For young players in the NFL, there is often a maturation process that has to happen before they reach their full potential. The Dallas Cowboys have several players that serve as exhibits for this, with Dez Bryant the most obvious. Always possessed of remarkable physical skills, he clearly had some growing up to do both on the field and off. After a series of personal problems and an obvious learning process as a wide receiver, it all came together for him midway through his third season. In the last eight games of 2012, he was arguably one of the two best receivers in the NFL, with Calvin Johnson the player he is often compared to during that stretch. He had chemistry with Tony Romo. He made spectacularly athletic plays. Now, he is being acknowledged by many as one of the premiere offensive weapons in the league.
The Cowboys have a roster full of young players that the team is relying on to make similar (if not quite as dramatic) leaps this year. And they also have one young head coach that needs to do the same.
Jason Garrett now has two full seasons under his belt. He has been the statistical definition of average, with a 16-16 record since the interim tag was taken off his job title. Theoretically, he now should have a much better grasp of what does and doesn't work. The third season should make it clear whether he is the answer for the Cowboys at head coach, or whether they still are looking for someone who can take the team back to the playoffs and consistent success.
Jerry Jones cannot be faulted for lack of support. Not only has he always expressed (albeit in his highly circumlocutory way) faith in Garrett, he has taken several proactive steps to pave the way for a winning season. The two biggest moves on the coaching staff, the move to the 4-3 under Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli and the shift of playcalling duties to Bill Callahan, both should help Garrett. The dismissal of Rob Ryan was basically an acknowledgement that things were just not working out, and perhaps that Ryan was never a good fit for Garrett's own style and philosophy (no matter how badly some of us tried to convince ourselves otherwise). Kiffin and Marinelli both seem to be much more similar to Garrett in the way they run things, and are almost certain to cut down on the confusion and turmoil that happened on the sidelines far too often under Ryan. Having Callahan making the play calls should let Garrett be less locked in on the offensive game planning, and allow him to have a broader view of the entire operation. It also, to a certain extent, isolates him a bit from issues with the offensive plan and may be intended to protect him even if things do not go as hoped.
There are still those who think the way the playcalling responsibilities were announced shows that Garrett is not trusted by Jones and has a bad grasp on things at Valley Ranch. But this is a case of putting the focus on media relations and not on the way the team is going to function. To an extent, it is just a continuation of the hostility that exists between some writers and Garrett, who makes no secret of his lack of concern for meeting the demands and timetables of reporters.
More important is what is being done to make the team better, and whether there is a real likelihood of success. Our own KD Drummond did a video recap of the five biggest changes for the Cowboys this year, and makes the case for how they all should lead to improvement. Additionally, the health of the team is looking better. Last year, there were far too many players already having issues by the time the minicamp wrapped up, and more importantly there was a clear lack of depth to allow the team to adjust to the inevitable problems that come with the season. That looks to be far better, and individual issues, such as Miles Austin and his infamous hamstrings, appear to have been addressed with some success.
Jason Garrett's real strength seems to be building an organization and a team. And now he should be able to put his full effort into that, with very capable lieutenants like Kiffin and Callahan to carry out the overall strategy. Todd Archer at ESPN Dallas took a look at one of the ways Garrett is going about that building process.
When the Cowboys' offseason began, Garrett attempted to create competitive situations everywhere, from the weight room to the field. He wants player to push player, position group to push position group, offense to push defense and defense to push offense.
Football is the ultimate team game, but players who win one-on-one battles make the team better.
Garrett recalled the intensity of the practices when he played in the 1990s. The two-minute drill run on Thursdays was a matter of pride when the first-team offense would go against the first-team defense.
This is what he does best. Getting the players to become the best they can be, often going back to his roots as part of the Cowboys' roster during the most successful run the team ever had. Creating a shared sense of responsibility to never stop improving, and never stop pushing the guy across the line or next to you to get better.
Outside of the faux controversy over the announcement that seeing Bill Callahan calling plays in the OTAs was of some significance, it has been a remarkably quiet offseason for Dallas so far (and if you listen closely, you can hear that piece of wood I am frantically knocking on). Hopefully, that is a sign that Garrett's culture is taking hold, that his beloved process is starting to work. Not only are fans hoping that the third year is the one where it all comes together and starts to bear fruit, it needs to be. Continuity is a major plus once you get a program moving in the right direction. The NFL unfortunately tends to be a somewhat short-sighted environment, where steady but slow progress is often not enough. The desire to win now sometimes short-circuits coaching careers that should be given more time. There are always rumbles when a team has a playoff drought like the Cowboys have had. Complaints began to build that a coach like Garrett with his .500 record is not good enough, despite the clear evidence that it could be a lot worse.
Garrett is a long-term thinker, but to be able to achieve those far-sighted goals, he is going to have to get to the playoffs sooner rather than later. While this season is not necessarily the last chance he has, a failure to improve on 8-8 would certainly cast doubt on whether he can make things work in the long run. That may not be fair, but it is a reality. And it is not at all unreasonable to expect his process to start bearing fruit in the third season. If it does, and Dallas wins a playoff game or two this year, then Garrett could have a long and fruitful future ahead of him with the team. But there is no guarantee that this will happen. Of all the questions that the team has to answer this year, this may be the biggest. Is this the right head coach for the Cowboys, or are those of us rooting for the red-haired one just mistaken?
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