A 45-7 loss at Green Bay the previous week forced owner Jerry Jones to do something he never wanted to do: fire a coach during the season.
So in came Garrett, then the offensive coordinator, who was faced with taking on the New York Giants on the road in his first game.
The interim head coach wanted to change the culture around Valley Ranch, everything from dress codes to the approach. And the result, at least that day in East Rutherford. New Jersey worked.
"I remember we had a really good team, and we weren't winning," defensive end Anthony Spencer said of the time. "We needed a win. I loved Wade and the year before we went to the playoffs. But things just didn't work out for us the next year."
Many players didn't really know Garrett.
To deep snapper L.P. Ladouceur, Garrett was simply known for the color of his hair.
"Just knew him as Red and he was the quarterbacks coach, calling plays and then he goes by Coach Garrett," Ladouceur said. "Different freaking business now. I think he was overwhelmed, too I think every coach is thrown into it. It's like any job, you got to be a rookie at some point and you got to learn and learn on the fly, which as a NFL head coach, is even harder because you're scrutinized like crazy. But where we've been and where we're going and the way he's been handling [things] I think he's been doing a good job."
Of course, Garrett became the head coach permanently, and the Cowboys have finished the past three seasons at 8-8, missing a postseason berth with a loss in the regular-season finale.
Sunday night, Garrett takes his Cowboys, tied for first in the NFC East into MetLife Stadium again, to take on the Giants nearly four years since he became the coach.
A victory would give Garrett eight wins for the fourth consecutive season, and it would be the first time he's led a team to it's eight before December in his career. In the past three seasons, the Cowboys didn't earn it's eight victory until mid or late December.
Reaching eight victories now could fuel discussions the Cowboys might finally end their four-year playoff drought.
The players have brought into Garrett's one-game-at-a-time mantra. There are awards for scout team players, sayings posted on the walls of the practice facility about doing your job/not giving up and remaining focus on the task at hand.
Garrett has changed things from the hard nosed old-school approach of Bill Parcells and grandfatherly ways of Phillips, to how the Cowboys' did things in the 90s, when they won three Super Bowls.
Popular players such as outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware were released to make way for younger players.
“Well, we knew we had to make some hard decisions from the outset, and we had to make some decisions to move on from some players who had been cornerstone players for us and then get new players in here and along the way you have to compete. So that’s what we tried to do," Garrett said.
Along the way, they found a dominant running attack, which they have with DeMarco Murray who leads the league in rushing, and a young, hungry offensive line. The Cowboys invested three first round picks on linemen and changed the defense from a 3-4 to the 4-3, led by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli who demands his players hustle.
It's all changed for the better.
"My honest opinion, I’m just speaking on our personnel relationship, I didn’t too much understand his mindset because he went to Princeton, I’m from this small, country town [Lufkin, Texas], I didn’t understand his whole type of structure," wide receiver Dez Bryant said. "I used to always think, coach, he’s always on me, he’s always on me. I guess as I grew, he didn’t treat me no different as he treated the rest of the players. He seen a lot of potential in me, and I took that as he believed in me, so it was my job to show him what he want me to be or better, and I think he does an outstanding job with us. He don’t BS around with us. He lets us know the truth."
The truth is the Cowboys have a chance to do something for themselves in the next few weeks with a win on Sunday night. But it all started that windy day at MetLife when Garrett took over the Cowboys.
Against Jacksonville, Williams didn’t catch either of the passes directed his way. It marked the first time in his career he had failed to catch a pass in a game when he had at least one pass directed his way.
In the previous game against Arizona, Williams didn’t catch a pass until the final drive. More important, the big plays have dried up.
Williams had seven catches of 20 yards or more in the Cowboys’ first six games; he has none in the last four.
Jason Garrett doesn’t seem too concerned.
“We coach him hard and he’s respectful of that and he wants to do well -- not that everyone doesn’t want to do well, so don’t get me wrong,” Garrett said of Williams. “He’s one of those guys we noticed early on that if he made a mistake, he rarely made it again.
“I think he really listens to what you’re trying to get across to him and he really wants to put into practice so he can improve as a player. I think that’s why he’s improved so quickly in the early part of his career.”
DeMarco Murray ran for 128 yards in the Cowboys’ win vs. the Giants earlier this season and New York has the worst-ranked run defense in the NFL, giving up 145 yards a game. That certainly bodes well for a team coming off the bye looking to reassert its physical presence on the offensive line. The Cowboys believe they are better built for the stretch run than they have been in recent years.
They’ll kick off their final six-game push with a win and equal their win total in each of the last three seasons. They have not won more than eight games since 2009.
My prediction: Cowboys 27, Giants 19
"I'm raising my bar and my standards these last six games because we're going to need it," Mincey said. "It's time to raise the bar, start putting quarterbacks on the ground and making the plays we know we can make and are capable of."
At 7-3, the Cowboys are in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. In 2011 they were 7-4 after 11 games and lost three of their final four games. In 2012, they were 8-6 with two games to play and lost both. Last year they were 7-5 and lost three of their final four games.
They were unable to raise the bar.
"We set expectations for ourselves all along and they were pretty high," cornerback Brandon Carr said. "They've gotten higher as the season has progressed, but we feel like our work isn't done. We're just getting started. This is the meat of the season. November and December is the thick of your schedule as far as games and the competition. What we've done so far is great for the past, but we're taking it one at a time. Our ultimate goal is to make the big dance and to be playing some games when it really counts. It's fine for now, but we're not satisfied. We're not content with our record or our performance. It's time to turn it up a notch."
Mincey said the "raise the bar" message was not one Jason Garrett or the coaches had to deliver. The players simply know.
"Jason has always believed in us," tight end Jason Witten said. "He's pushed us. He's done a really good job of putting the team together; not only the best 53 but the right 53. Now we got to take care of our end."
And if any questions came up about his deal, then the interview session was over.
After a six-catch, 158-yard, two-touchdown second quarter in the 31-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Bryant was asked about his contract. After practice last week Bryant, was asked about his contract.
"It's all about respect. It's all about respect," Bryant said then. "I am a very loyal person, but just don't test my loyalty."
Bryant recently changed agents, joining Roc Nation and Creative Artists Agency. He is open to talks going on during the final six weeks, and the Cowboys have touched base with his new representatives. But a deal is not pending and the Cowboys can use the franchise tag on him if they so choose.
Though some might consider the negotiations with Bryant a distraction, Jason Garrett has not seen it affect Bryant’s play.
Garrett said Bryant doesn’t have to talk about his contract. And truth be told, he has answered questions; not approached reporters with comments about his deal or the lack of a deal.
"He’s been asked a lot about it, and really what you try to do is stay focused on the task at hand," Garrett said. "I think he understands that, and that’s really what we ask all of our players to do. Try to get yourself ready to practice as well as you can each day to get ready to play each week. All the other stuff will take care of itself."
In it we discuss:
- Adrian Peterson in the future
- Tony Romo's practice schedule
- Helping Tyron Smith
- The cornerback conundrum
- Josh Brent's availability
Away we go:
@toddarcher: It certainly seems like everybody is trying to connect these dots between Adrian Peterson and the Cowboys. Some of it stems from the ESPN article on Jones earlier this season when he took a call from Peterson during a George Strait concert. Some of it has to do with Jones' penchant for stars. The first domino that has to fall is the Vikings saying goodbye to Peterson. Maybe that doesn't happen and we've all wasted a lot of breath thinking about this scenario. The threat of Peterson coming to the Cowboys could help in their talks with DeMarco Murray on a new deal. Peterson would bring a lot of baggage with him, but he's from Texas and remains a great talent. He would be an ideal fit for this offense, but so is Murray, who is younger. I don't know if either way to go would be wrong. The Cowboys have a lot of contract issues to resolve and it's not like Peterson would come cheap.
@toddarcher: I don't believe for a second that the Cowboys have not thought this through and are just focusing on the Giants. They would be doing themselves a disservice by not having a plan in place. But I do think we might be overstating this just a tad. Next week's practices aren't really practices. I'm not even sure the Cowboys will wear helmets during the three days of practice next week. They will be at most "jog-throughs," and Tony Romo should make it through those since he is doing the walk-throughs on Wednesdays when he doesn't practice. It's not that Romo can't practice on a Wednesday of a regular week. It's been the decision made by him and the team. This stretch is hardly normal but I think Romo will practice like everybody else practices next week and then gets back on the normal schedule for the Chicago Bears game. Why am I hearing Allen Iverson in my head as I type this?
@toddarcher: They are paying Tyron Smith to be the best left tackle in the NFL, so I wouldn't expect them to give him more help. He needs to play better. He has had a lot of moments where he has played like the best tackle in football. He has had some head-scratching moments too. Jason Pierre-Paul is a good player, so I wouldn't get carried away if Smith gets beat once or twice, but I don't think they need to give Smith help either. If they are sliding help to a $100 million tackle, then they have issues.
@toddarcher: I'd be surprised if Morris Claiborne isn't back. His money is guaranteed, so there is no salary-cap benefit to letting him go. They might as well see how he comes back from the knee surgery. I can guarantee they will not pick up his fifth-year option for 2016, so there's that. As for Brandon Carr, I think he could be in trouble if he does not take a cut in pay. And I'm not sure the Cowboys would offer one either, but maybe they do with him what they did with Doug Free two years ago. He is set to count $12.717 million against the cap in 2015 and I can't see the Cowboys doing a simple restructure, which would push money out against the cap in the future. He's been OK but not what they expected when he signed the $50 million deal. But if they get rid of Carr, then they put corner into the must-have territory in the draft and free agency. They would have just Orlando Scandrick as a for-sure starter.
@toddarcher: I'm not sure Josh Brent will even be active Sunday. It would be something of a surprise to me. He needs to get in better shape and he needs more practice time. I'm not sure three weeks is enough. Heck, I'm not sure four weeks is enough. But there's this question too: Whom does he bump from the 46-man roster to even be active for a game? The Cowboys like Nick Hayden more than the general fan does. Terrell McClain might be a target, but I think he has been OK too. They aren't going to take any of the defensive ends off the field. It's a difficult call without an injury to a player in the future. It wouldn't surprise me if Brent does not play at all this year.
When play-caller Scott Linehan does want to get the ball to Dunbar, he’s done a good job of designing plays that get him the ball in space and on the move, where his combination of speed and quickness can result in a big play.
Or Linehan has used the formation to get him lined up against linebackers. Dunbar has only caught 14 passes, but he’s had gains of 11, 12, 24, 21, 18, 11, 40 and 12.
That’s the definition of a play-maker.
Of course it’s hard to get Dunbar the ball, when Linehan has to make sure DeMarco Murray gets his carries and Dez Bryant and Witten get their opportunities. The Cowboys have made a conscious effort the past few weeks to keep Murray at about 44 plays per game, which gives Dunbar and Joseph Randle a few more plays each game.
But it’s clear the Cowboys view Randle more as a runner and Dunbar more of a receiver as the offense is currently constructed.
Dunbar has only 19 carries this season, and 11 of those came in Week 2 against Tennessee.
Still, he gives the Cowboys’ offense an element of big-play ability they would be wise to use.
The 7-3 Dallas Cowboys have a chance to mathematically eliminate the 3-7 New York Giants from the NFC East race on Sunday night. ESPN Cowboys reporter Todd Archer and ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano hereby present your game preview:
Graziano: Hey, Todd, the Giants haven't won a game since the last time we did this, so I'm eager to see what questions you've come up with. But during their current five-game losing streak, the Giants' best offensive game was the loss in Dallas. It was the only game in the streak in which they've rushed for 100 yards and the only one in which the opponent didn't generate consistent, disruptive pressure on quarterback Eli Manning. How is that Dallas front seven looking these days?
Archer: The easy answer is not bad, but for those used to seeing DeMarcus Ware for close to a decade, he's not walking through that door again. The good news for the Cowboys is that they are getting healthier whereas last year they were signing guys on a Tuesday and playing them on Sunday. Tyrone Crawford did not play against Jacksonville, but he should be back. Rolando McClain didn't play against the Jaguars, but he will be back. Henry Melton has been much more active. Rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence didn't play in the first meeting because of a foot injury but he is coming on. Josh Brent is eligible to play but I don't think he will be on the 46-man roster Sunday. They have been decent against the run but have had some breakdowns. The pass rush has been better but it's still not good enough. Like the defense as a whole, the front seven is getting by.
I'll keep it simple off the top: Is this the end for Tom Coughlin?
Graziano: Well, this game surely isn't. Coughlin will certainly coach out this season, and I honestly think his future as the Giants' coach will depend a lot on how the Giants do in their final six games. If they rally against a December schedule that includes games against Jacksonville, Tennessee, Washington and St. Louis and get back to 7-9 as they did last year, it'll be easier for Giants ownership to justify giving Coughlin another year of this rebuilding project. If they fall completely apart and finish, say, 4-12 or 3-13, I imagine all bets are off and no one is safe. A lot of people want a definitive answer on Coughlin's status, but I don't believe ownership has made one yet. They love him and love having him as their coach, and if he does decide to leave or if they decide to move on from him, they know they'll need a good plan in place for how to replace perhaps the best coach in franchise history (apologies to Bill Parcells). So it's no sure thing, but the way this team is playing and the inevitable fact that they'll miss the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons does not work in his or any other coach's favor.
What's Jason Garrett's status these days? Has the Cowboys' surprisingly good season done anything to quiet those who perpetually call for his head?
Archer: A little bit it has, but if they don't make the playoffs then the calls for his job will be heard again. I've written that he deserves to be extended. I think the plan he has put in place has started to come together. But it will all be determined by what they do from now on. As you know, they have lost three straight winner-take-all season finales to the Giants, Redskins and Eagles. At least Garrett had them in position to win the division, but this year they have to get over the top. Jerry Jones has been patient with Garrett and often talks about wanting him to be the coach long term, but he hasn't backed those words up with a new deal. Along with the contractual statuses of Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray, this one could get juicy here down the stretch.
How much of this Giants mess is on GM Jerry Reese? They have let guys go and not had replacements ready, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.
Graziano: I think it's almost all on Reese, Todd, and you've hit it right on the head. His drafts have been flat-out terrible from the standpoint of finding players who have turned out to be foundation pieces. Do you know that, since Reese became Giants GM in 2007, only three of his draft picks have signed second contracts with the team? And none of those three was a first-rounder? (They're Will Beatty, Ahmad Bradshaw and Zak DeOssie.) You're right that the Giants haven't done a good enough job of finding and developing players to replace those who have left, and the result was that last year's roster got so hollowed out that they had to sign more free agents than any other team in the league just to fill out a 53-man roster. That's why I say this is a rebuilding project that has to take more than one year, and why I blame Reese much more than I blame Coughlin or the coaching staff for the mess this team is in. The Giants don't fire GMs as a matter of policy. They've had only three of them in the past 38 years. But as I said when we were talking about Coughlin, if things get really ugly over these final six weeks, all bets are off.
Let's move the discussion to the field. When the Giants and Cowboys played in that Week 7 game, Murray have to leave for a while with an injury. He came back and seems to have been fine since, but are there any signs of his extreme workload wearing on him? And are they doing anything to keep him from wearing down?
Archer: There really hasn't been any drastic change in his production. He has had 100 yards in every game but one this season and even in that Arizona game he averaged 4.2 yards per carry. He had at least 22 carries in the first seven games of the season but has maxed out at 19 in each of the past three. I don't know if that is by design. Some of it has been dictated by the circumstances of the games. They are using Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar earlier in games to spell Murray some. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said he is not worried so much about the carries as he is the snaps Murray plays. He's a three-down back and has 36 catches. It's a tricky balancing act the Cowboys have to follow because Murray is so valuable to what they do. He said he felt refreshed after the bye week and largely stayed off his feet. Whatever the Cowboys do in their final six games will be with the same formula they used in their first 10 games: a lot of Murray.
When these teams met in October, it looked like Manning was feeling his way through the change in offense pretty well. Is this scheme a fit for what Manning does best or is he held back by what's around him?
Graziano: The group around Manning sure has taken a pounding. The Giants lost top wide receiver Victor Cruz to a season-ending knee injury in Week 6, and they were without starting running back Rashad Jennings for four games due to a knee sprain. Jennings was back last week, and I thought the offense would look better as a result, but then Manning went and threw five interceptions, nearly doubling his season total. (He'd thrown six in his first nine games.) You're right that Manning was looking comfortable in the new offense until last week, and I think all eyes are on him Sunday night and the rest of the way to see whether this last game was a fluke or whether it's a sign that "Bad Eli" is always potentially around the corner no matter what system they put him in. One thing he has dealt with is a lot of pass-rush pressure, and that crescendoed a bit last week against the 49ers. They may make some changes on the offensive line this week, and if those changes help protect him better, I think he gets back into that rhythm he was in earlier in the year.
IRVING, Texas -- Whether you like the job Jason Garrett has done or not, no one who really studies the Dallas Cowboys would ever call him a puppet.
There have been times during his four-plus seasons as coach that he has had more authority than others, but he never has been a guy so happy to be the Cowboys' coach that he just let owner/general manager Jerry Jones run amok.
That has not been the case with each of the seven coaches Jerry has hired since he bought the team in 1989.
The easiest way to determine whether the coach is a puppet is to take an informal survey among players. If they believe the coach is the person in charge of their playing time and future on the roster, then he's not a puppet.
If the players believe the GM, or in the Cowboys' case, the owner, ultimately decides their fate on the team then you have a puppet.
Garrett has the Cowboys poised to end their dreadful four-year playoff drought precisely because he's not a puppet.
"Jason is easy to work with, but he's very demanding of his staff, the players and us," vice president Stephen Jones said. "He challenges me and I know he's challenged Jerry a few times.
"He challenges whether this is the right move, is the right player to keep. Do we really want to pay this much money to this player? Sometimes, Jason can be pushy with me, and in his own way with Jerry and his staff and the players, but he's not a bully. There's a difference."
A puppet wouldn't have persuaded Jerry to draft an offensive lineman in the first round in three of the past four seasons, considering the owner had never used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman.
By attire Bryant means a shield on his facemask and the proper cleats. He did not have either in the first half of the first meeting against the Giants and struggled. He changed at halftime and exploded with seven catches for 136 yards in the third and fourth quarters.
That came after Bryant caught just two passes for 15 yards in the first half. He also stumbled on a route that led to a Tony Romo interception, failed to come down with a deep ball and had another miscommunication.
In the second half, five of Bryant's seven catches went for first downs.
The Giants won't have the cornerback who shadowed Bryant most of the night in Prince Amukamara, who is on injured reserve with a torn triceps. Zack Bowman has replaced Amukamara in the starting lineup.
Despite their five-game losing streak, Bryant expects nothing but the best from the Giants.
“We have to bring the fight because most likely they're going to bring it,” Bryant said.
Bryant also has to bring his visor and cleats.
The Cowboys lost those games.
Dez Bryant, a member on all three of those teams feels the team just didn't do enough.
"I'm going to give you my honest opinion. The years that we did go 8-8, I think – me, because this is just how I am -- I don't think we worked hard enough," Bryant said after Cowboys' practice on Thursday. "I'm not saying we didn't work, like, I mean the offseason, during the OTAs -- not the coaches. That's on us. The first thing that I did right after the game, we lost to Philadelphia (2013), my brother will tell you -- I was working out the next day. Just because I felt like 'Damn, we didn't do enough.' Obviously we didn't do enough, they was the better team. It feels different, it's a lot different -- it's a lot different from last year. We're more together, we want it more, we've got the same vision, and that's kind of hard when you've got a team like that."
The 7-3 Cowboys are tied for first place with the Eagles in the NFC East. The teams meet next Thursday on Thanksgiving Day at AT&T Stadium. But first, the Cowboys visit NFC East rival the New York Giants on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.
The Cowboys have won the last three meetings between the teams and enter East Rutherford, New Jersey with a 4-0 record on the road this season.
"It's a big game they are better than what they're record shows and we can't go in under estimating our opponent," Bryant said of the 3-7 Giants. They are a great football team and we got to come out and stick to our plan and execute these plays the best way we possibly can to get that victory."
Bryant credits coach Jason Garrett with the turnaround this season. While it's not guaranteed the Cowboys will make the postseason, Bryant said the team is more focused than ever before.
"It is him, because he let us know how things should be, and we see that and we understand that," Bryant said. "The older guys in this locker room should be accountable, making sure that the younger guys are doing right -- not trying to haze them, but making sure that they're on top of their game and trying to bring out the best in them."
That list included quarterback Tony Romo, who returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday.
The only player who did not practice is cornerback Tyler Patmon, who has a knee injury.
Defensive tackle Josh Brent (groin), defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (knee), right tackle Doug Free (foot), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (shoulder) and linebacker Rolando McClain (knee) went through full practices.
Things are a little different for the Giants.
Four starters did not practice on Thursday: defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (calf), defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka (knee), right tackle Justin Pugh (quadriceps) and linebacker Jacquian Williams (concussion).