Or maybe — finally — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is feeling what has frustrated a large portion of his fan base for years: That this franchise is too experienced to be this inconsistent; too talented to be this maddening. And that at some point, the head coach is the guy who needs to be held responsible for the never-ending gap between expectation and reality.
"With the makeup of this team, I shouldn't be this frustrated," Jones said after Sunday's loss to the Patriots.
Welcome to the club, Jerry. That line forms at the nearest entrance to AT&T Stadium — and it's filled with fans who have been paying through the nose to witness this professional exasperation.
Not that Jones and his fan base are wrong, mind you. As I've said since July, the Cowboys have a two-deep roster that is worthy of being placed inside the NFL's top five franchises. When fully healthy, there may not be a more talented overall offense in the NFL. The defense? It's stocked with high-end players at every level and has the coaching experience to match up with nearly anyone. And the special teams — well, the kicker has a leg that extends beyond 60 yards in good weather. And that's one hell of an anchor to build around.
And yet, there was Jerry Jones on Sunday — standing in the bowels of Gillette Stadium and looking like a man trying to find his missing connection in the transit station. He’s finally realizing what his fans have known for years: that the man at the wheel of the Cowboys hype train seems to steer it into one giant circle, ultimately dropping the faithful off in the same agonizing place every single season — a crossroads of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
If you're willing to pay for the ticket, Jason Garrett will take you there.
On Sunday, Jones seemed closer than ever to understanding that. Which is saying something, considering he refused to extend Garrett's contract before this season and then awkwardly laughed off the subject when pressed about it in training camp in July. That contract expiration date has always been a significant sign from Jones — a signal flare to his fan base that he understood the stakes in 2019 and wasn't willing to put anything more than a verbal commitment behind a head coach he's been defending for basically a decade.
Jerry Jones through the years
Jerry Jones through the years
(Original Caption) Dallas: Jerry Jones, millionaire oilman from Arkansas holds a press conference at the Dallas Cowboys headquarters 2/25 evening during which he told those gathered that his former college roommate and teammate at Arkansas Jimmy Johnson, would replace Tom Landry as the Cowboys head coach.
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1990: Owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys on the field looks on prior to the start of an NFL football game circa 1990. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
CIRCA 1991 - Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones in this portrait on the field circa 1991 before an NFL football game. Jones has owned the Cowboys from 1989-present. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1995: Owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys talks with his head coach Barry Switzer (R) while on the field prior to the start of an NFL football game circa 1995. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 19: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones talks with the media after departing an NFL owners meeting 19 September in Atlanta, Georgia. Jones and the Dallas Cowboy organization is being sued by NFL Properties in excess of 300 million USD for violating league agreements concerning club trademarks and product endorsements. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read DOUG COLLIER/AFP/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - JANUARY 28: Owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Cowboy defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX on January 28, 1996 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl 27-17. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys Cliff Harris is honored by owner Jerry Jones with being added to the ring during halftime of a 26 to 10 loss to the New York Giants on October 10, 2004 at Texas Stadium in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys team owner and general manager Jerry Jones (left) and head coach Bill Parcells (right) during a press conference in Oxnard, California Friday, July 28, 2006. The Dallas Cowboys start training camp and two-a-days Saturday in Oxnard. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
Terrell Owens, left, looks on as Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones explains his thoughts on the risk of signing Owens at a press conference announcing Owens as a member of the Cowboys at Valley Ranch in Irving, Texas, Saturday, March 18, 2006. (Photo by Stewart F. House/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones poses with Atlanta Owner Arthur Blank before their team play on December 16, 2006 in Atlanta, Georiga. Dallas defeated Atlanta by the score of 38 to 28. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
07 SEP 2008: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during the Cowboys NFL game against the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland Ohio September 7, 2008. (Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)
DALLAS, TX - JULY 15: Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, during a visit to Mexico's soccer team training session at Cowboys Stadium on July 15, 2009 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Mario Castillo/Jam Media/LatinContent/Getty Images)
DALLAS - OCTOBER 30: (L-R) Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban sit together on stage as Dallas is announced as the host for the 2010 NBA All-Star Game during a press conference on October 30, 2008 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2008 NBAE (Photo by Kerre Randel/NBAE via Getty Images)
09 January 2010: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin #19 following the Dallas Cowboys 34-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in a NFC Wild-Card game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by Ray Carlin/Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, left, and former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith stand with Smith's bust during the Enshrinement Ceremony for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Saturday, August 7, 2010. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones leaves the field following a morning practice during Cowboys training camp, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Oxnard, California. (Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 29: (L-R) Texas debutante Jessica Catherine Jones, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Texas debutante Haley Alexis Anderson attend the 58th International Debutante Ball at The Waldorf-Astoriaon December 29, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Charles Eshelman/FilmMagic)
WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Owner of the Dallas Cowboys Jerry Jones arrives at the 2013 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at Sunset Tower on February 24, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Mark Sullivan/WireImage)
ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 09: Jerry Jones, Owner, President and GM of the Dallas Cowboys attends the press conference for the 2014 The Cowboy Rides Away tour at Dallas Cowboys Stadium on September 9, 2013 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Essential Broadcast Media)
ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 28: Owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys is pictured on the field before the start of the game against the Denver Broncos at AT&T Stadium on August 28, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 19: Dallas Cowboys Owner, President and General Manager Jerry Jones (L) and Gene Jones attend the 50th Academy of Country Music Awards at AT&T Stadium on April 19, 2015 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 12: Owner Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys signs some autographs for Cowboys fans before the game aagainst the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on October 12, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
19 December 2015: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones signs autographs prior to the NFL regular season game game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. New York won the game 19-16. (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 06: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones looks on before the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 6, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. Dallas defeated Cleveland 35-10. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, center, talks with head coach Jason Garrett, left, and Stephen Jones in the Dallas Cowboys' Draft War Room at Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas, on Thursday, April 27, 2017. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 23: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gets a Arkansas Razorbacks Jersey for the 1961 Arkansas National Championship team during the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas A&M Aggies on September 23, 2017 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 22: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones stands on the field looking on while his team warms up prior to the start of an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on October 22, 2017 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Even with that, Sunday evening felt like something different. Jones wasn't just irritated. He was especially angry at his coaching staff, and he made a point of repeating that fact multiple times. So much so that it feels like this is as close as Jones has come to publicly putting Garrett on notice. While he didn't say that much, the subtext was all there after the loss to a less-than-healthy Patriots team. And you didn't need a Rosetta Stone to decipher it.
This was a significant setback.
We can't come up here and play like that.
The fundamentals of football and coaching were what beat us out there today.
And the real dagger: They've got a coach who knows how to play this game and did a good job of that and my hat's off to him.
That last one should raise an eyebrow. While Jones will applaud the opposing head coaches after a Dallas loss (as he did with the Saints' Sean Payton and Minnesota Vikings' Mike Zimmer), he rarely does it in the midst of being highly critical of his own. That's because Jones is no dummy when it comes to how things will play the following week in the media. He knows how to lay cover for his coaches and usually does when they're knocked down. This time, he didn't use so much as a barren tree branch to shield Garrett.
That alone is notable. But I think Jones has shown a few times this season that he's thinking about the realities of what the Cowboys have become under Garrett. First he did it by refusing to lay down a contract extension. Then he did it on Sunday by calling out his staff — which ultimately is the responsibility of Garrett, even if part of Jones' anger was pointed at special teams.
Those weren't the only two instances that were interesting. There was another from the middle of last week. Talking on his weekly radio appearance in Dallas, Jones recounted the time when Bill Belichick once made a job pitch to him after getting fired by the Cleveland Browns. The "what-if" quality of the story was amazing. But not a word of it should have resonated more than when Jones said "I've thought about that [moment] many times. You never know where you can find a great coach."
Perhaps I'm overthinking it, but I was stunned when I heard Jones say that. It instantly made me wonder about what an admission like that does to Garrett. Stop for a moment and put it into perspective if you're Garrett. Your contract ends at the conclusion of the season. The fan base has already gone through a round of calling for your job this season. You're about to play arguably the best team in the NFL on the road in a pivotal measuring week — led by the single-greatest coach the league has ever seen in Belichick. And your team owner, who won't commit to you long term, admits on local radio (which is a hornets’ nest in Dallas) that he sometimes reminisces about the time he could have hired the coach that you are about to face.
Maybe Garrett heard that line. Maybe he didn't. And maybe it's no surprise that on Sunday, the report floats that Garrett has eyes for the archrival Giants — who also have been rumored in the past to be the apple of Belichick's eye if he were to ever leave the Patriots.
A thing like that makes you wonder if maybe Jones isn't the only one who is frustrated now. After all, Garrett is still coaching a division-leading team — even if it's only by a game and has a tough road ahead to win the NFC East and make the playoffs. Hell, maybe the head coach has his own brand of dissatisfaction, especially given that he's going to go through another meat grinder this week.
Then again, Garrett's mindset doesn't matter now. It's Jones who holds the power in the relationship — and that means it's Jones who needs to be placated with some meaningful wins. Like the three previous chances to establish a signature win against the Saints, Green Bay Packers and Vikings, the Cowboys fell short against the Patriots. And arguably at no other point was it more clear that some element of coaching and preparation had something to do with it.
Cowboys fans have been pointing at the shortcomings for years and associating them with Garrett. Ownership came closer than ever to joining them Sunday. Make no mistake: If the Cowboys head coach wasn't on notice before this weekend, he is now. Jones didn't even have to say it for his fan base to understand. After all, they've been speaking this language for a long, long time.