ARLINGTON, TX -- Jason Garrett finally looked like a Dallas Cowboys fan who was sick and tired of ... well ... Jason Garrett. The coach best known for his maddeningly agreeable disposition, for clapping his way through victory and defeat with the same cadence and conviction, finally felt his fan base's pain.
He slammed his red challenge flag at the feet of side judge Scott Edwards and fired off some unsportsmanlike nouns and verbs. "Abusive language toward an official" was how referee Ron Torbert later described it. Edwards dramatically reached for his yellow flag and threw it high in a "take that" manner, deducting 15 yards from the 27-yard Amari Cooper catch that was erroneously ruled incomplete before being corrected on review.
Down three touchdowns to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers late in the third quarter and angered by a highly questionable pass interference call that had gone against him, Garrett wasn't about to start clapping while telling Edwards, "Good job, good effort."
So something kind of funny happened on the way to a home blowout and renewed questions about Garrett's ability to lead the way, you know, football coaches are supposed to lead. On the very next play, facing a first-and-25 because of his coach's blowup, Dak Prescott completed a 26-yard pass to Ezekiel Elliott en route to a score that would cut what had been a 28-point deficit in half. The building erupted. The Cowboys were right back in the game with nearly 14 minutes to go.
The players and the crowd had actually responded to Garrett.
"I didn't handle it well," the coach would later say. But the truth is, Garrett couldn't have handled the situation any better.
In the end, the Cowboys were never going to come all the way back from 31-3 down to Rodgers, who owns this team as much as Jerry Jones does. Whenever the Packers are in town, AT&T Stadium is converted from Jerry World into Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood. Ol' No. 12 even nailed down his one and only Super Bowl title in this ballpark. And after Rodgers beat Dallas with perhaps the greatest postseason pass in NFL history three seasons ago, Garrett said of Green Bay's franchise player, "At the end of the day, they're going to talk about that guy as one of the top three quarterbacks who ever laced them up."
Which was vintage Garrett, of course. Always tipping his headset to someone in enemy colors. Always keeping things in perspective. Always appreciating his guys' effort.
Sunday night, Garrett finally punched back. It was refreshing to see. Prescott ultimately hit Cooper on a pretty throw for a prettier catch-and-run in the middle of the fourth quarter, and suddenly the Cowboys were down only 10. They lost their last shot at a miracle when their kicker, Brett Maher, missed a field goal attempt for the second time, and they walked off the field in possession of a dispiriting two-game losing streak.
But there was something in the endgame that resonated beyond the lame, Loserville cliché we didn't quit, or we showed a lot of fight.
Garrett has been the head coach of this team, America's Team, since the middle of the 2010 season. In all that time, he has won two playoff games. Two. He has survived three consecutive 8-8 seasons and a stretch of four non-winning seasons out of five.
More than anything, Garrett has survived the coast-to-coast perception that he is little more than an even-tempered, middle manager who knows the right things to tell the boss to remain gainfully employed.
He can't possibly survive another season without a meaningful postseason run. The Cowboys have not even reached the NFC Championship Game in nearly a quarter century, and in a conference that doesn't have to deal with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, or even the Kansas City Chiefs, that stretch of futility needs to end this January. Chances are, Garrett is fully aware of this.
Maybe deep down, that had something to do with the spike of the challenge flag and the verbal abuse of the official. Maybe not. Either way, Garrett finally broke his cycle of passion-free coaching and woke up the same players who had been booed off the field at halftime. The Cowboys couldn't tackle Aaron Jones (four rushing touchdowns), and their quarterback couldn't stop throwing the ball to the wrong team.
Yet their 563 yards were the most in a losing cause in franchise history. Prescott and Elliott are going to be OK, and so, too, is that much-celebrated offensive line. The Cowboys still have Cooper, good for 226 receiving yards against the Packers, and they still have the absurdly gifted Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker.
In other words, at 3-2, they still have enough talent to make a credible Super Bowl run.
Only this game wasn't about the talent as much as it was about the guy managing it. Garrett was upset he wasted a challenge on a bum call he figured (correctly) wouldn't get overturned, and he was enraged when he used his last one on the Cooper out-of-bounds call he knew would get overturned. Garrett couldn't go to the red flag on Prescott's third and final interception, which was shaped by considerable contact downfield.
When it was over, the losing coach said the side judge, Edwards, hit him with unsportsmanlike conduct because he "apparently didn't like how I threw the flag." Turns out Edwards was offended by more than that.
"I love it when Coach Garrett does things like that," defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford said of the eruption.
Asked if he sensed on the sideline that his players responded to his emotion, Garrett spoke of the great people he has on his team and the affection they have for each other. "I think it was a manifestation of that," Garrett said, deflecting any connection to himself.
"The fight and the spirit of the football team is there," he added. "I thought we saw it, and we'll grow from it. We'll be better for it."
Or else. In defeat Sunday, Garrett didn't get even, but he did get angry.
There's no turning back now. If the coach doesn't inspire his Cowboys to a higher level of achievement between here and January, he's going to lose a lot more than 15 yards.