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Cowboys hot topic: Putting Jason Garrett on the hot seat

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There is growing discontent with the head coach, and you can probably add his staff. But you may want to reassess things a bit.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Take even a cursory glance at the subject of the Dallas Cowboys on social media, or in a few outlets covering them, and you will see a growing clamor for the team to give up on the Jason Garrett era and go find a coach who can win. And if the head coach is not seen as the problem, his assistants, particularly defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, have overstayed their welcome in the minds of many. With back-to-back disasters on the field (and there is really no other way to describe the dismal performances against the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles), it is to be expected. When NFL teams take a sudden downward turn, the coaching staff is the usual target. After all, the players cannot be released without incurring cap issues. Plus there aren’t exactly a bunch of All Pro replacements just sitting around at home waiting for a call.

There is no such problem with terminating coaches. And for teams with deep pockets and owners who are not afraid to spend money, both of which apply to Jerry Jones’ team, it is always a viable option. Financially, at least.

There are certainly cases where booting the head coach and his staff is an obvious, even overdue, step. One of the clearest examples is Jeff Fisher (disclaimer: I love to pick on Fisher, because he deserves it). His five-year tenure with the St Louis/Los Angeles Rams led to a pretty miserable 31-45-1 record, with every year under .500. It is surprising he got as much time to tear up the team as he did.

But Fisher is also a cautionary tale about switching head coaches. Not in that his firing led to an immediate and dramatic turnaround for the Rams under first-year head coach Sean McVay. What you do need to consider is why he was hired by the Rams in the first place.

He was supposed to be a solution for a losing team. Instead, he was just another problem. That is the risk in hiring a new head coach. It is basically a gamble, with a better than even chance that the first year, at least, will not be noticeably successful. Of the four first-year head coaches in the NFL this year, three are at .500 or worse. In the cases of Vance Joseph of the Denver Broncos (3-7) and the San Francisco 49er’s Kyle Shanahan (1-9), things are going pretty badly. And second-year coach Ben McAdoo is seeing his New York Giants really crater this year.

Fans and the media are often subject to a real problem with recency bias, wanting to judge things on the current season. Not all coaches can work immediate miracles in a year, and that generally only happens when they are coming in behind a real crisis as McVay did.

That is why the calls for Garrett’s ouster this season seem a bit premature. For those who forget, he led the Cowboys to a 12-4 regular season record in 2014, and 13-3 in 2016. And those were achieved with almost the same staff he has this year.

The problems for the Cowboys this season are manifold, and may simply be too much to overcome. Part of that does have to do with Garrett’s blueprint for the team. In both 2014 and 2016, the Cowboys won with a run-first offense based on a very good running back. But they ran into issues with those that made the formula unsustainable. While the collapse in 2015 is usually attributed almost entirely to the injuries to Tony Romo (which was indeed the largest factor), the team also did not see fit to outbid the Eagles for the services of DeMarco Murray, who has since not been able to duplicate his success with Dallas. This season has been severely hampered by the drawn out suspension saga of Ezekiel Elliott, who is now gone until the last two regular season games. His absence also seems likely to help doom the team to missing the playoffs entirely. Both those winning seasons ended abruptly in the first game played in the postseason, but in both cases, the Cowboys were eliminated in large part because Aaron Rodgers went all Aaron Rodgers on them. And the NFL also decided in 2014 it really doesn’t know what a catch is, as well.

The problem with having real stars in any position is that the talent pool in the NFL is not deep enough to have backups that can truly step up and limit the effects when suspension or injury intervene. The losses of Sean Lee, Tyron Smith, and Dan Bailey in addition to Elliott have obviously crippled the Cowboys. Some coaches, like the unicorn named Bill Belichick, find ways to overcome things. But the last time the New England Patriots missed the playoffs was the year Tom Brady was lost for the season in the opening game. Even Belichick could not find the magic to overcome the absence of his future Hall of Fame QB.

Cowboys fans are somewhat spoiled by the two dynasties they have enjoyed under Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson. They expect Dallas, with Jerry Jones’ willingness to spend money, to be in the playoffs, if not the Super Bowl, every year. That is just not how things work for the vast majority of NFL teams, and not how the league intends for it to.

It seems rational to see if Garrett and company can rebound yet again next year. After all, the job they did after 2015 garnered Garrett Coach of the Year honors. If they do, you have to ask yourself: Is it really that bad to have a team that makes the playoffs every other year? Most teams cannot manage that much. The NFL only has 12 teams make the playoffs each year, which means 20 of them get an immediate start on draft, free agency, and roster retention planning.

Garrett devised a plan for the team, and when it worked, it worked very well indeed. Like all plans, however, it can be derailed when you miss key components. Even in New England.

Another complaint about the Cowboys is that they fail to make key adjustments in games. However, that is a bit hard to make fit in the loss to the Eagles.

That addresses the defense, but there were also some adjustments made offensively, as Linehan was able to spring Alfred Morris for a couple of big runs back-to-back. But the near-total collapse of the passing game with Dak Prescott repeatedly missing his targets and making bad decisions that were out of character for the player we saw in the first 25 games of his career wasted those runs. The defense, with no help at all from the offense, seemed to wear down as well and sorely miss Lee’s leadership on the field.

Marinelli may be one case where it is time to move on, however. In particular, he may have too much influence in the draft. If he was instrumental in the selections of Jaylon Smith and Taco Charlton (the latter seems very likely), he might have made the case for his departure too strong. At the least, he needs to have his say in the draft room seriously reduced.

But in any case, wholesale changes to the staff seem to be highly unlikely. Jerry Jones has a very close relationship with Garrett, who he hand-picked to be head coach. And Jones has stated this week that he does not see the coaches as the problem.

"I've seen these coaches to a man make some outstanding adjustments in their time with the Cowboys, so I know that they adjust," Jones said on 105.3 The Fan's Shan and RJ show [KRLD-FM]. "They might not adjust at the right time in a series, they might not adjust at the right time in a ballgame, and obviously they can lose ballgames.

"But this is a really outstanding coaching staff. I'm really proud to have them."

Jones is prone to making rash and controversial statements (just ask Roger Goodell and Arthur Blank), but he does not lie about things like this. He may change his mind on a moment’s notice, but for now, he is not showing any signs there will be major changes to the staff.

A second year of big struggles would be another matter, of course. But an additional factor is the unique role Jones plays as his own general manager. If there are mistakes made in personnel acquisition that lead to problems, such as the lack of depth this year, that buck clearly stops on his desk. He will play a major part in trying to correct things this year, particularly in the offseason.

It is entirely fair to criticize the coaches for their mistakes, and they certainly have made them this year. EVERY coaching staff makes mistakes. Dumping the current staff would have very little likelihood of fixing things. It could well make things much worse.

If, as we should expect based on the history and nature of the Cowboys under Jones, the coaching staff is largely intact after this season, the complaints will just grow in volume. And they will mostly just be ignored, at least until we see how things play out in a season or two.