FRISCO, Texas – Jason Garrett wants his players to have their eyes forward. He doesn’t want them thinking about their record, the NFC East title, a first-round bye or home-field advantage. As the sign outside the trainers’ room says: The only thing that matters is what we do now.
That’s the cruel but actual world of the NFL, where anything short of a Super Bowl after such a successful regular season will be viewed as something of a failure.
“You’ve heard me say this before: This is not really the time for reflection,” Garrett said on a conference call Monday.
He doesn’t want to reflect, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.
The Dallas Cowboys went 13-3 with a fourth-round pick, Dak Prescott, at quarterback because Tony Romo missed the first nine games of the season with a compression fracture in his back. Prescott played so well that he took away any decision the coaches or front office had to make once Romo was healthy. A year ago, the Cowboys went 1-11 without Romo.
Romo wasn’t the only significant contributor to miss time during the regular season.
The Cowboys went 13-3 with Tyron Smith missing three games with back and knee injuries, Dez Bryant missing three games with a tibial plateau fracture, Orlando Scandrick missing five games with a hamstring strain, Morris Claiborne missing nine games with a groin injury, DeMarcus Lawrence missing four games because of a suspension and three games with a back injury, Tyrone Crawford missing two games with a left shoulder injury, Barry Church missing four games with a fractured forearm, La’el Collins missing 13 games with a toe injury and James Hanna not playing a snap because of knee injuries. And there was Randy Gregory, who was suspended the first 14 games of the season, and Rolando McClain, who missed the entire season due to suspension.
“I do think one thing we’ve done is handle the adversities of the season very well,” Garrett said. “We had a number of different guys who were out of the lineup. We had backup players who had to step in of them and play and play well and play at a high level. They were able to do that. We a lot of different guys who had different roles coming into the season and stepped into larger roles and handles roles well and helped us win ballgames. We had guys who had different roles in games who had to step in and play. That was something we prided ourselves on. We needed to do that better this year.”
In pivotal moments all season they made the winning plays, and they got them from stars, backups and unknowns.
In their first win of the season, Alfred Morris put his former team, the Washington Redskins, away with a late touchdown run, but a Church interception in the end zone kept the Cowboys alive. In Week 3, Garrett made a gutsy fourth-down call on the first drive that ended in a Dallas touchdown. In San Francisco they were down 14-0 after two drives and scored the game’s next 21 points. At Green Bay, David Irving came out of nowhere for three forced fumbles and a sack. Chris Jones ran 30 yards on a fake punt against Philadelphia to jump-start a comeback in which Prescott found his form late and in overtime.
Ezekiel Elliott’s 83-yard touchdown catch on a screen against Pittsburgh might have been the season’s biggest play, but Prescott went play-for-play in the fourth quarter against Ben Roethlisberger. The defense’s biggest contribution was stops on four two-point conversions.
Against Baltimore, they won by scoring on five straight possessions, and four days later against Washington they won despite giving up 505 yards. Kyle Wilber’s fumble recovery on a punt in the fourth quarter led to the winning touchdown against Minnesota. Irving reappeared on Week 15 against Tampa Bay, dominating in the fourth quarter while the defense had three interceptions of Jameis Winston, including one by Jeff Heath.
With home-field advantage clinched prior to the Week 16 meeting against Detroit, Bryant caught two touchdown passes and threw one, but the biggest play was a third-quarter interception by J.J. Wilcox that the Cowboys turned into the go-ahead touchdown.
Back in February, when players started working out on their own, a bond began to form. That chemistry grew through the offseason and training camp and hardened during the 11-game winning streak that propelled them to their current standing.
After the loss to Philadelphia on Sunday, Garrett’s message was simple: Eyes forward.
“That’s been the message all year long, so it’ll continue to be the message,” wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “Coach Garrett’s not much about changing, so it’ll be the same.”