Let’s flash back to August of 2016. You’re Jason Garrett, head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. The highest-valued professional sports franchise in the world looks set to embark on a successful season. Your marquee starting quarterback appears healthy after his injury-riddled season submarined the previous season. The rest of the team looks as talented as it has been in years. Expectations are that with a healthy Tony Romo the team will return to the winning ways of 2014 when the team won 12 games and the NFC East division. In short, you have a well-stocked ship sailing open waters under clear skies.
- Both your starting and primary backup quarterback suffer major, long-term injuries resulting in Dak Prescott, your rookie fourth-round draft pick assuming the starting quarterback duties.
- An opening-game loss where your fourth-year starting wide receiver chose to stay in bounds rather than give the team a shot at victory by going out of bounds.
- Fall behind 14-0 on the road to a bad San Francisco team before coming from behind for victory.
- Go into Green Bay and beat an Aaron Rodgers-led team on the road for the first time in six tries without your best wide receiver.
- Overcome a 10-point, 4th quarter lead against division rival Philadelphia by scoring the final 16 points of the game.
- Go into Pittsburgh and win a topsy-turvy, back-and-forth affair despite your defense surrendering a 75-yard, fall-behind touchdown drive with 42 seconds remaining.
- Your fourth-round draft pick throw down perhaps the greatest rookie quarterback season in the Super Bowl era to create a raging quarterback controversy.
- Your longtime face-of-the-franchise deliver a heartbreaking, emotional speech handing starting quarterback duties to the rookie phenom.
- Your now-second-string superstar quarterback deliver a fan-pleasing touchdown drive in his only appearance of the season.
- Your team play the worst 23 minutes of football of the entire season in the team’s home playoff game, getting outscored 21-3.
- Your team come back in impressive fashion to be in position to win that same game, owning the ball, a timeout and a first down at the Green Bay 49 down 3 points with 1:07 remaining.
- Tying the game with 35 seconds remaining only to lose despite your opponent facing a 3rd-and-20 from their own 32 with 12 seconds remaining.
- Your long-time franchise quarterback retire in the offseason.
- Four of your top five secondary players jettisoned in off-season moves.
- Your young, emerging defensive lineman suspended for the first four games.
- Several other players involved in off-field events that result in arrests, investigations and suspensions.
- Your superstar, starting running back suspended for the first six weeks of the season. Then unsuspended. Then suspended again. Then unsuspended and currently, suspended again.
- Your bigger-than-life owner declaring open warfare on fellow owners, the commissioner and the entire NFL.
- Five wins by an average of 16+ points mixed with two home losses by a total of 9 points in which your offense scored 30 points, gained 400+ yards and turned the ball over only once.
- Convincingly outplay a legitimate Super Bowl contender for 29 minutes and 48 seconds only to surrender the worst defensive play in team history, allowing a last-second before halftime 56-yard “Hill Mary” touchdown. Then overcoming the gaffe for a win.
In short, those calm seas have vacillated between choppy waters, rough seas and an outright tempest at times. Throughout the journey, regardless of circumstances, you’ve maintained a stoic, steady demeanor. You’ve never doubted or deviated from your philosophy. Your message to players has been consistent and unwavering. In a frothing sea of uncertainty you’ve provided a rock of stability.
The “Garrett philosophy”, with its emphasis on “RKGs” has elicited a lot of eye-rolling over the years. A never-ending string of arrests and suspensions have led to legitimate questioning of the RKG manta. But no one can deny that over the last 15 months Garrett has superbly handled a string of events that would have torn many teams apart.
All the ingredients were there last season for a debilitating quarterback controversy. Both media folks and fans alike engaged in open warfare in the Dak vs. Romo debate. The team, meanwhile, operated as if in a bubble, safely protected from the maelstrom that enveloped everyone else in the NFL world. That doesn’t just happen. That requires leadership.
Garrett didn’t do it alone, no doubt about that. One of Tony’s Romo’s greatest contributions as a Cowboy came when he selflessly accepted his backup role to Dak Prescott. He did so because it was best for the team. Had he chosen a different path who knows what happens, but it wouldn’t have been pretty.
Does Romo take that same action if he’s on a franchise where committment to team isn’t emphasized and practiced all day, every day? We don’t know. But there’s no doubt the culture Garrett has nurtured in Dallas enabled last year’s team to navigate rough seas that would have sunk many other NFL ships.
The 2017 season has again the Cowboys with distractions that could have derailed the team. Players missing due to suspension. Rookies being asked to play more than expected. Consecutive home losses that leave little margin for error. Again, Garrett has held steady and maneuvered the team into position to succeed.
The team will face the next six games without their best, most consistent, most reliable offensive option. Ezekiel Elliott is a bonafide superstar currently playing at peak form. He will be missed.
But Dallas can overcome his absence. They have three running backs with the physical tools and experience to succeed. More importantly, Garrett’s rock-in-a-tempest is now firmly embedded in players and coaches. I believe they’ll carry that approach with them as they face this important stretch.
Now the Cowboys face both a tremendous challenge and a tremendous opportunity. Two wins in the next two games would leave them at 7-3, only a game behind league-leading Philadelphia. On the other hand, a loss in Atlanta would leave the team at 5-4 and struggling to make the post-season. This isn’t the “ultimate challenge”; the NFL presents players, coaches and teams with a never-ending series of challenges. But we’re about to find out if Garrett’s approach will pay dividends during these tumutuous times. I believe they will.