Cowboys did something no team has done in 87 years. It occurred in a win that rarely materialized under Jason Garrett.

A little over nine months ago, the Dallas Cowboys’ 2019 season and head coach Jason Garrett’s tenure effectively ended in the middle of a game against the Chicago Bears. The franchise badly needed a win against an injury-riddled and mediocre opponent, were lining up against a quarterback who was playing himself out of a job in Mitchell Trubisky, and had a prime opportunity to take control of the race for the NFC East title.

Rather than seizing the moment, Garrett’s Cowboys performed in a fashion that was typical at critical junctures — starting flat, making costly mistakes and wheezing into a 24-7 first-half deficit that had little chance of being reversed. This was a defining trait of Garrett-era teams: digging holes that couldn’t be overcome, while squandering talent in the face of opponents that should have been overmatched. Dallas would lose to the Bears 31-24 in that December game, absorbing a defeat that would ultimately be the difference between making the playoffs.

That’s the game I think about when I try to find perspective for Mike McCarthy’s first win in Dallas, a 40-39 victory against the Atlanta Falcons that was largely awful for 3 1/2 quarters, but remarkable enough in the final five minutes that one thought resonated: This kind of thing rarely happened under Garrett. Never, actually, considering the bumbling totality of falling behind 20-0 after one quarter, 29-10 at the half, then trailing 39-24 with less than six minutes left in the game.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, center with hand raised, celebrates an onside kick recovery in the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, center with hand raised, celebrates an onside kick recovery in the fourth quarter against the Falcons. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

In past years, those kinds of deficits became frustrating losses that were kindling for the annual Fire Jason Garrett rallies in January. It’s why Sunday felt so familiar for the majority of the game, from the built-in injury excuses at kickoff, to the three lost fumbles, to the two failed fake punts, all laced inside monumental defensive failures that created zero Atlanta turnovers. That latter point being the most mind-boggling, according to Elias Sports Bureau, which relayed that no team since 1933 has lost a game after scoring 39 points and surrendering zero turnovers. In that 87-year span, teams rolled up a 440-0 record.

Now it’s 440-1. And that one win is the first Cowboys victory of the McCarthy era, coming in a moment when Dallas truly needed it.

Normally, this kind of victory wouldn’t be a feather in the cap of a head coach. Not with a defense that looked like an abomination for much of the day and some special teams calls that were dubious at best. Particularly when you add into the mix the Falcons, who suffered a dropped Julio Jones touchdown and what amounted to a monumentally blown onside kick that helped set up Dallas’ winning field goal.

But I’m going to give McCarthy some due credit in this one because he said something at halftime that should resonate on this roster and galvanize the team behind him.

“Coach McCarthy said at halftime, ‘We need to be here. We need to be right where we are,’” Prescott told reporters after the win. “He said the final score didn’t matter as much as finding out the type of men that we have, the type of fight we have within this team. This does so much.”

As coaching goes, that’s a pitch-perfect message that can echo for a long time after a victory. The kind of thing that can become a foothold for a head coach, who can now point to an absolutely improbable win and say with some history at his back, “Remember what you did against Atlanta?”

Garrett didn’t have many of those. At least, not the kind that were so completely stacked against him on the scoreboard and the field. McCarthy did, if we’re being fair about the measuring stick. By kickoff on Sunday, it was staggering how much talent Dallas had lost in key spots. Starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins were missing. Linchpin linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee were on injured reserve, with starting cornerback Anthony Brown joining them Friday. Starting tight end Blake Jarwin was lost for the season in Week 1, and starting defensive lineman Gerald McCoy never even made it to the regular season before blowing out his knee. And if all of that wasn’t enough, key rotational offensive lineman Cam Erving went on IR after one week as well.

I hate making injury excuses for any NFL team — particularly after the onslaught we saw Sunday — but losing seven starting players and one key backup is an atrocious toll. Especially when it all happens before the second game of the season.

All of which brings me back to Garrett and McCarthy. Time will spell it out, but there is a distinction between these two coaches in pulling out this kind of improbable win. Over a decade of Garrett, we saw it go in the opposite direction too many times for it not to be considered a legitimate concern. That McCarthy avoided it in spite of his roster attrition says something. Even if it had to come with the aid of an opponent making two massive unforced errors.

In that latter respect, I’ll point to a somewhat fictional but nonetheless wise quote that is often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”

In the final five minutes Sunday, Dallas went about its own business offensively, while letting Atlanta go sideways in a game that should have been sealed in the first moments of the fourth quarter. Practiced consistently, the art of staying patient and letting an opponent trip over themselves can be a monumental advantage. Check out the past two decades of the New England Patriots to understand it.

For once, Dallas took advantage of it, a nice change from the past decade. Yes, there was plenty of bad coaching on the Cowboys sideline. The defense looked frighteningly bad. Players made mistakes. And in the next few days, once we pick through the film of Atlanta’s defense following the Takk McKinley injury, maybe we’ll realize the number of immense breaks that Dallas really received.

But this didn’t have to be perfect to count. So it wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t ideal. And it isn’t anything that should be repeated anytime soon. With the Seattle Seahawks on the agenda next week, it was necessary. Not just for the win, but for McCarthy, who like it or not, will typically have his failures measured more closely to Jason Garrett than any of his victories.

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