For years, there has been much speculation about the status of Jason Garrett, head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. If you just listen to the prevalent memes, you feel sorry for the guy, because his pants and certain parts of his anatomy must be burned to a crisp, since his entire tenure has consisted of sitting on a very, very hot seat.
And yet despite bold predictions just about every year that the Cowboys had to reach the playoffs for him to retain his job, he still is the head coach, despite falling short in frustratingly similar fashion each of the first three years since he was named to the position full time (following an eight-game stint as the interim head coach - the only winning season he has posted to date).
So can we expect to hear more hot seat talk about Garrett this year?
Well, yes, we can. And this year, it actually has a real reason behind it. Garrett is entering the fourth and final year of his contract. A contract that the owner, Jerry Jones, has said he is in no hurry to renew. Jones, who has also expressed an apparently genuine respect for his head coach and the work he has done, is obviously going to take the results of this season into consideration before he decides whether Garrett stays or goes.
But even though this is a decision year for Jones, this is not just a simple "playoffs or bust" scenario. Yes, if the Cowboys make the playoffs, Garrett's agent will begin negotiating the new deal with the Jones family. I think if the Cowboys had a winning season and just missed the post-season on tiebreakers, Garrett would get another chance. Conversely, if there was a Wade Phillips-like meltdown with the team just giving up, then Garrett would be given his notice (the one that says "Clean out your office now"). That, however, seems very unlikely, with assistant coaches like Rod Marinelli backing him up. But then, I never saw the collapse-and-quit scenario coming with Son of Bum, either.
However, most observers consider that the most likely scenario for the Cowboys is a 7-9 or another 8-8 record. And that is not a scenario that has an automatic outcome for Jones and Garrett. The schedule projects to be tougher this year than it was last season (strength of schedule is a slippery thing before the games are actually played, however). The spectacularly bad defense has lost the three biggest talents from 2013. There have been some significant changes in the assistant coaching ranks. It is conceivable that Dallas could have a better team this season, and wind up with a worse record.
Which could lead to Garrett getting another season or so to continue the turnaround.
This really flies in the face of the conventional wisdom around the NFL. That conventional wisdom, of course, seems to come from people who see a completely different reality when they talk about the Cowboys than the one many of us do. I was about 400 words into this piece when an article came out that is a perfect illustration of the disconnect between how national people see the team and what many who closely follow the Cowboys perceive. It is actually a transcript by Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News of a roundtable discussion on Fox Sports Live (which is linked in the article) in which Randy Moss and Donovan McNabb express their opinions about how the real problem in Dallas is the coaching. McNabb, who when asked will explain to people why he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, discussed some legitimate problems with turnover in the coaching staff, but, after talking about how Jason Garrett should have learned more when he was backing up Troy Aikman and Dan Marino (the latter a facet of Garrett's career I seemed to have missed), he threw this out.
McNabb added: "You can't fire Wade Phillips and hire Jason Garrett and Jason Garrett's doing worse than Wade Phillips was doing. That's just not going to get it done. What team is going to follow that?"
Yeah. That 1-7 start in 2010 was a really impressive performance by old Wade. You know, the one where the team pretty obviously gave up on him. And Garrett came in and went 5-3 the rest of the way with the same team. Oh, except it was minus Tony Romo. Then, the following season, the team began cutting aging players and moving to a younger roster, which seemed to be driven primarily by Garrett, followed by two years of oddly focused injuries in the defense that seriously held the team back.
And speaking of "follow that", faith in Jason Garrett does not seem to be at all an issue. None of the Dallas media who cover the Cowboys regularly have ever alluded to any real doubt in the coach by the players. Not the most critical writer has mentioned that. It is just a random, unsupported assertion.
Moss focused on how the coaching staff has failed Romo.
"The thing that's not really fair to Tony Romo is he really hasn't had that coaching to be able to bring him along," Moss said. "I'm not sitting here busting Garrett or trying to call Garrett out, but there has not been nothing steady in Dallas. It's always coaches come and go."
Well, just one quibble there. The quarterback coach in Dallas is Wade Wilson. Who has been in that job since 2007. Which, oddly, coincides with the tenure of Tony Romo as a starter. And, for that matter, coincides with Garrett becoming the offensive coordinator. No, no continuity there. But of course, Romo has just been hot garbage all along. After all, you never find articles about how great he is in, say, the fourth quarter. Well, except this one. Oh, and this one. And this one. And this one. No, all the stats and figures and the fact Romo was playing through a bad back last season mean nothing. He had just horrible coaching.
Also, I don't quite follow the logic of talking about how coaches coming and going is a bad thing, so the obvious solution is to churn the head coaching position.
Besides, after three years, Garrett may finally have the coaching staff HE wants in place. There was always a bit of an Odd Couple vibe about Garrett and Rob Ryan, and then in 2013 there was the constantly discussed stripping of the playcalling duties from Garrett and giving them to Bill Callahan. When that produced absolutely no change in the outcome of the season, it seems that Garrett finally got his guy in Scott Linehan to handle the play calls. (Which sort of seems to address that problem about bad coaching for Romo that Moss was upset about.) And so far he seems to be working well with Rod Marinelli on the defensive side of the line after the Monte Kiffin experiment didn't turn out so well.
Jason Garrett, after all, is not building a team with a one-year vision. His nature is to build something that is sustainable. After all, what else is he referring to with his constant use of "process"? He still doesn't have a perfect situation, but he has the best one to date in his head coaching career. For instance, one thing you have not heard for a while is the term "puppet" when referring to Garrett's role under Jerry Jones. And, at the end of this year, if the team is still playing hard for sixty minutes every game, with developing talent and a franchise quarterback that still looks to have a couple of seasons in him, would it really be smart to chuck the head coach and try again?
That is the decision that Jerry Jones may be facing. We all hope that it will not turn out this way, with a playoff appearance in January, but no one really seems to think that is likely. The decision is more likely to be based on how much the owner and GM believes that Garrett is doing things the right way. I admit I think he is, but that is because I just get what he is trying to do, and have since his first season as head coach.
It will be an interesting process to track. It may lack the flash and drama of Lebron James' Decision 2.0, but it will certainly be riveting as the season unfolds.