IRVING (AP) – The last time the Dallas Cowboys were embarrassed on national television on a Sunday night, the head coach was gone the next day.
Jason Garrett will make it through the bye week after a 49-17 loss to New Orleans, preaching the importance of not overreacting to by far his worst game in two-plus years since he was the midseason replacement for Wade Phillips.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is stressing the same thing, leaning on the biggest difference between the two debacles. Three years ago, the Cowboys were a one-win team after a 45-7 loss to Green Bay. This time they have to remind themselves they are 5-5 and tied for the NFC East lead with Philadelphia, the opponent in the season finale.
So Garrett will be on the same sideline where he made his debut in 2010 when the Cowboys visit the New York Giants on Nov. 24, perhaps with an uptick in the urgency in a season viewed as playoffs-or-bust for Garrett, despite Jones’ claims to the contrary.
“Has this been a perfect season up to this point? Absolutely not,” Garrett said. “We understand that. Had to deal with some different adversities, had some really good things happen for our team, and we’re in the situation that we’ve earned through 10 weeks of the season. And it’s all in front of us and we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
It won’t be easy.
The defense is worse than last season even though Jones fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and replaced him with Monte Kiffin, hoping a simpler scheme would more easily absorb a heavy dose of injuries.
It hasn’t happened. The Cowboys have been decimated on the defensive line this season the same way they were at linebacker a year ago, and they’ve given up the first two 600-yard games in franchise history the past three weeks.
Drew Brees picked apart Kiffin’s zone scheme, while a New Orleans defense revitalized under Ryan led to one of the worst games of Tony Romo’s career: just 10 completions for 128 yards. After the game, Jones questioned whether he had done the right thing dumping Ryan and bringing in Kiffin.
“You look at yourself, our whole staff, starting with me,” Kiffin said. “We critique some things on tape and this and that and maybe we tweak this and that. Get away, catch your breath. We’ll come in Monday morning and we’re rocking and rolling now, let’s go.”
Kiffin has to start by finding a middle linebacker to replace Sean Lee for at least one game, perhaps more, after he strained a hamstring early against New Orleans. The Cowboys looked hopeless without him, most notably when the Saints rolled to a touchdown in eight running plays after they had quit throwing because they were so far ahead.
The most likely fill-in is Ernie Sims, an eight-year veteran brought in last year when Lee was lost for the season to a toe injury.
“Obviously some of our leaders are hurt, but we want to continue to move forward with this season,” Sims said. “I think this bye week is great for us. Our leaders can get some rest and we can heal up and lick our wounds.”
One of those leaders is pass rushing star DeMarcus Ware, who missed games for the first time in his nine-year career with a thigh injury. He returned from a three-game absence against the Saints, but tweaked the injury. It’s uncertain whether he’ll be ready for the Giants.
Because of injuries, the defensive line has been a revolving door of free agents, and the secondary had three undrafted rookies on the field at the same time against Brees.
If defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (neck), cornerback Morris Claiborne (hamstring) and safety J.J. Wilcox (knee) can return against the Giants, the Cowboys will have a better chance to survive a couple of games without Lee.
“We’ve just got to get healthy,” said Hatcher, the only projected starter on the defensive front to play every game before sitting out against New Orleans.
Garrett risked the health of Romo and receiver Dez Bryant by letting them stay in the New Orleans game long after it was decided, even acknowledging a mistake that surely will be fodder if his job security wanes.
Bryant has been dealing with a tight back he says isn’t an issue on game days. Coming off a game in which he was targeted just twice, Bryant should have an easier time getting open with the expected return of receiver Miles Austin, who practiced during the bye week after missing three straight games with yet another hamstring injury.
The Cowboys thought they were OK without Austin because of the emergence of rookie Terrance Williams and diminutive second-year slot receiver Cole Beasley. But the passing game was inefficient by Romo’s standards while Austin was out.
“When you don’t have those numbers there is a direct correlation to sustaining drives,” said offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, who has come under more scrutiny now that he has taken over play-calling from Garrett. “Just not good enough. Sustaining drives is huge.”
When they get back from the bye, the Cowboys will be trying to sustain their season.
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