Corsicana Daily Sun, Corsicana, Texas

Sports

December 23, 2012

Wills: Cowboys' comeback falls short in OT loss to Saints

Questions linger on Garrett, even though team can still win NFC East

ARLINGTON — Fittingly, the New Orleans Saints pulled off a win in the Sean Payton Bowl on Sunday in overtime. A loss that has zero impact on the Cowboys' playoff chances, but only fuels speculation about who will coach both of these teams next season.

You see, everything drags out with the Cowboys' these days. The games -- three overtimes in six weeks. The season -- the Cowboys still can win the NFC East with a win Sunday in Washington.

And the coach -- even if the Cowboys beat RG3 and the Redskins next week, even if they make the postseason, even if they win a playoff game or two or three and miraculously make Super Bowl XLVII, it would be unwise to assume Jason Garrett will be back next year. Even if it was reported Sunday by Fox's Jay Glazer that Garrett will coach the Cowboys next season.

Which brings us to Payton, the Saints' coach-in-waiting. Can the whimsical Jerry Jones keep himself from courting Payton, who may well be a free agent after sitting out all year because of a season-long suspension for the Saints' bounty system? Does Payton want to return back to New Orleans and a talented Saints team led by Drew Brees, or take a chance on Jones and Romo and living full time in Texas?

The Cowboys have a coach, one whose team is 5-2 in the second half of the season. Under the pressure and with the off-the-field tragedy endured by this team, that's pretty good. Garrett has done an admirable job getting this team to 8-7 considering the struggles of the offensive line -- which has been OK lately -- and a defense that has been riddled with injuries, especially at linebacker.

The absence of inside backers Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Ernie Sims and others was exposed big time by Brees with New Orleans getting most of its 564 total yards over the middle. The Saints' running backs and tight end Jimmy Graham combined for 260 receiving yards as the Cowboys just couldn't cover any of the underneath stuff.

Yet, as is their identity this second half of the season, the Cowboys showed a ton of resolve again Sunday, scoring two touchdowns in the final five minutes to take the Saints to overtime. The Cowboys have never given up on themselves. They're not the New York Giants, that's for sure.

Garrett's offense mostly has clicked on all cylinders. Romo is playing great, Dez Bryant had two more touchdowns catches and 224 yards and Jason Witten set an NFL single-season record for catches by a tight end with 103 receptions.

And yet questions linger about Garrett, and they will continue to whenever the Cowboys' season comes to end. This will go on until after the Super Bowl because the media won't let the Peyton story go.

And it's fair to still have some doubts about Garrett, even if it says here he should be back and deserves to be back. The positive outweight the negatives with Garrett, except for this clock thing ...

Garrett, who surely failed his time management courses at Princeton, bungled the end of the first half, allowing the Saints to take a 17-14 lead on a field goal. The Cowboys took two timeouts while New Orleans was tying the game -- which was the right move -- but then had an awful three-and-out when Garrett called two pass plays on second-and-three at his own 27. The Cowboys gave the ball back to Brees with 47 seconds left and were lucky to give up only a field goal.

Whether it's the Ravens game or this one, Garrett, in his second full season, can hurt his team with time-management blowups or strange playcalling (like not throwing deep to an unstoppable Dez Bryant on the Cowboys' lone overtime drive).

Still, at some point you have to quit blaming coaches and put the onus on the players for huge mistakes like the ones that haunted the Cowboys on Sunday.

Start with an offsides penalty on Anthony Spencer at the end of the first half that could well have been a 10-point play. It kept a Saints' drive alive, one that ended with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Lance Moore that tied the game at 14-14 (that was followed by the Cowboys giving the Saints an early Christmas gift with the aforementioned field goal).

There were more brain dead plays by the Cowboys. Like DeMarco Murray's crushing fumble inside his own 5-yard line that turned into points after a weird defensive scheme by Rob Ryan on a third-and-goal resulted in a walk-in touchdown for Pierre Thomas for a 24-17 lead for the Saints.

Or huge drops by $54 million receiver Miles Austin, who sort of redeemed himself with a game-tying touchdown at 31-31 with 15 seconds left. (Only would it have been a game-winning catch if the Cowboys had scored points on the previous drive when Austin dropped two passes?)  

Coaches coach and players play and you are what you are. And the Cowboys are 8-7 with a chance to win the division or finish with another non-winning season for a third year in a row.

An 8-8 finish sure would make it tempting to go after Payton, as much as conventional wisdom says that Garrett is starting to figure this coaching thing out. A 9-7 record and wildcard-playoff loss wouldn't feel all that much better.

There aren't a lot of success stories out there with franchises sticking with coaches -- that's the NFL these days -- but the Steelers, Giants, Patriots and even the Eagles with Andy Reid come to mind (and what if Reid is available in two weeks? He's had a great run in Philly).

Then again can a Cowboys franchise that is 22-25 over the last three seasons and one with so little playoff success of late not chase after Payton? A guy who has won a Super Bowl, who is brash and has that go-for-it attitude that players and fans love. His decision to go with an onside kick to start the second half in the Super Bowl win over the Colts certainly made him a legend.

It's a quandary for sure, one that wasn't made an easier with Sunday's loss. Even if it goes into the books as a nice comeback effort by the Cowboys in a game that win or lose didn't have any impact on their playoff-chances.

This is life in today's NFL, which for Cowboys' fans is filled with nothing but frustration.

 

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