On a dark weekend, Garrett showed the way

December 9, 2012

One of the most maddening things about Jason Garrett might have been a source of strength to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. Garrett's message on a day-to-day basis can be frustratingly repetitive, but I believe that approach played a large role in the Cowboys' come-from-behind 20-19 win in Cincinnati.

The Cowboys had to play a game following one of the most unthinkable tragedies in the history of the organization. A member of the club's practice squad, Jerry Brown, was killed in a single-car accident in the early hours of Saturday morning, and his former college teammate and Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent is in jail on charges of intoxication manslaughter.

Garrett informed players of Brown's passing moments before the team charter departed for Cincinnati on Saturday afternoon. In that context, a game against a talented AFC opponent seemed incredibly insignificant, but also unavoidable.

You hear people talking about teams rallying around tragic circumstances, but that sounds extremely trite to me. Garrett simply asked his players to focus on their jobs and play to best of their ability. And the result was an improbable win that has the Cowboys (7-6) in the thick of the playoff race. Next week's opponent, Pittsburgh, was manhandled Sunday by a San Diego Chargers team that's no longer in the playoff picture.

Garrett kept his cool in the second half against the Bengals even while defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was losing his mind. Ryan was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct after a verbal altercation with Bengals offensive tackle Andre Smith. And the Cowboys were penalized again on the drive for having 12 men on the field. That the Cowboys were able to hold the Bengals to a field goal on the drive was a minor miracle, and it allowed them to remain within striking distance.

I'm not sure how Garrett kept his composure as Ryan continued to embarrass himself. Even when Dez Bryant caught a touchdown pass to trim the Bengals lead to 19-17 in the fourth quarter, it was hard to imagine Ryan's defense rising to the occasion. But Anthony Spencer's second sack of the game (8.5 on the season) ensured the Cowboys would at least have decent field position on what turned out to be their final drive. We've seen Garrett freeze at the end of games before, but on Sunday he was aggressive when he needed to be. And fortunately for the Cowboys, a courageous run by DeMarco Murray kept the drive alive and ensured the Bengals wouldn't have time for a last-minute rally. For once, it's the opposing coach who will be ripped for poor game management based on having to burn all three timeouts earlier in the half.

I don't think winning this game guarantees that Garrett will return to the Cowboys next season, but it certainly gives him more credibility within the walls of Valley Ranch. It was a completely different situation, but we all remember how he took over a 1-7 Cowboys team in 2010 and immediately pulled off an upset over the Giants in the Meadowlands. On Saturday, he had to break the awful news that a member of the Cowboys family had been tragically killed and that another teammate's life had been altered forever. It's something that no coach wants to do, but Garrett's probably better-suited than most.

The Cowboys honored the memory of their fallen teammate by bringing his jersey to the field. And after Dan Bailey's 40-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, defensive end Jason Hatcher could be seen holding Brown's No. 53 jersey above his head while hugging Garrett.

We've looked closely over the past few weeks to see if Garrett's “lost” this team in any manner. But it was more obvious than ever Sunday that his players are responding to him.

In the aftermath of an awful tragedy, playing an NFL game seems so trivial. But for a little more than three hours, it probably offered players sanctuary from their profound sense of loss.

It was Garrett who set the tone.