Jason Garrett never hesitated with the biggest decision in his first playoff game as a head coach.
One might say the usually stoic, Princeton-educated leader of the Dallas Cowboys went all riverboat gambler — going for it on fourth-and-6 near midfield when the safer play would have been to punt and hope to get the ball back.
The Cowboys converted on Tony Romo’s 21-yard pass to Jason Witten with 6 minutes remaining and later scored the go-ahead touchdown in a 24-20 wild-card win over Detroit. Perhaps this is the key — it was Dallas’ first playoff game in five years.
“What kept going through my mind was, `When you get a chance to go play at the Masters, you don’t lay up. You go after it a little bit,”‘ Garrett said after a win that sent the Cowboys (13-4) to Green Bay (12-4) for a division game Sunday. “And again, a lot of confidence in the guys to go out and execute it. They play football better than I swing a golf club.”
There’s another key. The tools Dallas has on offense are a lot more potent than a defense that is surviving mostly on low-budget free agents, castoffs and young, generally lower-round draft picks.
Dallas had NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray running behind a line with three first-round picks from the past four years. Romo is the first $100 million player in the history of the proud franchise, and left tackle Tyron Smith joined him when he signed a new deal during training camp.
Garrett gambled on that investment earlier against the Lions, with Murray scoring on a 1-yard fourth-down plunge late in the third quarter when the Cowboys were behind 20-7.
The risky moves weren’t totally out of character, either. Twice in a span of five plays in a scoreless game at Chicago, Garrett went for it on fourth-and-1 in field-goal range. Murray got 4 yards the first time, and the second was another 1-yard scoring plunge. Dallas won 41-28.
“I believe in our guys, our ability to control the line of scrimmage in some fourth-and-short situations, to win the line of scrimmage and to make those first downs,” Garrett said. “The fourth-and-6 really as much as anything was just a matter of saying, `Hey, who knows what happens if we punt this ball away.”‘
For years, Romo has carried the reputation of a gambler who drew the ire of Dallas fans fed up with late-game interceptions that cost the Cowboys games. So yes, he’s one to lobby Garrett in a lot of fourth-down situations. He didn’t have to say a word Sunday.
“I give credit to coach Garrett for making that call and going to try to win the football game at that point,” Romo said. “It shows that he believes in us. I think that he thinks in that situation he wants us on the field to have a chance to win a playoff game.”
And that’s where the big gamble was the safest — Romo to Witten, the tight end who has caught more passes than anyone from the quarterback who has surpassed Troy Aikman as the franchise passing leader in touchdowns and yards.
Witten ran straight up the field, got open by faking to his right and turning back to his left. The ball was there in plenty of time for him to pick up another 10 yards after the catch. Romo put the Cowboys ahead with an 8-yard scoring toss to Terrance Williams, his second TD of the game.
“Tony and I have done that for a long time,” said Witten, who recently joined Tony Gonzalez as the only NFL tight ends with 11 straight 700-yard seasons. “It was a gutsy call by coach Garrett. He has the confidence to be able to go for it, and for Tony to give me that look and know that I was going to win, turn inside.”
Kind of makes it sound like it wasn’t a gamble at all.
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