The 2018 regular season was a real up-and-down ride for the Dallas Cowboys. But that is something that has characterized the tenure of head coach Jason Garrett. After being named the full-time head coach in 2011, he had the infamous three 8-8 years that each ended with a shot at the playoffs but saw disappointment, then settled into a five-year pattern of years making the postseason sandwiched around seasons failing to do so, with nothing but one wild-card win to show for it. Through it all, owner/GM Jerry Jones has stood by his coach. Now Garrett has a chance to get that elusive second playoff win, and maybe more.
It is safe to say that Garrett will be back next season no matter how things go. That is a bit remarkable, given that the grave for his time as head man in Dallas was being eagerly dug by many just eight weeks ago. We all are familiar with the story of how the team started 3-5, then with the help of a big trade and a major coaching change, roared into the playoffs with a 7-1 record in the second half of the season. Now, instead of looking for a new job, Garrett is probably going to get an extension on his contract.
That still does not sit well with many, since things could still sputter to a frustrating end against the Seattle Seahawks on Saturday. Frankly, you get the feeling that some would have preferred for the season to never turn around just so Dallas could have gotten in on the Black Monday fun and started the search for a new head coach.
Now Jason Garrett is the sixth-longest serving head coach in the NFL after the Cincinnati Bengals finally parted ways with Marvin Lewis. A factoid that is often cited of late is that all five of the men ahead of him on that list, Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, and Pete Carroll, have something Garrett has not come close to: At least one Super Bowl win. They have achieved the ultimate superlative in the NFL, while Garrett, despite three playoff teams in eight full seasons, is still basically the definition of mediocrity. After all, 37.5% of teams make the playoffs every year, and Garrett has gotten his team to the playoffs in exactly 37.5% of the seasons under his leadership. That seems to be exactly what you would expect from a truly average coach if he gets enough time in the job. Add in the fact that head coaches who don’t win a Super Bowl by the stage of their career that Garrett has reached almost never do later, and there is still a lot of pressure on him to prove himself.
This is why some remain puzzled and even a bit angry that Jerry Jones has continued to employ Garrett. Jones is not about owning an average franchise. The Dallas Cowboys have been the flagship franchise of the NFL for decades now, even with the long stretch of futility following the dynasty of the early 1990s. They remain the biggest TV draw, are the most valuable sports franchise on the face of the planet, and Jones himself is one of the most influential (and at times resented) owners in the league. And while he is not exactly averse to making money, he is at least as committed to winning as any owner.
But Jones has a truly unique role, which plays a large role in why he has such faith in a coach who has, so far, not delivered playoff success. He is the only one who serves as his own general manager, which makes his relationship with Garrett as much a partnership as employer/employee. Jones sits in on far more meetings than other owner and makes many more decisions directly affecting day-to-day operations. He genuinely relies on Garrett, along with his son Stephen as executive vice president and personnel guru Will McClay, to reach collaborative decisions. And he understands them better than any of the other owners out there, no matter how strange or confusing some of his public pronouncements are.
That kind of daily involvement with his head coach can engender a lot of trust. It also seems clear that Garrett is a true master of knowing how to deal with Jones. He has shattered the meme of being a yes-man or puppet for Jones. The team has been molded by him, as evidenced by how players and other staff members, including Jerry, often seem to directly quote him in public. And the remarkable rebound this season was heavily influenced by his leadership, as Todd Archer reported at ESPN.
Coach Jason Garrett knew what message he had to get across to his young team.
“Just a real deep understanding of what’s required to win a game in the NFL,” Garrett said. “The play-in, play-out effort and execution and focus and concentration and mental intensity through success and through adversity. We had been inconsistent in the early part of the year, and we have a lot of young players that had not played very much. We’d done some good things, but were not able to sustain it week to week in a game.”
In many ways, Garrett’s job was on the line at the midway point of the season, even as owner and general manager Jerry Jones said he would not make an in-season change at head coach.
All of the signs then were pointing to Garrett having the same fate as the coaches fired on Monday.
Of course, Garrett was busy getting ready for the Seahawks, not joining the eight head coaches that are now out of a job.
It is worth noting that a lot of general managers were retained when those coaches were let go. That seems a bit puzzling, since many of the failures that led to coaches getting their walking papers were as much due to some atrocious roster-building as anything. This is where the Jones/Garrett relationship has a different dynamic. Jones is where the buck stops on personnel issues, and he takes full responsibility for that. It is an underappreciated attribute. When the team fails, Jones looks to fix the roster, rather than scapegoating his head coach. It is a level of insight most owners lack.
Just making the postseason is not what Jones needs Garrett to do, of course. No matter how much respect the owner has for his coach, playoff wins need to start happening if this partnership is going to continue. This regular season has bought some time and wiggle room, especially with one of the youngest and perhaps most talent-laden rosters in the league. Jones can take deserved pride in what the Cowboys have done with the draft, free agency, and trades in recent years. He has given Garrett what he believes is an excellent set of tools. Now Garrett has to show he is capable of building a winner using them.
The coach will almost certainly get at least one more chance no matter how things turn out in the next month. But just like in week 16 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it is time to stop messing around and get it done on the field. Beating the Seahawks in their own house would say something about Dallas, and the guy in charge on the sidelines. Going deeper would just raise the volume.
One-and-done would say something, too. This is a test of both the coach and the owner who has put so much faith in him.