In the NFL, there are a few head coaching jobs that are caught in a bright spotlight, no matter what the record of the team. A handful of teams, mostly in large media markets, offer the man who takes the top job tremendous opportunity, but also relentless scrutiny.
Jason Garrett is entering his second full season as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. It feels like he has been in the job longer. This is partly because of the half-season "tryout" he had when Wade Phillips was terminated, but also because he has such a long history, going back to his days as Troy Aikman's backup.
With the long, storied tradition, the national fan base (they are one of the teams that sometimes appear to have more fans at away games than the home team), and the one man media storm that owns and manages the team, Jerry Jones, Garrett has every move analyzed and each utterance parsed.
That makes for an uphill battle for a relatively young coach. After the 8-8 campaign in 2011, he is still trying to establish himself as a success. But one thing he has accomplished very well: The Dallas Cowboys are now clearly and unequivocally his football team.
This is no small matter when your paycheck is signed by Jerry Jones. There has long been a belief that Jones wants a puppet to call the plays on Sunday while the owner/GM sits in his box and runs everything else. This belief was born after Barry Switzer replaced Jimmy Johnson as head coach. During that time, Jones basically said that anyone could win the Super Bowl with the talent on the team - and subsequent events largely proved his case. The issue was always how that talent came to be, with Jones and Johnson seeing each other's contributions a little differently.
After Switzer, who clearly deferred to Jones much more than Johnson did, the head coaches Jones hired, with one exception, were also deferential types who would tend to go along with what the boss wanted. That exception, of course, was Bill Parcells, but while he was more in charge than Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, or Wade Phillips were, he had a somewhat detached nature about him. And there always a little distance between Parcells and Jones, which seemed most evident in the acquisition of Terrell Owens, who Parcells never referred to by name.
Garrett is the first coach since Johnson to have the level of control over the team that he does. More importantly, he may be the only coach Jones has ever felt completely comfortable about giving that much control. Whether it is age, experience, the presence and growing influence of Stephen Jones, or the long personal relationship with Garrett, Jones has ceded more power, and done it more willingly, than with any other coach in his employ.
Maybe it has something to do with that Ivy League education. The Princeton graduate with the red hair comes across as a good bit more cerebral than the stereotypical football coach. More to the point, he has presented a long range vision for the team that is not incompatible with the desire to have a winner now.
Garrett seems to focus his efforts around the type of personnel he brings to the team. Whether it is through drafting or signing free agents, he and the rest of his staff are focused on players with the right approach to the game. They want talent, of course, but not at the cost of disruption or likely difficulties. Above all, Garrett wants players who are absolutely committed to constant work and effort to improve themselves. The team has undergone a lot of churn since the beginning of Garrett's tenure, and that is also a feature of his approach. The team is always looking for an upgrade, especially at the bottom of the roster. If someone better shows up, any player is at risk of being replaced. The only way to be safe on the roster is just to be clearly better than anyone else the team brings in.
This is a departure from previous coaching approaches, particularly the one immediately before Garrett. Under Phillips, aging veterans were often kept on the roster a season or even two beyond their usefulness to the team. Under Garrett, it is perform now or clear out your locker. He has largely cleaned house on both sides of the line. In 2011, it was the offense that was redone, with the risky move to replace much of the aging offensive line with young rookies (the team used three of its seven draft picks on the O-line). In 2012, it is the defense undergoing major (and seemingly quite successful) renovation.
The only reasons that it was a two year undertaking were the limits of available draft picks and the salary cap. If he had been able, Garrett would like to have done in one season what he has done in two. Since that was unfeasible, he brought in a new defensive coordinator in Rob Ryan and hoped he could patch over things with the defense for a year. That it did not work out is just more testimony to the fact that players like Keith Brooking, Bradie James, Terence Newman, Alan Ball, Frank Walker and Abe Elam were just not up to the demands of the NFL last year.
Garrett now has a team composed largely of his choices. He now has a coaching staff that is the same. And his personality, the calm, calculating , and unruffled demeanor he exhibits with the media, is permeating everything as well. Terms like "the process", "putting one good day on top of another", and "right kind of guy" started with him, but now are repeated by everyone, including the owner himself. There is no braggadocio with the team, but a quiet determination to prove itself on the field. And there seems to be an equally quiet belief in themselves growing in the players. They are taking nothing for granted, but they do expect the work they have been doing to start to pay off this year, not in later seasons. Garrett brings in people that are like him, and they tend to get more like him as they spend time under his influence.
The issue now is for him to put it all together and take this team to some playoff success. Whether that happens this year or not is going to depend on how well the personnel gathered the past couple of offseasons perform. Garrett shows a belief that the right players are more important than scheme or play-calling, so the final record this year will be an indication of how well he has done.
And there is no evidence that this is a make or break year for Garrett. His seat is not hot (although the same may not be true for an assistant coach or two). I think he has at least one more year before he would have to justify his retention, and even incremental improvement would make him secure. There is no "flash in the pan" about him. He would far rather build slowly and be able to stay at a high level than to get quickly to the top and then have it all fade away. In that, he is more aiming for a Tom Landry mode of operation than a Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells model. Whether he can accomplish it remains to be seen.
But it won't be because of anyone else. If he makes it to the promised land of the NFL, otherwise known as the Super Bowl, he will make it because of his decisions and leadership. The Dallas Cowboys are now Jason Garrett's team.