The day started off poorly for Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and ended even worse.
Garrett was greeted with the news Sunday morning that the contract extension signed by New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton was voided by the NFL. That means Payton can sign with any team after the season.
Payton is a former Cowboys assistant. Payton and his family still live in the Dallas area. Payton has a Super Bowl ring. You get the picture.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones denied any interest in Payton before Sunday night’s game in Atlanta.
Then the Cowboys went out and played a typical game under Jason Garrett. They showed flashes. They made a lot of mistakes. They played just well enough to lose and did, 19-13.
The Cowboys are now 3-5 and the stench of another 8-8 (or worse) season is starting to circulate around the team.
The loss makes Garrett 16-16 overall as a head coach. The Cowboys are 4-9 since last December.
The best the Cowboys have ever looked under Garrett was the four games in 2011 just prior to the current 4-9 stretch. That was when they faced a pillowy soft quartet of Seahawks, Bills, Redskins, Dolphins.
Two of the Cowboys’ last four wins have come against the Tampa Bay Bucs. Another was against Carolina.
The Cowboys did knock off the Super Bowl champion Giants to open the season, but with each week that looks more and more like a fluke.
And through it all, Garrett has been a broken record of saying the team is making progress, working on “all three phases” and how it’s all a “process.”
What you never hear is Garrett publicly criticize a player. In most instances, it’s smart to keep those things in-house, but at this point the players might even welcome some public flogging.
There certainly aren’t any outspoken leaders in the locker room. Tony Romo has been known to bark at teammates on the sideline, but in front of the media he prefers to be seen as just one of the guys. He insists on conducting his mass interviews in front of his locker, just like everyone else.
DeMarcus Ware has the respect of his teammates but is too soft spoken. Jason Witten is also an acknowledged warrior, but he’s more boy scout than bully.
The Cowboys need a strong persona at head coach to make things work, to point out the sloppiness and suppress the aura that comes with the star on the helmet. That’s hard to do when Jones’ personality dominates the organization, but Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells left no doubt who was in charge. Jones may be the mayor of Cowboyville, but Johnson and Parcells were the sheriffs.
Garrett has tried to assume that role and alter the culture at Valley Ranch. He’s demanded players be on time and dressed for success. But when the games start, penalties and mistakes continue to plague his team – even when they win.
It’s not too late for things to change under Garrett, but those of us who have watched the Jones-era Cowboys know when things are starting to take a turn. Or rather a downward spiral.
Things could look better immediately because of the schedule: Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, Philly again and Cincinnati. That’s the kind of stretch a playoff drive can be built upon, but here’s betting most of those will be a struggle for the Cowboys.
Bad NFL teams make every game a struggle. The Cowboys couldn’t have been expected to win at undefeated Atlanta on Sunday night, but the game was winnable. And they found a way to lose it.
A Cowboys defense that had played well all night suddenly couldn’t get the Falcons off the field when they needed to the most. The Dallas offense only looked crisp on its one drive in hurry-up mode, when Garrett has the least influence on the play-calling.
For now, it’s far-fetched to think Jones would go after Sean Payton, or that Payton would entertain a Cowboys offer.
But it’s not too soon to ponder whether we’re at the beginning of the end of the Garrett era. This may not be a Super Bowl team, as Jones says every year, but it is a talented one. So far, that talent is not being maximized. Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire