By Lance Rinker
What a long, strange journey it has been for Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. From a career backup quarterback with several teams, the Cowboys included, and a pair of Super Bowl rings on his mantle, courtesy of the Cowboys super teams of the 90s, to the head coach of one of the most hated and beloved teams in the National Football League. No talk can take place about whether Garrett is the right man to lead the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory without a short history lesson first.
How the Garrett Era Came to Be
He was highly desirable following the 2007 season when as offensive coordinator he led the Cowboys offense to second best in the NFL. After losing out on the St. Louis Rams head coaching gig he decided to remain with the Cowboys – and wound up the highest paid assistant coach at the time in the process.
Speculation that Garrett would be Wade Phillips’ likely successor began in earnest after that 2007 season, though Phillips was still under contract. Garrett was the hot young commodity other teams were salivating over it seemed, and while Phillips’ first season with the Cowboys was a success – going 13-3 and making a playoff appearance – the team still had not won a playoff game since 1996 at that point.
After missing the playoffs altogether in 2009, speculation once again ramped up that Phillips would be fired and Garrett would replace him. Fast-forward to 2010 and it finally happened after a 1-7 start. Garrett promptly took over and guided the Cowboys to a 5-3 record the rest of the way – finishing 6-10 overall.
There were rumors swirling that the Cowboys’ offense was inconsistent during the first half of the season because Garrett was actively gunning for the head coach position, and wasn’t always calling the best plays to score points or advance the ball on every down. During those first eight games the Cowboys offense averaged 20 points per game and in the second half, under Garrett’s direction, the offense averaged 29 with Garrett calling plays the entire season.
Regardless of whether you believe Garrett took advantage of the Phillips’ poor situation or not, he was handed the keys to the franchise midway through the 2010 season and Jerry Jones hasn’t wavered in his support of him since.
Early Results Weren’t Screaming Success
Expectations were high entering the 2011 season – Garrett had a strong showing in his debut the last half of the previous season, and a healthy Tony Romo had fans believing in a playoff berth at the very least. Instead, Garrett went in a different direction and began the exodus of players with troubled pasts or were viewed as more trouble than they were worth in the locker room to get guys on the team who were the “right kind of guys,” according to Garrett.
However, NFL teams don’t win Super Bowls with a bunch of choirboys sitting around roasting marshmallows and singing “Kumbaya My Lord.”
The rebuild of the roster seemed to mostly focus on jettisoning players who didn’t fit the Jason Garrett mold, though keeping the core of the roster intact. From 2011-13, Garrett kept nearly 40 percent of the core roster together which included Romo, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, and a slew of other guys drafted or signed to be a “Garrett Guy.”
Unfortunately, going with that style of rebuild led to three straight 8-8 seasons with the Cowboys having the opportunity to secure a playoff spot in the last games of those seasons. Each time the team came up woefully short and you could lay a portion of the blame of that on Garrett still learning on the job. He made quite a few blunders from not managing the play clock effectively enough to icing his own kicker, which cost the Cowboys a previous victory during the 2012 season – they fell just one game shy of making the playoffs that season.
Patience Pays Off
After three straight mediocre seasons in which fans, Cowboys bloggers, and some members of the national and local media began calling for the outright dismissal of Garrett before the 2014 season, or stated the 2014 season should be his last if he can’t at least guide the team to the playoffs – Garrett and the team finally answered the call.
The Cowboys offense scored 467 points last season, the most since the 1983 season when the team scored 479 under Tom Landry. Even the defense played respectably enough throughout the season to finish middle of the pack and give the team a shot to win every week.
More important, however, was the fact the Cowboys not only won the NFC East but also won their first playoff game since 1996 – beating a physical Detroit Lions team 24-20 in the Wild Card round on Jan. 4. They went on to play Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, but ultimately lost a close one 26-21.
But the point was made with Garrett, and ultimately Jones, that patience had paid off – patience in allowing Garrett to take his lumps learning how to be an effective head coach. Patience in allowing Garrett to get the “right kind of guys” into the locker room before taking chances on players with checkered pasts.
Now, of course, where do he and the team go from here?
What Does the Future Hold?
The Cowboys roster certainly is stacked with players who either are Pro Bowlers or have that kind of talent. The fact that Romo isn’t even the best player on his team anymore bodes well for them overall. The offensive line is one of the best in the NFL; the defense should be improved over last year’s squad with the addition of defensive end Greg Hardy and a now healthy linebacker Sean Lee.
The cast of characters behind the very best on the roster include one of the most improved players over last year in DeMarcus Lawrence and others such as Byron Jones, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley who all have the ability to make magic happen on the field.
If Garrett and Jones have proven anything over the previous four seasons it is the “Garrett Way” has worked and there’s no reason to doubt the man in charge going forward. And let’s be clear, the man in charge actually is Garrett – he has had more autonomy with this organization than any coach not named Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson during the Jones ownership era.
While the NFL is full of parity and a dozen teams have a shot at a Super Bowl appearance each season, Garrett has the talent on the roster and the ability to manage his locker room well enough to get the most out of everyone in it. Combine his ability to lead the team with the talent on it and I’d say he has just as good of a shot at winning a Super Bowl title this season as the likes of the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, or even the Seattle Seahawks.