FRISCO, Texas — Almost since the first day Jason Garrett took over as the Dallas Cowboys’ interim head coach on Nov. 8, 2010, he has had to deal with some kind of distraction.
During his first week as coach, taking over for Wade Phillips, he had to get a team that lost five straight and seven of their first eight games ready to play the Giants. They beat New York 33-30 at MetLife Stadium in Garrett’s first game.
On Thursday, seven years and one day after Garrett took over, the Cowboys learned they will not have Ezekiel Elliott for at least the next four games — including Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons — and in all likelihood the next six games, after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals removed the temporary administrative stay that had allowed the running back to play.
The Elliott crisis is the latest for Garrett.
Throughout the legal process, Garrett has preached to Elliott and the rest of the team to control what they can control. Elliott has repeated the message, as have his teammates.
They simply ignore the outside noise, whether it is real or perceived.
“We play for the Dallas Cowboys. Simple as that,” quarterback Dak Prescott said. “We have to be able to focus in, to be focused one thing and not worry about the things around us. Control what we control.
“I mean, we’ve got tours that come around all the time. We’ve got all the news, good and bad, [that]you’re going to find. It’s just part of it. It’s been part of this organization for a while. From last year to this year, it’s just about being able to stay focused on your game plan and executing that and worrying about these men in the locker room.”
One of Garrett’s strengths as coach has been his ability to handle crisis.
There have been misses. The Cowboys lost three straight de facto NFC East title games in Week 17 from 2011 to 2013. In 2015, the Cowboys lost Tony Romo to a broken collarbone in Week 2 and won one game without him, finishing 4-12, their worst record since going 1-15 in Jerry Jones’ first year as owner and general manager in 1989.
But the Cowboys won that first game against the Giants in 2010 with Jon Kitna at quarterback, when Romo was also out with a broken collarbone. They finished the second half of that season with a 5-3 record that featured three losses by a combined seven points.
Garrett’s signature crisis-control moment as Cowboys coach came two years later, when practice-squad linebacker Jerry Brown was killed in a car accident in which his teammate and best friend, Josh Brent, was the driver —
hours before the team was to fly to Cincinnati. Garrett told the players on the plane what had happened. Players were crushed.
The next day, Dan Bailey kicked a 40-yard field goal with no time left to win the game against the Bengals, 20-19.
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“Football is very different than life,” Garrett said after that game. “We try to make that very, very clear to our team. This is a life situation. We lost a 25-year-old young man who had his whole life in front of him, a teammate, a friend. It’s a real tragedy. All we asked our team last night was to understand as best they could what happened, somehow, some way to try to channel all the emotions they have into honoring Jerry today in their performance, and that’s a hard thing to do. I think everybody in our organization who knew him is completely numb and has been numb the last couple of days.”
Somehow Garrett kept a fragile team together.
Last season, Garrett managed the Cowboys through a potential sticky situation when Romo returned to health from a compression fracture in his back. Garrett largely had the quarterback decision made for him by how well Prescott had played in Romo’s absence, but Romo also helped him by giving a concession speech, of sorts, in which he said Prescott had earned the job.
Elliott’s availability has been a question since Aug. 11, when the NFL first announced the suspension. Last week, the Cowboys didn’t know if Elliott would be able to play until 72 hours before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Cowboys beat the Chiefs, with Elliott rushing 27 times for 93 yards and a touchdown.
For the first time this season, the Cowboys will have to win without Elliott. All eyes will be on how they react. Can they still run the ball? Can they still be effective? Can they still win games?
Nothing is guaranteed, but history says the Cowboys will be ready to play.