When you think of a head coach in the NFL, the first thing that comes to mind is likely an image like the one on this article - on the sidelines, headphones in place, making calls and directing the game.
That represents about three hours on game day. It is a small fraction of the coaches' job. It is probably the most fun (well, if things are going well), but it really pales in comparison to what goes on the rest of the week.
Jason Garrett is facing the first week following a loss for the 2011 Dallas Cowboys. As much as we would hope it would be the last one, I don't think any of us really see that as realistic, so he needs to get this right. But this loss to the New York Jets has some rather unique aspects. It was against what many believe is one of the best teams Dallas will face this year. It was surrounded by an emotional situation that may never be equaled. Dallas was given little chance to win. And then the team outplayed the Jets for three and a half quarters before a series of sickening events worthy of a Saw sequel did them in.
That's a lot for established veterans to get their heads around. Under Garrett, the Cowboys have gone with a serious youth movement, so imagine how this might affect the young 'uns. This week, the coaching by JG is far more important that the plays he called from the sidelines Sunday night.
Accountability is one of the key aspects of the now well known Cowboy Way Jason preaches. But this week, he seems to be working very hard to also make sure the team builds on the numerous positive things that came out of the game. Associated Press writer Jaime Aron put together an excellent piece on the way Garrett is approaching his job this week. It makes the point about building on the good, describing the message he has given the team:
In the locker room right after the game, he told players they played hard and well, and that if they keep playing that way, good things will happen. He said the same thing to reporters a few minutes later, then again on Monday, after he'd watched the loss to the New York Jets again in slow motion.
And you know what? His players believe him.
I don't know if that is the perfect thing to tell the team. But if you gave me a year to work on it, I don't know if I could come up with a better one.
Part of the reason is the gut reaction I think the players had to the game. I think they felt the same things the fans saw: This team is already ahead of where it was a year ago in the debacle in Washington. The only similarity I have found is that there were key mistakes that kept the Cowboys from winning. Otherwise, things were completely changed. Some things that were completely the opposite: Dallas came out and jumped on the Jets early. Both the offense and defense were clicking from the initial kick. There were many units that clearly outplayed our expectations. The defense was innovative and unpredictable.
This week, I think JG is working very hard to make sure that something else is completely different. I think that a year ago, the team came out of the Washington game with their self-confidence in tatters. And for a very good reason: They played a pretty miserable game. Age and softness showed. That loss started the slide into 1-7 that cost Wade Phillips his job and gave JG his chance. The Cowboys a year ago looked into the mirror and saw a bad team. JG is working very hard to make sure that this year's edition understands that the image in the glass is a good team, and one that should just get better with more experience. So far, he seems to be getting there.
"We feed off of our head man and his message," (linebacker Keith) Brooking said.
Keith Brooking may not be part of the youth movement, but it probably doesn't hurt to have him echoing the concepts and ideas coming from the staff. It is interesting, to me at least, that the two players quoted in the article are Brooking and All-Everything tight end Jason Witten. One is the cheerleader, the other the respected but quiet superstar. If those two are buying into the Cowboy Way, it should encourage some of the younger players as well.
Speaking of getting the older voices on board, one other rather influential voice is also singing the same tune.
Team owner Jerry Jones also downplayed the negative and pumped up the positive on his radio show Tuesday, especially on the subject of Romo's performance.
"This may draw a little criticism, but I thought Tony played one of the best games I've ever seen him play," Jones said. "You can make a big case that the way he played for three quarters was how we got there at the end and looked like for sure we were going to get the win. But he played outstanding."
As often happens, I don't know if I am totally on board with the way Jerry said it, but I think he is certainly coming from the right place. I really don't think there would be any point in JG or JJ calling Tony Romo out anyway. I think Tony has already gotten on himself harder than they would, and any discussions about what he needs to do now are best done away from the public.
There is another way in which this year is the opposite of last year. The message from Valley Ranch is clear, concise, and definitive. When I look at the way things were led last year, muddled and confused are the words that leap to mind. Those certainly don't apply at this point.
The real test comes in San Francisco. But tests are always easier to face with the right preparation. This week, JG and his staff have a chance to prepare this team to win. All the indications are that they are going to be totally ready.