Coming off a 13-3 regular season and their second NFC East crown in three years, the Dallas Cowboys seem to have things headed in the right direction. Although they had their playoffs rudely ended twice by the Green Bay Packers, the returning talent and some exciting new rookies offer hope that the two decades plus of postseason futility may finally come to an end. It all comes down to whether Dallas can sustain things rather than just be a flash in the pan. How to maintain the recent success is the all-important question.
The answer to that, ironically, may be in a recent article by Michael Lombardi at the Ringer. The irony is because he writes about the continuing futility of the Los Angeles Rams. And in documenting what he believes has caused that long string of abject failure, culminating in the dismissal at the end of last season of head coach Jeff Fisher, he lists some attributes that look like the exact opposite of what is going on with the Cowboys.
A winning culture for all successful sports teams is grounded in a recognized mission and shared team goals. It places the good of the team above all else — winning matters more than personal goals or making money, and no one is bigger than the team. Everyone works toward one common purpose, guided by a leader with great knowledge.
But the NFL today doesn’t prize that method — in many cases, it focuses on hiring subcontractors as head coaches. Find a bright offensive or defensive mind and give him the title of head coach. Fresh-faced, inexperienced, eager, but often ill-equipped or unable to grab the reins. These hires are typically just in charge of their assistants, hampering the ability to create a total organizational culture.
Having one vision, one voice, one set of ideas is essential, and unless this comes directly from the owner, it must come from the head coach. When organizations use the subcontractor-head-coaching route, differing values muddy the culture.
If you have paid any attention at all the past few years, you should be well aware of just how much that idea of recognized mission and shared team goals is the heart and soul of everything that Jason Garrett does as head coach of the Cowboys. This brief description of what is needed for a winning culture could just as well serve as a thumbnail sketch of how Garrett approaches his job.
This is not unique for Garrett, but it is something he shares with some of the best head coaches in the league. It is even arguable that the gradual assertion of Garrett’s vision is what is most promising about the trajectory of the team. He certainly preached this message from the first moment after he was named interim head coach midway through the 2010 season, but it took him several years to get everyone on board - most notably owner and general manager Jerry Jones. Remember that Garrett’s first offensive and defensive coordinators were hired for him by Jones. Now, Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli are seen as Garrett hires, and all signs are that the coaching staff is working in complete unison. And there is a significant bit of evidence that Garrett also has a large role in building the roster, with more influence on who is drafted and the approach to free agency than most of his peers.
It is not something that is fully appreciated by all. Setting the tone and building the team from year to year are less flashy than being known as a signal-calling guru or quote machine for the media. Garrett leaves the X and O stuff largely to Linehan and Marinelli, and his interface with the media is famously robotic. He seems perfectly content to leave the colorful comments to Jerry Jones, quote machine extraordinaire.
No, Garrett’s focus is on creating that winning culture and keeping everyone on script. And that may be far more important in the NFL than just about anything else.
As Lombardi’s article discussed, when teams struggle, the owners frequently replace the head coach, or general manager, or even completely clean house. But they have a hard time turning over control to those individuals, and the limited authority just tends to prolong the losing. The most successful teams have a coach and/or GM who has real power and control. Bill Belichick is the ultimate example. He controls the roster, runs the meetings, and probably tells Robert Kraft when he can have a bathroom break. His record speaks for itself.
Even successful teams can fall prey to issues when there is a lack of agreement on how to approach things. It has just been announced that the Chiefs fired GM John Dorsey, a move apparently engineered by Andy Reid after he secured his own contract extension.
There are few news stories I can remember generating as many stunned, dumbfounded reactions as John Dorsey being out in KC. Very respected— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 22, 2017
The fallout from this will be interesting to see, although Reid may be strong enough to keep things on track.
It can even be argued that maintaining a consistent approach over time is more important than what approach you take. There is no one way to win in the NFL, and in reality every successful team finds a different one. Short, quick passing attacks, going deep whenever possible, run-first approach, a dominant defense with a mediocre but not careless quarterback on offense - all have led to championships. But seldom does a team find a way to win in just one season after major changes in the coaching and front office staffs. It takes time to assemble the right personnel, especially if there is significant shift in either the offensive or defensive approach. The more seasons you have to bring in the right personnel as well as hone the skills of the players you keep from year to year, the better the odds are that things will work on the field.
Another major irony in Dallas is that Jerry Jones is still perceived by many outside the local market (and a few within) to be a meddling, mercurial owner/GM who loves to override his coach and staff. Yet in recent years, he has shown as much trust in his subordinates as any owner, perhaps because in his GM role he gets sufficiently down in the trenches with them to fully understand what they are doing. It had to pay a major role in his surprising decision to stand pat with his coaching staff after the debacle that was the 2015 season - and it paid off handsomely last year.
Once, Jones was making the same kinds of mistakes that the ownership of the Rams have made repeatedly. But somewhere in the last decade or so, that changed. And it is not just a coincidence that the improvement coincided with the ascension of Garrett, who has a long relationship with Jones going back to his days as Troy Aikman’s backup. That kind of relationship is vital to Jones, and there is likely no one else in football that could convince Jones to trust him the way Garrett has (with the possible exception of Jerry’s son Stephen, who along with Will McClay make up the key triad running things for the Cowboys).
Every sign is that the Cowboys are poised to reap the benefits. They have a fantastically talented offense, and have just added a lot of promising defensive players. Linehan and Marinelli have their systems in place and the veterans all are just gaining more experience in executing them. Above all, there is a clear, easily understood culture that does not change year to year.
It is just about the exact opposite of what has happened with the Rams. And last year, so were the results.