Carter worked his tail off this spring, spending countless hours at Valley Ranch with Justin Durant, working out, watching film.
His pass protection this year has improved tenfold, his five interceptions led all NFL linebackers. Heck, no other linebacker had more than three. And he played one of his best games against Detroit, with five tackles and three passes defensed. Carter played banged up, too. He could barely put his pants on in the locker room.
- The Home Crowd– No more with the stadium can't be loud. Never want to hear that again. Maybe half the fans playing with their phone has something to do with it. That wasn't the case against the Lions. The 90,000-plus was loud, to the point that Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford was holding his hands against the earholes of his helmet in the fourth quarter in an attempt to hear the play calls. Also, the officials were struggling to communicate if further than a foot apart. Could literally feel the building shake up in the press box on multiple occasions.