Commentary

Cowboys can't leave door open for Eli

Dallas can't afford to go conservative again with Manning on the other sideline

Updated: October 25, 2012, 3:01 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- It's one thing to go extreme right wing in the red zone during the late stages of a close game with Cam Newton standing on the other sideline.

Jason Garrett got away with it last week, when the Dallas Cowboys survived against the 1-5 Carolina Panthers. It'd be asking for disaster to go conservative in the clutch again this weekend, when the modern-day Captain Comeback is coming to town.

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireEli Manning has quarterbacked 27 game-winning drives, including one last week against the Redskins.

If the Cowboys put themselves in position Sunday to knock out Eli Manning and the New York Giants, they better throw their best punch.

Surely, a man who earned a history degree from Princeton is smart enough to realize this. Just check Manning's history: 27 game-winning drives, a list that includes a couple of comebacks that resulted in Super Bowl rings.

"It's kind of like when Michael Jordan had the ball," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said Wednesday, days after Manning's 77-yard strike to Victor Cruz gave the Giants a come-from-behind win over the Washington Redskins. "You knew he was going to take that last-second shot. You always felt like he was going to make it until it didn't go in."

The Cowboys are all too familiar with the feeling of being on the wrong end of Manning's clutch moments. He's had four game-winning drives against Dallas -- two in The House That Eli Signed (aka Cowboys Stadium) and one in the final playoff game at Texas Stadium.

You can't coach scared when calling offensive plays against Manning's team. Garrett has to get over the trust issues he won't admit he has with Tony Romo.

The Garrett apologists, a group led by owner/general manager Jerry Jones, can claim it was a smart call to take the ball out of the franchise quarterback's hands and hand it to the third-string tailback, settling for a field goal that gave the Cowboys a two-point lead with 3:28 to go in Carolina.

Tuck It's kind of like when Michael Jordan had the ball. You knew he was going to take that last-second shot. You always felt like he was going to make it until it didn't go in.

-- Giants DE Justin Tuck on Eli Manning

It was a classic case of coaching not to lose. And the Cowboys didn't. Sophomore-slumping Newton and can't-win Carolina didn't make Garrett pay, failing to get close to field goal position.

But it'd be flat stupid to willingly leave the door cracked for another Eli comeback. If the Cowboys get the chance against the Giants -- and that's a huge if with Sean Lee out for the season and DeMarco Murray most likely missing this game -- they better go for the kill.

"I think the biggest thing is how that quarterback and how that offense is doing," Garrett said when asked whether, hypothetically speaking, he would have been more aggressive on third-and-9 in the red zone instead of instructing Romo to hand the ball to Phillip Tanner up the middle.

Cowboys fans better hope that Garrett was just trying to be politically correct, that he didn't want to say anything that could be perceived as kicking a wannabe Superman while he was down.

One reason to believe that: Garrett did go for the kill against the Giants in Week 1, calling a passing play on third-and-10 just before the two-minute warning. Romo hit Kevin Ogletree on a slant for the first down, meaning Manning could do nothing but watch as Romo kneeled down a few times with the Cowboys up a touchdown.

Then again, Manning had just carved up the Cowboys on a 12-play, 79-yard touchdown drive to give the Giants hope of pulling off another Cowboys-heart-crushing comeback.

If Garrett truly believes what he said, that means he failed to learn a lesson from his conservative foolishness in last season's loss to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

Heck, even Jerry second-guessed his coach for being so conservative late in that game.

The fact that Brady struggled for most of the afternoon against Rob Ryan's defense was irrelevant. All that mattered was that Brady completed eight of nine passes for 78 yards and the game-winning touchdown on the Patriots' last possession.

That's what Hall of Fame quarterbacks do.

The majority of the postgame criticism, including from Garrett's boss, focused on the Cowboys running the ball each down on a three-and-out series before punting the ball to Brady with 2:42 to go. But Garrett was handcuffed as a playcaller by the offensive line's woes on that series, when Murray was dropped for a loss on the first two plays and Tyron Smith followed with a false start.

Garrett's real gaffe came on the Cowboys' previous possession, when they failed to take a shot at the end zone after getting a first-and-goal at the 10. Garrett left points on the field by playing it safe.

The Cowboys ran a screen to Martellus Bennett on first down, a swing pass to Tashard Choice on second down and a shovel pass to Choice on third down. They settled for a field goal.

In essence, they guaranteed Brady would get a shot to beat the Cowboys instead of giving Romo a chance to put more points on the board.

Whether or not you agreed with it, Garrett's caution is at least understandable. When the Cowboys played the Patriots, Romo was coming off a three-pick meltdown that allowed the Detroit Lions to pull off a historic road comeback. Right now, Romo leads the NFC in interceptions with nine.

But trust in Romo should be a secondary consideration if this game comes down to crunch time and the Cowboys have the ball.

Garrett better give Manning, the Giants' Michael Jordan, his due respect.

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