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The Real Dysfunction Of The Dallas Cowboys

Jerry Jones once again said something that his head coach Jason Garrett would rather he not have said. Now the coverage in the media is all about the issues at Valley Ranch. There are issues, but the biggest one is not what they think.

Just to put something pleasant in this post
Just to put something pleasant in this post
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Bill Callahan is going to be calling the plays for the Dallas Cowboys. Jason Garrett is still the head coach, and will likely be making large and important inputs to Callahan about how the game plan is run. Jerry Jones is still the owner, general manager, and ringmaster for the circus at Valley Ranch.

These are the basic facts today. Just reading them, it is actually hard to understand the furor that erupted on Tuesday when Jones basically told the reporters to look at what was happening on the field instead of asking him the same question over and over about who was making the calls, and those reporters then descended on Callahan and got him to cop to the fact that he was, indeed, preparing to be the playcaller this season. Garrett then really stirred things up by saying the same things he always says, which can be concisely summed up as "I ain't telling you."

Now the stories are rampant about how Garrett is a puppet and has been undermined. The way this was all mishandled is seen as a symptom of why the Cowboys are mired in mediocrity, and a portent that things will continue in the same vein. The focus of all the sturm und drang seems to be the dysfunction at the core of Valley Ranch, even though there are some important impacts the actual reassignment of duties will likely have on the overall effectiveness of the offense this season.

Nick Eatman of the mothership tried to explain this in terms of how it was not about what was done, it was about who was doing it.

This once again comes down to authority. It always stems back to Jerry Jones. Every single inch of criticism about this team is pointed at Jerry, indirectly or not. Every gripe about Romo, in my opinion, is a dig at Jerry for making him his franchise quarterback. All the negative remarks about guys like Free and Austin - again blaming Jerry for paying them.

Anything about Garrett and his play-calling or game-management - once again stems from Jerry's "hire."

Eatman gets very close to the issue here, but doesn't quite finish the story. He is exactly right as far as it goes, but basically states that the source of the dysfunction affecting the Cowboys is all about Jerry. He is only half right.

Oh, Jerry Jones is a whole set of issues himself. He has a unique role with the team, and the entire playcalling situation does seem to be a case of him deciding to intervene and force Jason Garrett's hand on this situation. How much force was needed, and how receptive Garrett was will never be known (at least if Garrett has any control whatsoever over that bit of information), but that is all that really happened. Is it the way all GMs would have handled the situation? No. Is it wildly out of control? I hardly see how. If a team is struggling offensively and the play selection and game management are seen to be part of the problem, as was widely perceived in Dallas, then, when the HC is also calling said plays, there are only three options: Fire him, let him keep doing it the same way (which will probably lead to more of the same), or force him to change.

In this case, despite an almost romantic longing on the part of some writers for some NFL retread like Jon Gruden to get hired to replace Garrett, a decision was apparently made that most of what Garrett is doing is valuable and will lead to long term success, so this was addressed by making him give up the play calling. I am always amused about how some writers would excoriate the head coach for screwing up the game plan or late game decisions (does the phrase "icing your own kicker" ring a bell?) and then would write disdainful articles about how Garrett was neutered when the play calling was taken away from him. The argument seems to be that if you are an NFL head coach, you must be perfect in all things and maintain absolute control, or you must be cast aside. Another complete change of direction would surely be all for the good, right?

There is a simple fact here that Jerry Jones is always going to talk too much, and Jason Garrett is always going to think any talk is too much. They differ on that, but seem to mesh on much, much more. I think Garrett may truly believe he is one of the few people who can work successfully with Jones, and that Jones brings tremendous advantages to the table in his willingness to commit resources (i.e., money) to winning. Yes, there is always going to be some dysfunction with the differences in their approaches, especially to the media, but they appear well along the way to managing this.

That is not the main dysfunctional relationship for the Cowboys. No, the big problem is another relationship, one that to some extent has extended all the way back to the day Jones bought the team. That is the codependency that exists between Jones and the very media that is raging against him.

The fact is that events surrounding the Cowboys are magnified way out of proportion. It is not entirely unique, with the New York media market being very similar in its coverage of the major sports teams (the Yankees and the Jets being the most similar currently), but there is certainly a uniquely enduring nature to the way Jones and his team are covered. Perhaps it all is rooted in the firing of NFL legend Tom Landry (and what kind of travesty is it that ESPN rates him as the eighth greatest NFL coach of all time?), but there has always been a certain disdain for Jones. It was oddly made worse when he spent his way to a couple of Super Bowl trophies with Jimmy Johnson handling the coaching business, and was exacerbated when the team was so good it won another Lombardi under Barry Switzer. Since then, the mistakes and foibles of Jerry have been examined, dissected, displayed, discussed, scorned and ridiculed with relish and sometimes open hostility by the local Dallas media, and their tropes and memes have spread to the national sports outlets, since, despite the opinions of some writers, out of market reporters rely heavily on what they read from the local guys to form their image of the teams. If a significant portion of the Dallas writers see Jerry as a buffoon and a football ignoramus, then that take will spread throughout the national media and even into the league itself.

Never mind that the issues involved in Dallas are largely ignored elsewhere, or seem to be specific to the Jones/Garrett relationship. Eatman brings this up.

In four years of covering Bill Parcells, no one really knew exactly who called the plays.

For some reason, Parcells got a pass from most of the media, because he was seen as being much more independent than Garrett. Yet have you seen any player forced down Garrett's throat the way Terrell Owens was shoved down Parcells? But somehow, Garrett is the puppet and Parcells is still the revered semi-legend.

Mike Fisher, one writer who was not on board with this being some major undermining of Garrett, offered another example.

He then does exactly what he says he couldn't and provides an even better example.

And I submit that there are some writers who have a huge chip on their shoulder about Jerry Jones. No opportunity is missed to turn any bit of news from the Cowboys or statement from Jerry or anyone else on the team into a negative story. And there is where the codependency comes in. The negative reports draw big responses. They spread the bad image of Jones and his team. Writers imply or openly state that Jones is bad for the Cowboys. But they don't mention very often how badly they need him as a topic to write about. An article about how Jason Garrett is applying a coherent vision to the team and gathering players and coaches about him that share the vision and can help attain it is harder to write and will generate less traffic than writing about how Jones' penchant for stream-of-consciousness rambling has stripped his head coach of power and relevancy. The long stretch of poor on field performance adds fuel to the fire, since it makes relentless criticism of what is being done at Valley Ranch look correct when a new approach does not yield immediate success.

Jason Garrett has compounded things with his name, rank and serial number approach to the press. He is loathe to give up the tiniest shred of information. The value of said information is largely unimportant to him. Of course, this is the source of the disconnect that everyone pounced on yesterday. Where the owner will talk endlessly about the most minute details of his business with anyone who has a press credential, and therefore an outlet for what he or she writes, Garrett just wants the reporters to go away, leave him alone, and not ask any questions. Since league rules and his boss do not allow that approach, he simply practices the art of droning on without actually saying anything, or leaving all options open for future action. Lacking real information from the head coach, many writers opt to write about the interpersonal dynamic of the Cowboys staff rather than try to dissect the structure and methodology of how the team plans to play on the field.

Now the local Dallas writers are in a situation where the worst thing for them may well be a winning Cowboys team. They would be caught in a logical conundrum. If they are right about Jerry calling all the shots, then they would have to conclude he was doing something right. And if they attribute success to Garrett, they cannot still maintain he is just a figurehead. Even if they decide to say it is all the players, at some point the responsibility for acquiring the personnel has to go back to one or the other.

Actually, I strongly suspect that the Cowboys can never do well enough to silence the criticism. If all else fails, they will fall back on the "What took so long?" refrain.

The whole Jones - media issue just feeds on itself. Jerry needs the Dallas media to promote his team and other enterprises (remember that little stadium he built) and the media needs him to whip up attention grabbing headlines and critical, click generating articles. And things just keep growing and growing.

As a result of the focus on finding conflict between the GM and his head coach, the real importance of this whole story is being entirely missed by most of the writers. I say most, because there are those who address this and other substantial issues. Bob Sturm was one who tried to cut through the drama and get to the meat of things. He has advocated the switch to Callahan since early January, and he laid out a summary of his arguments about how this could easily be a good thing. Further, while the majority of writers were focused on how Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones seemed to be saying different things about how the playcalling was going to be done this season, there was clear evidence what was going on. In addition to the well documented presence of Callahan during the OTAs actually calling the plays, there are things like this.

My fellow writers at BTB have been documenting how the team is not just changing the play calling duties, but the entire approach to the offense, from the double tight end (12) formation to what we believe is a switch to the Erhardt-Perkins system of designating and calling plays. This is where the story is. How the offense will function, and what will be different (and hopefully better) this year. It encompasses all the things going on, from the game plan becoming more of a committee approach with Garrett still in charge, but Callahan and Tony Romo deeply involved, to the way the plays go in, to how the personnel packages will offer more flexibility, to whether the offensive line can allow these things to work right, to how the draftees and other signees will be able to contribute (or not). It is not this.

Sorry, that is just part of how things are forever imperfect with the Cowboys. It does not mean that Jason Garrett is getting stripped of power and influence. He is doing so many other things to make the team better, and when he brings it up to the press, they treat him as being in denial. They miss this part almost entirely.

Let me repeat that: THIS IS JASON GARRETT'S SYSTEM. Perhaps he would have preferred to be making the calls himself on the sideline, but a decision was made that it would be done differently. I guess everyone who sees him as getting cut off at the knees works in a job where they control what their boss says. For that matter, I wonder how many of the people who constantly look for evidence that he is a puppet dancing at the end of Jerry's strings have had as much impact on the organization they work for as Garrett has. Or would they perhaps want to argue that this is really the same team it was in September 2010?

This is all a distraction. Yes, Jerry and Jason will have friction over some minor things. Garrett will lose some issues, but from what I can see, he is winning on way more than he loses.

If you disagree, that is your right. Only one thing will ultimately determine if the team is on the right course, especially in the eyes of those that want everything simple and clear cut, and that is how many games they win this season. If they do well, this will be relegated to the background. The focus when you try to figure out the Cowboys should be whether a decision will help the team succeed, not whether someone made someone else look bad in front of the peanut gallery.

Of course, if things go bad, even if it has nothing to do with who calls the plays, we will be hearing about this for a long time to come. No matter how beside the point it really is.

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