There have been many recent projections that have the Dallas Cowboys as one of the expected cellar-dwellers in 2014. Primarily, this is attributed to the defense, which by some accounts couldn't stop the average high school team. But it also seems indicative of a general disdain for much about the organization. Evidence of that is in a poll published on the ESPN pay site, and quoted at the ESPN Dallas site. The poll was of 30 "NFL insiders" who ranked all 32 head coaches in the league, using a 1 to 5 scale where 1 is the best and 5 the worst. The numbers were then used to get an average score and the coaches were ranked top to bottom based on those scores. Here is the take on Jason Garrett, who came in a rather pathetic 30 out of the 32.
It was tough for voters to give Garrett a high grade based on on-field results, but there was also a pervasive feeling that any coach would struggle to succeed in Dallas given owner Jerry Jones' leadership style and decision-making. Multiple voters thought Jones was the one responsible for the disastrous change from Rob Ryan to Monte Kiffin at defensive coordinator, for example. "Tough place, tough everything," said a longtime executive with a background in multiple organizations. "Garrett is a smart guy, but he doesn't reach everybody."
A current GM gave Garrett a 3. "His circumstances are way more difficult than people realize," this GM said. "Some people think they have underachieved. I think they may have overachieved under the circumstances. They have been very good offensively."
A former GM said he could envision Garrett getting fired, landing somewhere as a coordinator and then succeeding as a head coach for a different organization down the line. "He could emerge as a really good head coach who has been tested by fire," this former GM said.
It is interesting, to put it politely, that he rates lower than several rookie head coaches, despite having an overall 29-27 record. Three consecutive 8-8 seasons would seem like the perfect argument to have him right in the middle of the pack. And the actual statements in the quote above seem to reflect a widespread viewpoint that it really isn't Garrett that is at fault, it is the unique, odd, and frequently dysfunctional structure of the Cowboys under Jerry Jones. If Garrett has kept the team at .500 the past three years in a situation that the "insiders" feel would have caused most to fail, why does that make him a bad coach?
The harsh evaluation of Garrett seems to be a case of him being tarred by the very broad brush of Cowboys and Jerry Jones hatred. This is ironic, because the theory around here (here being primarily the area between my ears) is that Garrett's biggest accomplishment to date has been to bring a more rational approach to the way the Cowboys are run as a football team. Jerry Jones, with his extravagant events in AT&T Stadium and commercial tie-ins with such football-oriented companies as Victoria's Secret and Swiss watchmaker Hublot, knows how to make money in staggering quantities, but his wildcatter ways turned out to be, shall we say, less than ideal for building and maintaining a successful pro football franchise. This became particularly true after the rest of the NFL owners implemented the salary cap to take away Jerry's preferred means of building a championship team, outspending everyone else.
Only Bill Parcells was able to come into Dallas and impose some semblance of discipline on the operation of the football team despite the owner/GM, and once he left, the much more pliable Wade Phillips was unable or unwilling to take steps to keep things from going downhill. With draft picks unwisely invested in questionable trades for shaky veterans or attempts to move up and make a big splash, the flow of talent to the team dried up. When the motivation of the players also dried up under Phillips, Jason Garrett was tabbed to replace him. And his job consisted of far more than deciding whether to ignore his assistant coaches wildly signalling for a time out while his kicker was lining up for a field goal attempt. He had to figure out how to rebuild his roster by casting off aging veterans and moving to a younger cadre built primarily through the draft.
All indications are that he is one of the key reasons Dallas has been doing a better job of late. They have been much more focused on the draft. It has not always worked out, but there is always a chance of random mishap that can disrupt the best built of draft boards. Matt Johnson, a player who had no health issues in college, is just the latest example of how pure, dumb luck always has a seat at the table in the NFL.
Garrett has, over the past three years, remade more than just the roster. With the hiring of Scott Linehan, he finally appears to have gotten exactly what he wanted for his offensive coordinator. There also seems to be an alliance, or at least a great overlap in viewpoints, between Garrett and the second most powerful man in the organization, Jerry's son Stephen Jones. Evidence, such as the way Stephen is now doing more and more of the talking about what the team is doing (and making more sense than his stream-of-consciousness father usually does), indicates that Stephen has a lot to do with what goes on regarding personnel decisions. Now, with the addition of Will McClay on the personnel acquisition side of the house, there is a lot of influence to keep Jerry from trying things like another Roy Williams (the WR) type trade.
Additionally, there is no question that Garrett has spread his philosophy throughout the organization. His way of doing things, down to the way statements are phrased, is echoed by everyone from the newest rookies to the owner himself.
Jason Garrett isn't just calling Xs and Os. He is rebuilding or at least remodeling everything about the football operation of the Dallas Cowboys. It looks like the "insiders" ESPN consulted missed this.
Not everyone associated with ESPN is oblivious, though. A thoughtful defense of what Garrett is doing showed up the day after the coach rankings. And like Bill Parcells, who saw the core of the roster he put together have a 13-3 season after he left, Garrett may be building a team for the next head coach to ride to the playoffs.
Like Parcells, Garrett is trying to build a winner capable of sustained success. Like Parcells, Garrett might not reap the rewards of his work.
The Cowboys have missed the playoffs each of his three full seasons as head coach, and few expect to see them in the postseason this year. The Cowboys are on their third play-caller in three seasons, as well as their third defensive coordinator.
At some point, the guillotine will find Garrett, as it should. Ultimately, Garrett's going to be judged on wins and losses. Right now, though, he's still implementing his plan to make the Cowboys a winner.
This article, which contains more than a little admiration for the way Garrett refuses to take any shortcuts at all to try and save his job at the detriment of the overall objective of creating a successful organization top to bottom, is a bit of a surprise, since it is written by Jean-Jaques Taylor. Taylor has never been shy about leveling criticism at anyone associated with the Star. If Garrett has brought him around to understanding what the plan is and the rightness of it, then there may indeed be something to it all.
The anticipation is that the Cowboys will falter again this season, and that Garrett will be the sacrifice on the altar of winning now. That would be a shame. It also is not as cut and dried as people think, at least if Jerry Jones' frequent statements to the effect that it is not a make or break season have any basis in fact.
But the beauty of it all is that nothing is set in stone. No one knows the future. This team, however the roster winds up in a few more days, has 16 games to play before their fate, and the fate of their coach, is determined. Expectations may not be high, but that can be a good thing. Underdogs sometimes grow chips on their shoulder. Teams rise and fall every season.
Maybe the Cowboys can break into the playoffs. If they do so, and maybe make a bit of a run, then would you not have to consider the head coach for some post season honors, given how no one saw the team as able to do that?
The irony would be absolutely marvelous.