When the NFL announces Coach of the Year in February, the person selected should be Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. For the last six years, he has held command of this team and gradually built something fans can be proud of. The first three years were filled with mediocre 8-8 seasons and left many people questioning his effectiveness. But during the last three years, the Cowboys have won the NFC East twice and are about to embark on a potential Super Bowl run.
Jason Garrett has been with the organization since 2007, when he was hired as the offensive coordinator. In his first year as OC, the Cowboys would finish with a record of 13-3, and at the time, the offense would score the second-most points in franchise history (455). Tony Romo, in his first full season as starting quarterback would break several Cowboys passing records, such as touchdowns, completions, and passing yards. Garrett had some good tools and place and used them well.
In 2014, with Garrett as the HC, the offense would eclipse the 2007 point total with again, the second-most points scored (467). The team was led by a new single-season rushing record holder in DeMarco Murray, and Tony Romo, who threw 34 touchdown passes (second most to his 2007 totals).
So to recap real quick, of the Cowboys three top scoring performances in franchise history (1983, 2007, and 2014), Garrett has been involved in two of them. And now, of the three times the Cowboys have reached a franchise best 13-3 record (1992, 2007, and 2016), Garrett has been involved in two of them. So when it comes to scoring points and winning games, you have to acknowledge that Coach Garrett has been around when those things are happening.
But how do we know it’s Garrett that’s the source of the Cowboys success? After all, Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli call the plays. Then there’s Jerry and Stephen Jones who make all the important player personnel decisions. All we see Garrett do is just sit there harmoniously and clappity clap clap. What has Jason really done for this team?
Well, there is an extensive list that describes all the positive things he’s done. Things like getting his players to focus in on the task at hand to the amount of work that goes into each individual’s preparation. And we’ve all heard it said numerous times about how he’s created a winning culture for this team. A culture that consists of passion, leadership, accountability, and maximizing the potential of each players ability. That’s what is meant by the “right kind of guy” and Garrett has now flooded his team with them.
As we look at a 53-man roster with so many strong contributors, the Cowboys find themselves with a balanced football team. They are top five in points scored and top five in points allowed. But as level as that sounds, it is the emergence of two rookie stars that have propelled this 2016 squad into a championship caliber team. And Garrett had a big part in that.
Last April, the Cowboys had a remarkable draft after landing both Ezekiel Elliott in the first round and Dak Prescott in the fourth round. Both these picks were game-changers for this organization. There is a lot of credit to go around, but here is Jason Garrett’s involvement with all of this.
First, there was the coveted fourth-overall pick. The Cowboys had it narrowed down to two players - Jalen Ramsey and Ezekiel Elliott. And when both these players were still available when the Cowboys were on the clock, it created a potential opportunity. The Cowboys could attempt to trade back a couple picks and try to land an extra draft pick and still get the player they wanted. This was a big deal because Jerry really wanted to go after Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, should he fall in the draft. Stephen Jones was on the phone talking to Baltimore Raven’s GM Ozzie Newsome and a deal was brewing. The only problem was - Dallas wanted a third-round pick (bargaining chip for Lynch), but the Ravens were only offering a fourth. With Baltimore unwilling to sweeten the pot, Dallas didn’t want to settle for less compensation and risk losing out on the player they really wanted. As Peter King describes in his behind the war room transcripts, the coach was a big advocate of the star running back at Ohio State.
Garrett, closed his office door and spent seven hours looking at every snap of Ramsey at Florida State in 2015, and every snap of Elliott at Ohio State in 2016. He liked Ramsey. He loved Elliott. Garrett told the Joneses he favored Elliott. So the group was solid as the clock ran down here for pick number four of the first round of the 2016 draft.
Zeke was a player that was easy to get excited about because of his talent and the immediate effect he’d have running behind the Cowboys offensive line, but his passion to win and physical nature of play are just big selling points to Coach Garrett.
But that was the easy pick. The quarterback selection was a little trickier. By now, you probably have heard all the hoopla about targeting Lynch and even Connor Cook later, but how did things go down exactly?
Well, despite not acquiring an extra pick from Baltimore, Jerry was still hell bent on grabbing Lynch if he slid in the draft. And that’s exactly what was happening. When the time came to make a move, once again it came down to how much the Cowboys were willing to spend.
At one point around pick No. 20 in the first round, Jerry Jones debated with Garrett the wisdom of trading second- and third-round picks instead of the current second- and fourth-rounders they currently had on the table with several teams to try to trade up in order to get a choice to use for Lynch.
So here lies the big dilemma. Does the team want to trade two quality draft picks for Lynch or pick up some defensive help and go after a quarterback later?
With needs on defense, Garrett preferred to take two defensive players in rounds two and three from among this pool: Oklahoma State pass-rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith and Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins.
Jerry really wanted Lynch, but give him credit for being a team player and listening to others around him, especially his head coach. It just was too much to give up and the Cowboys stayed disciplined towards building their team and not overspending for that one guy, which used to be a recipe that had gotten Jerry in trouble in year’s past (WR, Roy Williams comes to mind). But that didn’t stop Jerry from expressing his disappointment.
“I’m not gonna go jump from Dallas’s tallest, so let’s put this in perspective,” said Jones, pausing for a few minutes in his day-two draft prep at the Cowboys’ complex. “And I live with second-guessing and disappointments. That’s a part of this business. But if I had to do it all over again? I’d give the three.”
Oh well. If he could get over the Johnny Manziel regret, he’d be able to make it through this one.
But the work wasn’t done yet. The Cowboys still needed their quarterback. Cowboys legend Roger Staubach had talked with both Garrett and Jerry a month before the draft about what it takes to be a good quarterback in the league.
Leadership, belief in self, and a grinding work ethic were paramount in a starting quarterback.
Garrett knew that Prescott had these traits. And he put him through an extensive interview when they visited together.
In the middle of talking about X’s and O’s during Prescott’s pre-draft visit, Garrett suddenly shifted the conversation.
“What was going on with the DUI?” he said abruptly.
Prescott answered him the way he answered everyone.
“I didn’t feel I was drunk,” he responded. “I had a couple drinks at the bar. I know eyes were on me. I got in my truck and hit the gas. I was speeding. But I wasn’t drunk. I put myself in a position I shouldn’t have.”
Garrett wasn’t satisfied.
“What the heck were you thinking? What would we be getting here?”
Prescott kept his cool, as he might while trying to bring his team back from a fourth-quarter deficit.
“I don’t know what else you want me to say,” he told Garrett. “This is what happened. I’m completely accountable for it. It’s not going to happen again.”
It wasn’t what Dak said that was so important, but how he conducted himself that stood out with Coach Garrett.
“He was so mature and matter-of-fact,” Garrett said. “He handled it so well. It was a very important part of our evaluation of him.”
He kept his cool and owned up to his mistake. He wasn’t trying to sell himself as a bag of goods he wasn’t. He was being himself.
When you draft a player late in the fourth round, it may seem like you’re throwing darts because you can’t predict the future. Nobody knows how good these players are going to be. But when you have the type of traits that can maximize your potential, it increases your chances of getting a great football player. The Cowboys did their homework on this kid and they are the ones who decided to make the investment.
And this isn’t limited to hitting the Dakpot when it comes to drafting Prescott. This has been on display with the contribution of other rookies like Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown. Both these players are meaningful contributors on this football team. It also can be linked to the All Pro awesomeness that follows Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. Draft pundits have criticized the Cowboys for some of these moves, but it’s not an accident that these players are living up to their potential.
It’s the Jason Garrett way. And when Jaylon Smith wreaks havoc on the league next season, many people will continue to speak about how “lucky” the Cowboys got by taking him. But the Cowboys are making their own luck. They are making it by going about it the right way. Dallas hasn’t always been so fortunate during their drafts. There have been a lot of missteps before Garrett showed up. But in recent years they have been making all the right moves.
Don’t get me wrong. The entire coaching staff deserves a lot of credit. Will McClay’s influence cannot be overstated. And both the Joneses have come a long way in how they handle the business side. But all of these things can be linked to the ongoing effort of getting better. That means listening to valuable insight, whether it be from visiting Navy Seals, Mike Krzyzewski, or Cowboys legend Roger Staubach. And all this has come from the leadership of Coach Garrett.
So while we all fight over who is the most valuable player - Zeke, Dak, offensive line, etc., the most prized possession within this Cowboys organization is the red-headed genius from Princeton.