Jason Garrett: A Coach For The Current NFL Landscape

In the 50 years and change that the Dallas Cowboys have been in existence, the NFL has undergone several radical facelifts. In 1960, the NFL was a private world: business was conducted on trains and in hotel lobbies; the draft resembled you and your buddies getting together to smoke cigars and play poker; head coaches were often in the Bear Bryant and Woody Hayes mold--old, tough, hard-nosed, expressionless monoliths. They coached the same teams for decades--teams that practiced in 100 degree heat, ran the ball, and emphasized blocking and tackling.

This changed in 1978, when two key things happened. First, rules changes made it easier for teams to pass the ball, resulting in an explosion of prolific passing offenses--and the more intelligent coaches who could either engineer them or devise ways to stop them. In the same year, the playoffs were expanded to include another wild card team--thus ensuring that more cities were invested in their teams later in the year. Both of these shifts (scoring! playoffs!) made the NFL--which had leapfrogged baseball as America's sport of choice in the 70s--an even more television friendly enterprise. With such friendliness came more televised games; with more games on the tube came more revenue; with more revenue came higher stakes.

With all of these came greater scrutiny: for the first time, head coaches were expected to appear before the media. Think of the footage of a young Bill Parcells bitching at the media after a tough loss. Parcells was one of a new breed of head coach: still tough, but much more media-savvy. He and Bill Walsh--and then, in the nineties, various branches of their coaching trees (Bill Belichick, Tom Coughlin, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan) increasingly became the primary, if not singular, face of their particular franchises. 

Since the late eighties, media saturation (and the lure of an entirely new level of revenue) has brought in a new breed of owner. Jerry Jones is the poster child for the NFL owner in a corporate age, one in which marketing and visibility are seen to be almost as important as winning. When he bought the Cowboys, Jones was considered a maverick; he certainly didn't fit the profile of the clubby, East-Coast establishment owners like the Maras and Jack Kent Cooke. Since Jones bought the Cowboys, however, several of these old-school owners have given way, selling their teams to men more attuned to succeed in the corporate age: Dan Snyder, Bob Kraft (Patriots), and Jeff Lurie (Eagles) have recognized the importance of establishing a sophisticated marketing strategy: branding the team, developing multiple revenue streams, building shiny new stadiums filled with expensive luxury boxes for wealthy corporate clients.

A more baldly corporate NFL demands a new breed of coach. The grizzled old veterans--the Bo Schembechlers and Mike Ditkas of the world--have given way to younger, more media-friendly (and with the exception of Andy Reid) more photogenic men. One of a cornucopia of disappointments I felt during the Wade Phillips regime was his complete inability to deal with the media. His press conferences paled in comparison to those of Parcells (admittedly one of the old guard, but also the paterfamilias of media-savvy coaches), who worked the local media masterfully. By contrast, Phillips was edgy and defensive--as if he were being attacked long before he ever was. The worst crime of all? He was dull as dirt; he offered little information and no real personality or anecdotes of interest.

Phillips seemed not only out of his element but out of his time. This was never more apparent than when watching other coaches' post-game pressers. Mike Tomlin? Clear, commanding, articulate, forceful. John Harbaugh? Check. Raheem Morris? Check. Josh McDaniels? You bet. Jason Garrett's opening presser felt like a breath of fresh air: the Cowboys had joined the modern age. Garrett stood tall (Phillips almost always sat), looked reporters in the eye, dodged their pointed questions like an experienced bullfighter, and answered queries with a cool authority. In a recent post on Garrett, our new coach is quoted as offering this leadership tidbit, gleaned from his time with Jimmy Johnson: Success is 54% body language, 40% tone of voice, and 6% words. The author of the post, BTB's fearless leader, Dave Halprin, follows up these percentages with some solid analysis:

It doesn't have anything to do with coaching ability, but Wade Phillips' body language, facial expressions and tone of voice were never his strong suit. This probably has a lot to do with the culture change the Cowboys are looking for....When I interviewed the coach [Jimmy Johnson] a month ago, he had that commanding presence, you just felt like he was in charge.

The new NFL demands that teams have a younger face--one with whom our youth-obsessed culture can identify. At the same time, these youngsters must have that special something--the commanding air, the look of a leader that characterizes the best field generals. It remains to be seen whether Garrett can right the teetering ship he has inherited, much less coach at the high level Cowboys fans demand. But, unlike Wade, he looks the part. And that's a start.

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