In an offseason that has already seen major coaching moves for the Dallas Cowboys, there is a widely held perception that head coach Jason Garrett has been relegated to a figurehead position as Jerry Jones reasserts his total control over all things Cowboys. But perceptions, especially those of people who have largely made up their minds in advance, can be deceiving.
It started years ago. After the infamous and ugly divorce between Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, much like one where great sex can't help a couple overcome the clash between their personalities, the image of Jones became set. He is impulsive, given to rash decisions, and generally does not know what he is doing. With the Dallas Cowboys now going on twenty years of playoff futility and the three Lombardi Trophies after Jones bought the team becoming ancient history, that is now set in many minds, including a great deal of the national and Dallas media who cover America's Team.
This year, after a strange and disappointing season, the meme was roaring. Jones started making his displeasure known early in the year, and immediately after the season ending loss, he made what is now his second most notorious statement (right after the "glory hole" comment) when he said people were going to be uncomfortable at Valley Ranch.
Jason Garrett had to go through a year that saw rumors flying about Jones wanting to hire everyone from Sean Payton to Mike Holmgren to Jon Gruden to replace him. And even though the first decision the verbose owner and general manager of the Cowboys made was that Garrett was the only member of the coaching staff whose job was secure, speculation continues that a change could still be made, or that Jones is stocking the Cowboys with former head coaches like Rod Marinelli and Bill Callahan to have a replacement ready.
The primary pieces of evidence presented for this line of thinking include: the widespread firings of coaches (especially Rob Ryan), the replacements being hired, and the decision that Garrett is going to give up calling plays during games. This has led to widespread descriptions of Garret as a coach that has been neutered or emasculated. He is seen as unimportant now, just a figurehead with no real authority. One Tweet I saw asked blatantly what he still had to do, since everything meaningful has been taken away from him. Most articles about the recent activities of the Cowboys interpret all this as a loss of faith by Jones in his head coach. That is assuming he ever had any to begin with.
The odd thing, though, is that this contradicts much of what Jones and Garrett actually say. Now, I admit that the former is a bit of a challenge to address, since Jerry Jones has yet to meet the sentence that he cannot mangle beyond the ability of anyone to understand, and Jason Garrett can speak endlessly without actually making a declarative statement, but some things can be gleaned.
First off, Jones has stated clearly since early in the season that Garrett's job was not in jeopardy. For a variety of reasons, most notably his past discussion of the way Chan Gailey's time with the Cowboys was handled, there has always been a pretty clear indication that Garrett would have three full seasons, barring a complete meltdown such as the one that doomed Wade Phillips. Over the past two and a half years, Jones has been pretty consistent in his statements about Garrett. He has praised the culture that Garrett is working on instilling in the Cowboys organization, and I think that is the key thing that Jones believes Garrett can do for the team. I think the first real decision point on whether the team needs to go a different direction at head coach will be after the 2013 season, and I have felt that since the day Garrett was named to the job after his successful tryout as the interim HC.
Another thing that has been totally forgotten in all the furor about the play-calling duties being "stripped" from Garrett, as more than one headline put it, is that Garrett pretty much said this was what he expected to happen. After he had just introduced Bill Callahan as the new offensive coordinator a little over a year ago, but said that he was going to continue calling plays in the fall, he then said that he did not see himself doing that indefinitely.
Garrett, however, didn't rule out handing the chore to an assistant in the future.
"Oh, absolutely," Garrett said. "I think you just get to a point where you just say, ‘Hey, I'm going to turn it over to somebody else.' You've seen that around the league at different times, and that's just part of the process we'll go through."
Hey, we all know how much Garrett believes in the process. Seriously, though, discussions began in some areas (like here at BTB) about when Callahan would likely take over the duties. Not if. When. Why is this some major gutting of the head coach when he all but said he was planning on it happening? The only question would seem to be if this was on a rushed timetable, and we really don't know that. But even if the move was pushed ahead, that does not mean it was done so over Garrett's objections. Recent statements by Jones indicate that it may have even been at his suggestion. Some will always see such things as a smokescreen, but in general I don't see many lies come out of Jones' mouth. He talks way too much, and often about things he does not have a full grasp of, but I don't catch a lot of outright falsehoods.
Another thing held up as an indication Garrett was now a coaching eunuch was the firing of Rob Ryan and the hiring of Monte Kiffin, which was portrayed as another typically stupid and impulsive Jerry Jones move. Yet Jones portrayed things very differently in an interview in Mobile before the Senior Bowl. After praising the foundation he sees Garrett as laying for future success, he talked about the new defensive staff.
"It's a coordinated effort. Obviously every decision we've made, for instance over on the defensive side of the ball, Jason Garrett is not just a part of it, but he's a focal point of making that decision, and we obviously are concurring every step of the way."
Again, many out there are going to say this is more smoke coming from somewhere about Jones' anatomy, but along the way, a funny thing happened concerning the defensive staff. After all the dismissive jokes about Monte Kiffin and the clear belief by many that he had no hope of recreating his prior success with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team announced that Rod Marinelli, another part of the brain trust behind that ferocious defense, was joining Kiffin to coach the defensive line. Suddenly, this looked like it could actually have been part of a coherent plan. A good one. And with the Dallas staff at the annual NFL Assistant Coaches Job Fair - uh, I mean, the Senior Bowl - you would expect a lot of interviewing to be taking place to find someone who the man handing out the jobs wants to hire. And that is exactly what is happening - only something about this does not fit the overall picture the media is painting about exactly who is in charge.
While some of the coaches, scouts and front-office personnel are trickling back in from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., there remains several holes to fill on the coaching staff.
In fact, head coach Jason Garrett actually spent the majority of his time interviewing potential assistant coaches.
Just a dang minute, now. If Jerry Jones is the one picking who he wants on his staff, why is Jason Garrett doing all these interviews? Oddly, the only place I have seen this is at DallasCowboys.com, which is the house organ for the Jerry Jones empire, but no one else has called them on this. No, they have just seemed to ignore this fact. Maybe it interferes with their narrative about Garrett the powerless drone.
The assumption that Rob Ryan was fired without regard for what Garrett wanted always struck me as a bit shaky, anyway. I have to think the red-haired one was getting totally fed up with the repeated inability to get the right number of men on the field, and if he needed anything else, I would think getting a flag thrown against him would have been the tipping point for Ryan's tenure. This is in a league where Jim Harbaugh can make like Godzilla having a bad day fifteen yards out on the field, and the referees are intently looking everywhere but at him to make sure they don't have to throw a flag. I have always wondered just how the Ryan hiring went down. I assume he came in and talked one hell of a game, and I am sure that both the GM and head coach had something to say about things. But regardless of who the biggest fan of going with Ryan was, I am sure Garrett had to start souring over the clear signs of disorganization and lack of discipline. And the reports of Ryan not running the defensive meetings must have been anathema to a man who seems as tightly organized as Garrett. I don't know if he started the ball rolling, but I am sure it did not take Garrett long to get on board with the idea of a new defensive coordinator. Like, maybe, someone he once briefly worked with in Tampa Bay?
The jury is still out over whether Garrett can translate his culture and process into success, but he is still doing things his way, I believe. He had several things that needed to be addressed this year, and Jerry Jones made it clear that two 8-8 seasons capped with losing a game that would have put the team into the playoffs was the main concern for him. But an article that lays out some of the issues Garrett and the Cowboys still face also gave the best explanation of why he is getting at least one more season to make it work.
The Cowboys love Garrett as a leader. The brass was especially pleased with his delicate and masterful handling of the off-the-field drama that followed the death of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown and the related DWI incarceration of defensive tackle Josh Brent. And it was noted that Garrett somehow managed to sidestep a PR disaster when Brent appeared on the sidelines for a game after the incident by making sure it wouldn't happen again while also refusing to treat Brent as an outcast.
That first sentence is the crux of the matter. Garrett leads. Maybe he is not best suited to talking into Tony Romo's ear during games. But he seems to know how to inspire a bunch of highly paid athletes with the attendant egos, and to get them to believe in his message. If things don't get better soon, that may erode, but from all indications it is still fully intact after the end of last season. And I think that is what Jerry Jones wants Garrett to focus on, leading. It is what Garrett does best. And maybe it is what he is being set up to succeed at with the recent changes.