It should be a happy time for the Dallas Cowboys and their fans. The team is 3-1 despite Tony Romo sitting out with an injury so far this season. They have found the apparent quarterback of the future in Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott is starting to look like exactly what they thought he was, Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown are proving that there is depth in this draft class, the offensive line is rolling despite injuries to two starters, the receiving corps has weathered the absence of Dez Bryant for a game, the defense has been good enough to notch the three wins, and Morris Claiborne is looking like an All Pro cornerback at long last. But the hottest topic in the Dallas media is not about the unexpected success despite adversity. It is about how Jason Garrett has gone full Bill Belichick in his press conferences. Many of the beat writers are positively livid about it.
To many fans, this is puzzling and even maddening. After the Great Debacle of 2015, we are so thrilled to see success when it had looked for a while like the team might be faced with another terrible season due to injuries. But now the major sources for Cowboys news are drowning us with stories and social media posts about how Garrett has been rude and dismissive in his last couple of press conferences, and how much they resent being cut out. What is going on?
It all started after the Chicago Bears game, when Bryant was injured and then went into evasion mode to put off getting bad news about his knee and his season. He skipped a meeting and apparently left his phone off the charger when the battery died. He finally relented and found out that the injury was not deemed to be severe, but would cause him to miss at least one game while he heals. His return is still uncertain, but it appears that he will be out at most three games, and is almost certain to be back after the bye week. However, while all this was going on, the team, especially Garrett, was very tight with any information. Based on some reports, especially from Mike Fisher and Bryan Broaddus, the head coach was protecting his star receiver. Bryant has a reputation for being a problem, one that seems to have little effect on his performance on the field. His teammates and coaches certainly are standing by him through this situation. He has admitted that he made some pretty serious mistakes in how he handled things, and the team says it has taken care of things internally. As far as the staff and players are concerned, it is a dead issue.
But some of the media were scathing in their coverage. They leveled accusations against Bryant and Garrett, including a lack of discipline and control. As usual, Jerry Jones had no hesitation in talking about things, and also par for the course, his comments were at times a bit contradictory and confusing.
There is little doubt that Garrett was angered by this, perhaps more than anything that has happened before in his tenure. He let that anger show quite clearly with his abrupt and uninformative responses in his press conferences. Many of the media responded with their own anger. At the moment, there is a lot of tension between Garrett and the reporters. The head coach has clearly chosen to do all he can to protect and support his players, with no concern at all for any feels that may be getting hurt in the media.
Part of what has happened is based on the previous openness of the Cowboys. Garrett’s predecessor, Wade Phillips, was known for his open and chatty manner with the press, and of course Jerry Jones has never met a microphone he didn’t want to speak into at length. Garrett has been trying to tighten the reins on information given out to the media and therefore the rest of the NFL. This has just been a tipping point for him to really put the clamps on, and perhaps to try and put the media in what he sees is their proper place.
Ironically, this has not slowed the flow of information and opinions from Jerry Jones in the slightest. He still goes on the radio talk shows regularly and offers up answers to just about every question. The media can still get just about all the detail they want from him. They just aren’t getting it from Garrett, and sometimes have to wait a day or two for Jones to do one of his interviews.
What this has buried to some extent is the incredible job the coaching staff is doing this year. Prescott has been developed at a pace that seemed impossible given his draft status and collegiate background. Scott Linehan, Wade Wilson, Garrett, and even Tony Romo have brought him to the point where he looks like a seasoned veteran most of the time, and not a rookie who lasted to the middle of the draft. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for the preternatural poise and command of the offense he has displayed from his first snap in preseason. But the staff has been almost perfect in maximizing his strengths and minimizing the parts of his game that still have to develop, such as attacking defenses deeper down the field. From a broader note, the staff and the players themselves have done an incredible job of playing through adversity. They have been aided by a somewhat soft schedule so far, but since the one-point opening loss, they have not let the opportunities slip through their hands.
The reaction of many fans have been to side with Garrett and, to put it politely, wish the media would go pound sand. However, there is some justification for the discontent of the beat reporters. Their job depends on getting accurate information about the team, especially things like injuries and how they are likely to affect the next game. Garrett’s “I’m just here so I don’t get fined” approach to his press conferences is certainly making their jobs more difficult.
It comes down to what the role of a head coach in maintaining relations with the media and through them the fan base is, and how to balance that against not giving out information of value to other teams unless he has to. Garrett clearly skews towards the Belichick model. The Patriots’ head coach is famous for telling reporters absolutely nothing while clearly displaying his disdain for them. Of course, he is also seen as the most successful head coach in the league, and unlike Garrett, he also has complete control over his roster and personnel decisions. Garrett answers to the only owner/general manager in the league. And Jones serves as his own team spokesman as well. To a certain extent, Garrett can simply defer all the questions to Jones, which is basically what he has done this week.
Who is right? It is hard to say, and fault lies on both sides. How this turns out will be greatly influenced by how the Cowboys perform the remainder of the season. If they can continue to win and make it to the playoffs, this will mostly blow over, although there will no doubt be some lingering hostility between head coach and the reporters. But should the team stumble, things are likely to get ugly, and Garrett is going to be cut no slack at all. Every possible bit of blame for anything that goes wrong will be heaped on his head. There will probably be calls for his ouster if the team does not make the playoffs, which will almost certainly be futile, given what the team has done in finding Prescott to be the future of the franchise. Bryant will also be the target for criticism over the slightest thing for the foreseeable future.
It is unfortunate, especially when there are so many good things to point to about this team. We can only hope that things do go well the rest of this season to quiet the unrest. There are plenty of reporters who gleefully focus on the negative about the Cowboys as a matter of course. It is just a shame that they have been given more ammunition because a player had a moment of panic, and his coach elected to back him up and get him back on track.