Sunday’s matchup against the Detroit Lions isn’t a crucial, must-win game for the Dallas Cowboys’ 2013 season. If they lose they won’t drop out of first place, they’ll still control the East with a 3-0 divisional record, and with eight games remaining they’ll have plenty of time to make up for a late-October road loss.
For the 2013 season, this is just another road game, no more important than any other non-divisional matchup. For the franchise, however, this game represents a crucial mile marker in the Jason Garrett Era.
Sunday’s game marks exactly three full seasons of rebuilding. With just 14 active players remaining from the 53-man roster Garrett took over midway through the 2010 campaign, with a couple of 8-8 seasons in the rear-view mirror, and with back-to-back division titles lost in Week 17, the higher ups believe they have finally assembled a squad that can make a real run.
If they’re right, then this is a game they need to win.
A loss drops the Cowboys to 4-4. To creep back to that achingly familiar .500 mark at mid-year is to question whether or not this is simply who Garrett is.
Garrett has spent three years now preaching his brand of NFL wisdom, gathering his right-kind-of guys, and establishing a culture of high expectations and accountability in Dallas. Garrett likes to talk about team identity, and did so memorably after the Cowboys’ Hall of Fame Game win in August:
“I think what we always try to do as coaches, every opportunity you can, is to outline what the standard is for the Dallas Cowboys and the National Football League in all phases… It’s our job as coaches to provide that standard. You are constantly making an effort to establish your identity as a player and a team, and it’s our job to help them establish the right identity – the best version of themselves.”
Perhaps 8-8 was the best these last two teams could be. After all, to twice play for the division championship in Week 17 amid two years of massive roster rebuilding sounds like the very definition of overachieving.
Garrett helped keep those teams competitive with a couple of thin rosters, a defensive scheme and coaching staff he never wanted, and a responsibility of play-calling that he would have preferred to delegate – all while overhauling a franchise culture of entitlement to one of accountability.
And now this year is supposed to be his year. The coaching staff is entirely his; the culture is firmly established; the players have bought in; he’s trained a playcaller and turned him loose, freeing himself to stalk the sidelines in a fittingly Saban-like fashion.
This is exactly the kind of game a good team finds a way to win, and the kind of game you expect an 8-8 team to drop. Tough to win on the road in the NFL; hard to beat a team as talented as the Lions in their house. A good team, a tough team, a resilient team – a team that competes on every down and expects to be excellent – will find a way.
We’ll learn something important about Garrett’s 2013 Cowboys this Sunday. We’ll learn something about their identity, and about their character. Three full seasons is just about the amount of time anyone reasonably expects a head coach to turn around a franchise, particularly one as rotten as Dallas was.
Those who support Garrett have to believe there’s no way Dallas loses this game. His players will rise to it; his staff will have them prepared; they will all perform like the best versions of themselves. Jerry has played it a thousand times in his mind’s eye: They’ll win their third straight, they’ll begin to expect to win, and that expectation will lead to more wins. Garrett’s Cowboys will roll, and come playoff time TV experts will assert the start of it all was a “moral victory” they ridiculed back in Week 5.
Of course, they’ll be wrong. If the Cowboys get hot and go on a run, it will have begun long before that epic shoot-out with the Broncos… It’ll be a run that began on a chilly November flight home from Green Bay, and has been three tough years in the making.