IRVING, Texas — Jason Garrett grabbed the attention of the Dallas Cowboys the day he took over, tightening rules and raising expectations.
By leading the Cowboys to a convincing victory in his debut, he’s even more in control.
Players responded to their new coach with the kind of performance owner Jerry Jones dreamed of when he switched leaders last week — going to New York and whipping the Giants and their league-leading defense. It showed the 44-year-old, first-time coach knows what he’s doing, and it could be the first step toward dropping the “interim” label.
“Any time you win, it just gives you chips to play with, so to speak,” quarterback Jon Kitna said Monday. “I think it gains momentum for him moving forward.”
The Cowboys went in 1-7, having dropped five straight and looking more lost in each of those. There was no telling whether they’d take to Garrett’s no-nonsense approach midway through an already lost season after 3½ years of being coddled by Wade Phillips.
Kitna said the club “needed anything to stop the bleeding.” Instead of a bandage, they got a face lift, turning into the club people expected when this club was hyped as potential NFC champions. Dallas grabbed an early lead and built on it, finding ways to keep making plays even when things didn’t go its way. Every time the division-leading Giants started making a push, the cellar-dwelling Cowboys pushed back even harder.
“I thought our guys individually responded when another guy made a play on them,” Garrett said. “I thought our units responded. And then maybe most importantly, I thought our team responded.”
It was a response Phillips could no longer coax from this group, but Garrett’s new way of doing things could.
“You feel a different vibe around here,” defensive end Stephen Bowen said. “We worked really hard last week and we showed what we get when we work hard. … I felt it just from the beginning of the week it was going to be a different effort. Everybody was all in behind coach Garrett, and you see how we played out there.”
They played like a team that still cares. Just look at what their cornerbacks did.
Terence Newman, already playing with sore ribs, hurt an ankle early and insisted on coming back. Mike Jenkins, who admitted giving up on a play when he could’ve tried making a touchdown-saving tackle the previous week, was playing hard and well until hurting his neck. A few plays after Jenkins went out, undrafted rookie Bryan McCann intercepted a pass and returned it 101 yards for a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter, safety Alan Ball moved to cornerback in the nickel package and snagged the first interception of his career. That preserved a 33-20 lead and gave the offense a chance to run out the clock, which it did by sending hard-charging Marion Barber into a worn-down defense.
“There was a physicalness to our play that allowed us to get to that point,” Garrett said. “That’s a positive thing and that’s the way we want to end the games.”
Garrett’s mantra is to stack good days together and see what happens on game day. He had them in meetings earlier in the mornings and let them out earlier in the afternoons. He had them in full pads on Wednesday, helmets and shoulder pads on Thursday, shells on Friday.
He also instituted a dress code, requiring a sports coat, tie, slacks and dress shoes on the team’s charter flight. Barber was seen following only the sports coat part of the new rules.
Asked repeatedly about this clear violation, Garrett said, “The players understand what the expectations are and what the parameters are and we’ll handle them with the consequences we think are right and we’ll keep them in-house.”
But what about holding Barber to a higher standard because he’s an offensive captain? Why not announce a fine or declare if that’s why Felix Jones started?
“If they don’t meet those expectations we’re going to handle them in-house and we’re not going to talk about them publicly. OK? Everybody got that going forward?” Garrett said.
Garrett added that Barber would remain a captain. He also said David Buehler would remain the kicker despite having an extra-point kick blocked, then missing a short field goal in the fourth quarter.
“He’s made them for us in the past and we believe he’ll make them for us again,” Garrett said.
As encouraging as this win was, what Dallas does next will show whether it was a fluke.
At least the Cowboys will have the benefit of easier circumstances: at home against the lowly Detroit Lions. The Cowboys haven’t won at home this season, but the Lions haven’t won on the road since 2007, an NFL-record 25 straight defeats.
“We’re 2-7 and we can’t hide from that,” Kitna said. “But we are a 2-7 team that just won one, so you are moving forward. You certainly have a better feel today. It’s nice to come in and have things talked about positively.”