Sunday’s listless loss to Philadelphia Eagles with the NFC East title on the line left a litany of questions surrounding the Dallas Cowboys.
Prominent among them: Why was wide receiver Amari Cooper on the sideline for the critical failed fourth-and-8 play that all but sealed the Eagles’ victory?
The pass fell incomplete.
— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) December 23, 2019
Cooper reportedly benched for performance
Various reports and Cowboys statements regarding Cooper’s status for the play paint a vague and confusing picture about what actually happened.
But a report from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Monday drove straight to the heart of the matter. Cooper was benched late in the game because the Cowboys weren’t pleased with his performance, according to Clarence Hill Jr.
the Cowboys limited Amari Cooper snaps in the 4th quarter against the eagles because he wasn't playing well, per sources. They legitimately didn't think having him in on 4th and 8 have them the best chance to win. if he is not hurt, this will be revisited in contract talks
— Clarence Hill Jr (@clarencehilljr) December 23, 2019
Garrett’s vague postgame explanation
Garrett didn’t paint a clear picture of the decision to sideline Cooper in the immediate aftermath of the game, suggesting that Cooper was rotated out for rest after running multiple plays in the two-minute drill.
“Sometimes in those two-minute situations, you know, they run a lot of plays in a row,” Garrett said. “So the other guys were out there.”
When pressed and asked if Cooper was hurt, Garrett said that he wasn’t and lamented the failure to make plays when Tavon Austin was subbed in down the stretch.
“He wasn’t,” Garrett said of Cooper being injured. “We were rotating Tavon in there. We had a couple good opportunities with Tavon. Unfortunately we weren’t able to cash in on them.”
Austin in for matchup reasons?
Meanwhile, somebody in the Cowboys locker room told NFL Network’s Jane Slater that Austin was in the game on fourth down for matchup purposes.
A #Cowboys source disputes the notion WR Amari Cooper was benched. Instead they wanted to give Tavon Austin a shot at the DBs because Eagles having hard time w smaller quick guys. They got in hurry up mode so they had to wait to put Cooper back in. “Rotation change, not bench.”
— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) December 23, 2019
Tough to swallow these explanations
Again, none of this makes sense.
Cooper is a three-time Pro Bowler who leads the team with 75 catches for 1,097 yards and eight touchdowns. Austin is a career return specialist with 12 catches this season.
You don’t just sub him in for your top target on the season’s most important play without underlying reasons. If it was truly a matter of Cooper being winded, Garrett could have used one of the three remaining timeouts in his pocket to give him a breather.
Garrett points to assistants for sidelining Cooper
After sleeping on it, Garrett gave another explanation on Monday on his regular appearance with Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan.
It wasn’t actually him — the head coach — making the call on Cooper. That call was up to offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal.
“In terms of the personnel group to have that be a 12 personnel play, that would be Kellen’s decision,” Garrett told 105.3 The Fan, per Blogging the Boys. That’s a play that we liked in that situation for the variety of coverages that they were going to play. We felt like we had good answers with that.
“In regards to the receiver rotation Sanjay Lal and... it’s just the communication during those on-the-ball drives. Sometimes those guys work the rotation different ways based on the routes they run and plays they’ve run and all of that.”
As in his postgame news conference, Garrett provided a palpable lack of clarity in that statement. But what is clear is that he’s deflecting some of the scorching heat bearing down on him to his assistants.
Hill’s report is plausible
What does make sense is Hill’s report. The Cowboys staff decided that Cooper wasn’t performing well, so they benched him with the season on the line.
It doesn’t make sense in that it would be a good decision — just that it’s believable that Garrett and his staff would make it in a game that saw Cooper catch four passes for 24 yards.
As Hill points out, if Cooper is getting benched for performance during critical moments, that won’t bode well for his offseason contract talks as he seeks to become one of the league’s highest-paid receivers.
Owner Jerry Jones can add that new wrinkle regarding Cooper to his busy offseason plate that will almost surely include hiring a new head coach.
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