Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones is often confusing and hard to understand. He frequently changes his position on things and can ramble on better than Led Zeppelin. But when you really look over what he says, one thing he does not do is lie about things.
During the NFL owners meetings, he was asked about the future of his head coach Jason Garrett, who is in the final year of his contract. Specifically, he was asked if Garrett's getting another contract to remain as head coach was dependent on making the playoffs after the infamous back-to-back-to-back 8-8 seasons.
"I don't think so," Jones said at the NFL owners meetings. "I don't look at it that way at all. It's no secret that we probably are shoulder to shoulder on the success we'd like for this team to have with him as head coach and what it would do for our fans' future, our future.
"He's more capable today than he was when he took over as head coach. If that arrow is going up, it just makes sense to have our future with Jason."
Of course, in just about every version of the coverage I have seen of this interview, including this one and this one, the last sentence is along the lines of "Yeah, but, Garrett's job is still on the line if he doesn't make the playoffs. So there."
However, the head coach certainly is not acting like it. More importantly, there is really nothing about the approach the Cowboys are taking to the offseason, at least that I can see, that reflects any 'must win now' thinking. At any level.
At the NFC coaches breakfast during the owners meetings, Garrett reiterated that his approach is always rooted in the long view.
"You always want to infuse your team with young talent. You're always trying to build your team for now and for going forward," Garrett said Wednesday in the NFC Coaches Breakfast at the league owners meetings in Orlando. "You don't want to build your team with guys based on what they've done in the past. It's based on what they can do now for your team, and what they can do going forward for your team. That's not a commentary on anyone we've let go.
"We feel like DeMarcus Ware has a lot of good football left in him. We feel like Jason Hatcher has a lot of good football left in him. Those are the two marquee guys we're talking about. But we had to make an organizational decision in a salary-cap era, given our salary-cap circumstances. Again, we felt like these are the best moves for our team now and moving forward."
Based on this, Garrett is not putting his primary emphasis on how to maximize the chances for the playoffs this year. Otherwise, he would have wanted to keep those two marquee guys around, even if it had meant restructuring and pushing tons of cap space down the road. But there is no indication that Garrett had a moment's hesitation about going this route. The old (and exceedingly tired) argument can be made that he is just a puppet and had no real say in this, but oddly, the message coming through in the coverage of the Cowboys this season is just the opposite. The hiring of Scott Linehan is almost universally seen as a Garrett move, as is the promotion of Rod Marinelli to defensive coordinator. In those decisions, at least, he is perceived as having more control over his fate as far as the team's performance on the field. Yet in the crucial area of who is going to line up and execute the plays, Dallas persists to make moves with an eye to where the team will be three or four years from now, not just whether it will be playing in January of 2015.
That long view is nowhere more evident than in the way the Cowboys have handled free agency this year. ESPN gave Dallas a D, their second-worst grade this year (the Oakland Raiders were the only team to get an F) when they looked at where free agency stands at the moment. That is pretty much in line with the general consensus, with Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports, and USA Today also giving them D grades. Yet, ironically, the 'experts' seem to get the basic points completely wrong.
". . . and as the team keeps pushing its higher-valued contracts down the road in a cap sense, one wonders when the Joneses will be able to rebuild." - Chris Burke and Doug Farrar, SI.com
The team is making the moves it did to minimize pushing contracts down the road. And all the people who point to the decision to release DeMarcus Ware as strictly forced by the cap totally ignore the fact that Dallas was looking at the injury problems Ware was suffering last year. The team had to decide if he was worth the amount of money they were going to pay him under the old contract. Remember, they had just been burned by paying a lot of money to both Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff for basically nothing on the field. There is more to all this than just the cap space. That is certainly a consideration, but the new direction expressed above by Jason Garrett is also a major factor.
In the last two installments in his Organizational Report Card series, rabblerousr notes that Dallas has been doing a much better job with things since Garrett became the head coach. Specifically, they have turned free agency into a means to fill holes to set up for the draft, rather than trying to make big, splash-type signings, and they have at least started to cut back on trading up, trying to accumulate draft picks with their moves rather than give them up. Again, these are both long range strategies, not short-term 'win now' ideas.
More and more, the Cowboys look to be a team that is operating in accordance with Garrett's vision of what it should be. While the results on the field have been disappointingly stagnant the past three seasons, Jerry Jones is still talking like he approves of the approach Dallas is taking. And that appears to include an appreciation for the fact that replacing Jason Garrett is going to be at least somewhat disruptive.
I always thought this was the make-or-break year for Garrett. But the more I see, the less sure I am about that. I hope Dallas gets to the playoffs this year and renders this whole discussion moot, but if they don't, Garrett could still get a year or two more tacked onto his contract. As long as the team does not quit on him the way they did the on Wade Phillips, Garrett may be around to prove he can create a winner. His approach to things should work. The underlying assumptions, things like getting younger, not paying big money to fading talent, and churning the bottom of the roster, are just good football.
Jerry Jones can always change his mind. But right now, he is giving every indication that he expects to see Garrett back in '15. I don't think you can disregard that.