If attitude reflects leadership, then Jason Garrett did more than simply guide the Cowboys to their first victory in six weeks on Sunday, a commanding 33--20 win over the first-place Giants in hostile New Meadowlands Stadium. In his debut, Dallas's interim coach infused a floundering franchise with the kind of swagger and confidence that the entire state of Texas built its reputation on.
"Coach Garrett added a little spark, a little more intensity in practice, and it showed up in the game," says rookie cornerback Bryan McCann, whose 101-yard pick-six set a franchise record and gave Dallas a two-score lead midway through the second quarter. "Teams carry the personality of their coach, and he's fiery and feisty."
After a 1--7 start that led to the Nov. 8 firing of Wade Phillips and the promotion of the Princeton-educated Garrett, Dallas's offensive coordinator for the past three years, the Cowboys once again seemed worthy of the stars adorning their helmets. None stood out more than rookie wideout Dez Bryant, who caught only three passes but accrued a career-high 104 yards and scored on an acrobatic 13-yard reception in the first quarter to give Dallas a lead it would never relinquish.
Was there a more telling sign that the Cowboys had changed for the better than watching the team's No. 1 pick stretch the defense—on the play before Bryant scored, he pulled in a careerlong 46-yard catch on a fly pattern in which he split double coverage—or seeing him scream and slap shoulder pads to motivate teammates as replay officials reviewed his touchdown reception?
If so, it came in the immediate aftermath of the game, as Bryant strolled through the tunnel with quarterback Jon Kitna, who pantomimed routes with his hands and spoke into Bryant's ear as if he were finishing a conversation just as a movie was about to begin. The Cowboys still sit in the basement of the NFC East, making the playoffs a pipe dream, but they're invested in football again. All thanks to Garrett, who has seven more weeks to audition for the permanent job and win over the entire roster—including those players who half-jokingly grumbled about Garrett's new dress code as they adjusted their ties in the locker room.
"With the coaching change, I'd like to say it went smoothly and no one resisted it, but that's not the case," says the veteran Kitna, who stepped under center after Tony Romo suffered a broken collarbone in a Week 7 loss to the Giants and threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday's victory. "There's always going to be resistance when someone comes in and changes the mind-set and expectations. That's what Jason did, and he had strong convictions about what he wanted to do and he wasn't going to bend."
Playing with renewed spirit and newfound purpose, the Cowboys took the electricity out of the stadium long before the lights went out with 10:57 left in the third quarter, a power failure that gave the showdown an Ocean's Eleven feel, as if a fast one were being pulled. The Giants had won five straight and featured the league's top defense, having allowed just 250.6 yards per game. The Cowboys had dropped five in a row and were coming off a blowout loss to the Packers in which they amassed only 205 yards of total offense.
But with a new mastermind on the sideline (one who ran downfield waving his arm like a third base coach on McCann's interception return), Dallas finished with 427 yards behind big plays such as Felix Jones's 71-yard catch-and-run that gave the Cowboys a 20-point lead 64 seconds into the second half. "We know we're a good football team," says Roy Williams, who caught two passes for 33 yards and provided downfield blocking on Jones's scamper. "It was about not wanting to get embarrassed anymore."
In their nationally televised Monday-night loss to the Giants on Oct. 25, the Cowboys blew a two-touchdown lead and allowed then season highs in points (41) and total yards (497)—a typical performance in an out-of-control downward spiral. They followed by giving up 35 points to the Jaguars and 45 to the Packers in consecutive losses. On Sunday, Dallas thwarted three potential comeback drives in the fourth quarter, stuffing Brandon Jacobs on fourth-and-one at the Cowboys' 42, recovering a fumble on the next series and intercepting Eli Manning at the Dallas six with just under three minutes to play. The defense also held the Giants' third-ranked rushing attack to 107 yards, cutting Big Blue's ground production nearly in half from their first meeting.
Will the feeling carry over? Can the momentum be sustained? Does the game ball Garrett received from owner Jerry Jones signal a new era, or just a momentary escape from mediocrity?