Since the advent of the Jason Garret administration just a few short days ago, media pundits (yes, that includes the folks at BTB!) have repeatedly pointed out the fact that only two of the seven coaches hired by Jerry Jones--Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells--have truly been successful. Success in this case has been defined by the ability of a coach to manage Jerry Jones; the success of any given Cowboys coach is directly proportional to the levels of authority and autonomy he enjoyed within the Cowboys' organization. Players on Johnson's and Parcells' teams knew that the head coach--not the owner/ GM--was the final arbiter; as a result, they feared and respected those men. It remains to be seen whether Jason Garrett will be the third of Jerry's hires to enjoy this level of success. We certainly won't have answers to these lofty questions by the end of Sunday's game against New York. Nevertheless, I'll be watching Garrett closely--perhaps more closely than I'll watch the players--to look for glimpses of Jimmy and Bill.
Why, you say? After years of watching Sideline Wade appear as if he had just been dropped off at a train station in a country where he didn't speak the language, I'm looking forward to a shift in our HC's sideline demeanor on gameday. Watch tapes of the 90s Cowboys; you'll see Jimmy on the sideline, arms crossed, talking into the headset. Even in the most pressurized situations, he appeared to be surveying the scene: calm, in control, always thinking one step ahead. A decade later, when Parcells roamed the sidelines, he might not have exhibited the same calm, but there was no doubt who was in charge. In both cases, when a player transgressed, his return to the sideline was torturous: he knew he would be greeted with staredown, a "coaching moment," or worse.
Garrett's press conferences have provided a refreshing change from those of Phillips. Perhaps I have been blinded by the contrast, but I see a little Jimmy and a bit of Bill in our interim coach's podium demeanor. I'll be most eager to see whether these changes translate to the New York sideline and, if they do, how they do. So, here are five things I've seen in Jimmy and/ or Bill that I'll be looking for from Jason.
Who's the boss: After three and a half years of "aww, shucks"; after seeing Wade Phillips' awkward, chubby fist pumps, or that look on his face like he had just smelled a rotten egg; after never seeing him chew out, or even stare down, a player who had just screwed up, I'm looking forward to a more forceful presence behind the headset. When the game seems to slip away, will Garrett's body language reflect it, and thus signal to the team that they are toast? Or will he stand firm, unperturbed, showing his team that he believes they are still in the game? If they have early success, will he relax or back off on his play calls, thus signaling to his team that they can relax or back off as well?
Organization: Bill Parcells was notorious for practicing all conceivable game situations. By doing so, the thinking went, his team would be prepared for anything that might arise. Think of Zuriel Smith allowing a kickoff to go out of bounds with just a few precious ticks left on the clock in Parcells' return to the Meadowlands, giving the Cowboys offense a short enough field that they were able to march down to a tying field goal in a game they went on to win in overtime. Jimmy's teams were famous for the efficiency with which they could substitute their various personnel packages on defense. In Super Bowl XVII, the first against the Bills, they were able to sub in and out against the Bill's no-huddle "K-gun" scheme. On Sunday, I'll be looking to see how efficient and organized Garrett's sideline appears to be. Will they be prepared for unusual situations, should they arise? Will communication be clear and efficient? Or will they have to burn timeouts because of substitution snafus or trouble getting the play to the huddle? How well will the sideline manage replay situations?
Psychological Zen Mastery: One of the marks of Jimmy's genius as a coach was his ability to recognize the subtle shifts in the psychological topography of an emotional game. When he sensed that the other team had achieved the emotional upper hand, he would call for a momentum-changer, be it a long pass from the shadow of his own goal-line or an all-out linebacker blitz. Even if the play didn't succeed, it often accomplished what it was designed to do: to spark his players when it seemed they might be at an emotional ebb. This requires a subtle awareness of the texture of the game that seemed perpetually to elude Wade, who frequently missed the forest for the trees. This was particularly evident in the last few weeks, when he allowed a sense of panic to set in to his defense, resulting in poor lane discipline, overpursuit, and blown assignments. Will Garrett show that he has his finger on the game's emotional pulse? If so, will he be able to use it to help his team respond to adverse situations?
Global thinking: Jimmy made it priority one to gather a group of assistants whom he could trust. Because he had so much faith in men like Dave Wanstadt, Norv Turner and Joe Avezzano, he let them worry about their respective gameplans and concentrated on managing the game with a more global perspective. For example, if his defense had just been on the field for an eleven-play drive, he might direct Turner to give the other team a heavy dose of Emmitt Smith in order to spell his winded players. Like Johnson, Parcells managed the game while considering all three facets; in the years he was the offensive playcaller, he often did so with his defense in mind. I'm interested to see how effectively Garrett can switch out his offensive coordinator's hat for a head coach's headset. Will his offensive gameplan take all three phases of his team into consideration? Will he call plays with the needs of his defense in mind?
Take Risks: One of the Johnson's favorite adages was that, if you were going to go up against a "big gorilla," you had to "hit him with everything you've got." In 1991, in the week leading up to the contest against the undefeated Redskins, he employed this metaphor repeatedly in front of his team. Indeed, the Cowboys attacked constantly: they recovered an onside kick, and went for it on fourth down multiple times. This was a high-risk/ high-reward proposition; it could have resulted in a blowout. But Jimmy recognized that his team wasn't going to win by playing straight up, so he got creative. Even though they lost Aikman during the game, they dominated the action and won more easily than the 24-21 final score might indicate. On Sunday, Garrett takes a similarly overmatched club to face a division-leader on the road. Will he have the stones to adopt a similar strategy? If so, will his team believe in him enough to follow it through?
I don't expect all of these questions to be answered on Sunday--or during the 2010 season, for that matter. That said, it was immediately evident that Johnson and Parcells were leaders of men (and that Dave Campo and Chan Gailey and Wade Phillips were not). And if Garrett is, we won't be the first to recognize it. His players will. And that will make all the difference.
In the next installment, I’ll detail five things I’d like to see from the team on Sunday.