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Jason Garrett Is Negotiating Minefield Of 2016 To Take Cowboys To New Heights

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From injuries to gutsy calls to a quarterback controversy, Garrett has avoided multiple dangers this season - but he still has to finish out the season successfully.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Pittsburgh Steelers
Can he lead this team to the promised land?
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2016 has been an incredible year for the Dallas Cowboys. They sit atop the entire league with the best record of any team at 8-1. They have done that with a fourth-round rookie quarterback who at the moment has no real competition for rookie of the year and maybe even MVP outside of the other rookie in the backfield with him. And while the decision to make Tony Romo the backup to Dak Prescott is sucking up all the attention at the moment, it does not change one fact: This all goes back to the vision and leadership of the head coach, Jason Garrett.

Everything this year can be tied to him. The blueprint of resurrecting a run-first offensive plan behind a dominant, talent-laden offensive line while almost all the other teams are focused primarily on the passing game is his idea. Drafting Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth-overall pick this year was another piece in his overall design. And the decision to make Prescott’s role as the starter permanent was almost certainly his. Don’t forget that no other head coach in the league is more suited to understand the ramifications and impacts of that call than Garrett, whose playing career was as the backup quarterback in Dallas and with the New York Giants. He went to New York to compete for a starting job, and was not able to win it, so he even has some measure of understanding of what Romo is going through, although obviously Garrett’s path was quite different. Still, he has been on the field to lead a team, something most other head coaches never did. And he clearly has been personally involved in mentoring and developing Prescott, as evidenced by the one-on-one throwing and discussion sessions he has engaged in with the rookie since he was elevated to the starting job back in preseason. There is also anecdotal evidence that the Prescott selection was driven by the coaches. If Garrett had gone into a mad-science laboratory and build his perfect “right kind of guy” player, it would look just like Prescott, although maybe without the bow ties.

With all that, and some daring play-calling that seems a radical departure from prior seasons, Garrett has thrust himself into serious consideration for head coach of the year honors, as John Owning wrote at Fanrag Sports.

You can give credit to Dak Prescott for his miraculous rise from rookie fourth-round pick to great quarterback in less than a year or Ezekiel Elliott for his excellent play in the backfield. If you’re especially astute you could give credit to the Cowboys offensive line and bend-but-don’t-break defense; however, if you want to be right, Garrett deserves the majority of the credit.

He has been the glue to hold everyone together. Despite constant distractions from Elliott’s “off-field trouble” or the QB controversy, Garrett has been level-headed, and he has led the Cowboys to prosperity.

But that kind of talk will not continue unless the Cowboys can sustain their success through the end of the regular season and beyond. There are still some serious pitfalls for the team to avoid along the way.

The big one is that quarterback decision. So far, Prescott has been far, far more than anyone could have imagined when he was drafted. When the Cowboys went into training camp this year, the best case scenario for him was seen to be winning the backup job over Kellen Moore. The injuries to first Moore and then Romo catapulted Prescott into a role that has devoured and destroyed many quarterbacks with a far better draft position than his. There was a tremendous amount of luck involved in getting a player with the superb combination of physical skill and mental acumen that Prescott brings to the table, but he was aided immeasurably by the situation he found himself in. The Cowboys were designed to make it easier for the quarterback to succeed by taking so much of the load of carrying the offense off his shoulders as a passer and putting it on the running game. Add in the stable of receivers he had to work with, and he walked into a team where he had all the tools around him that most first round draft pick QBs lack. Take nothing away from what Prescott has done on the field, but thanks to Garrett, he started the race halfway down the track.

Injuries have not been as disastrous to the team as they were in 2016 - despite the fact that some of the same names were involved. Romo, Dez Bryant, and Orlando Scandrick all missed games in both seasons, but where those absences led to losses in 2015, Dallas has just rolled through them during the eight game winning streak. Building depth was another key objective for Garrett this season, and there is no arguing that the team has that depth, as players like Prescott, J.J. Wilcox, and Anthony Brown have filled in ably for missing talent. The rest of the season still has to be navigated, but the Cowboys seem well prepared to surmount whatever injuries may come.

Contributing to that and to the team’s confidence as it moves forward has been Garrett’s “one practice, one day, one game at a time” approach. He keeps the players focused on the task ahead and not on the wins behind them. The team has been surprisingly resilient, winning at least twice, against the Eagles and Steelers, where they were outplayed for much of the game, having to mount a couple of almost perfect drives in each to come back and win. Dallas has had one of the easiest schedules in the league, as BTB fanpost writer Mr. Mannequin detailed. With things looking tougher the rest of the way, we are going to find out just how big a role that played in the fast start. But the team cannot control that, it can only play the games.

However, the defining element of this season will revolve around how the quarterback position works out. Now that Prescott is the starter the rest of the way, barring injury, the question of whether he is going to hit a “rookie wall” or not will probably determine how things go. And if it takes a turn for the worse, that will be on Garrett’s head. The team made a calculated risk, and it appears to have taken the long-term into account as well as the immediate prospects for the team. While the statement from Romo has raised some concerns about the staff now being painted into a corner if Prescott stumbles, the decision as to who will start was certainly handled better than it might have been, such as the way things have gone with Case Keenum when he found out the Rams were moving to first-overall pick Jared Goff after that team’s offensive struggles.

The team captain still couldn't deny his hurt feelings when the Rams (4-5) promoted Jared Goff into his starting spot this week.

"Honestly, I wasn't happy," Keenum said Wednesday after his second practice as the backup to the 22-year-old rookie who will take his first NFL snap Sunday.

Just one more reason to respect Romo.

Sticking with the rookie is a risk for Garrett, but certainly a calculated one. If it flops, it will damage the team and the head coach’s reputation, and lead to some hard decisions about how to proceed next season. But if it succeeds, he will not only have proven that he can be successful this year, he will have a team that is structured to succeed for years to come.

For now, the Cowboys have to keep avoiding the dangers. One game at a time.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB