Today, I am thankful for football. We are on the cusp of what was one of the most fragile NFL seasons in decades. A mere two months ago, in the midst of the lockout, the very thought of seeing my Dallas Cowboys play seemed like wishful thinking, likely to be lost in an increasingly murky pit of dollars and cents. Yet here we stand today, a mere twenty-four hours before the first kickoff of the 2011 NFL season. With football once again a certainty, I am forced to break from my celebration and face an uncomfortable reality – Jason Garrett is the coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
Many of the Cowboys faithful like Garrett. He certainly has a surface-level appeal. He was Troy Aikman’s backup. He played during the Cowboys dynasty years. He talks the talk with his oft-repeated quips espousing the “The Cowboy Way” and the “Right Kind of Guy.” He even sprinkles in those little hard-nosed coach trademarks like punishing players for dress code violations.
Still, from the moment Wade Phillips’ firing proved inevitable, I feared that Jerry Jones would overlook the other quality coaches in the open market and promote someone from within, who is without. Here are five reasons that Jason Garrett is the Wrong Kind of Guy to be the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach.
What has frustrated Cowboys fans over the past three years more than the team’s ineptitude in and of itself, is the feeling that most of the pieces needed to succeed are in place. There are still questions about Tony Romo, but he has at least proven himself a capable, above average quarterback. The Cowboys have had a receiving corps that other teams would kill for. The team has consistently had one of the most stacked backfields in the league. Dallas’ secondary has long been suspect, but the Boys have also been able to boast a talented linebacking corps and some punishing bodies on the defensive line. What’s more, the Cowboys have the best all-around tight end in the NFL in Jason Witten, plus one of the best LBs in the league in DeMarcus Ware. I never bought into the chatter that the Cowboys had the most talented roster in the NFL, but undeniably, there have been enough tools available to make Dallas a consistent contender. And there still are.
That said, the Wade Phillips regime, including Jason Garrett and his underachieving offense, absolutely squandered this talent through a combination of lack of discipline and occasionally baffling playcalls. During last season’s abysmal 6-10 outing, it became abundantly clear that it was time to wipe the slate clean. Dallas needed, and still needs, to welcome a new set of coaches who can bring in a better culture and use this group to their full potential. Before long, it will be too late and the Cowboys will have to rebuild the major pieces of the roster from scratch.
In spite of this ticking clock Jerry Jones put Jason Garrett, a first-time head coach, at the helm this year. Garrett’s never handled the duties of a head coach before. He’s never built a system from the ground up, never had to supervise both sides of the ball, never had to have the entire responsibility for the team fall on his shoulders. Succeeding as a head coach in the NFL is one of the most challenging tasks imaginable, and Garrett is likely to hit a few missteps along the way. His eight games last season were a nice warm up, but there is simply not enough time for a HC who has to learn the ropes, and this group of players does not have the time to wait.
It’s also the wrong time to gamble on an unproven guy. With accomplished coaches like Bill Cowher, among others, riding the coaching carousel, Jason Garrett is a gamble with surer bets available. There is simply too much at stake. These are prime years for guys like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware, with the downward slope in sight. There is simply too much talent at stake to risk it on a man who has never led a team before.
It’s a particularly risky bet given…
Jason Garrett won this job on the supposed strength of his performance as interim head coach during the final eight games of the 2010 NFL season. More than his win-loss record, a passable 5-3, something else persuaded Jerry Jones to promote him. Garrett seemed able to turn a team that had all but given up in the first half of the season into one that played with more passion and focus, down the stretch. Both the record and the turnaround, however, are pretty suspect when placed in the proper context.
The 2010 Dallas Cowboys threw in the towel on last season pretty quickly. It became clear fairly early that the ‘Boys would not be contending for a playoff spot, and that Wade Phillips was a lame duck. In other words, the team had nothing to play for, and it showed. Lackadaisical effort, giving up on plays, and general apathy pervaded the team. I have to admit, it had a similar apathy -inducing effect on me as a fan. I would still watch every game, but week after week seeing of a disinterested team leads to a disinterested viewer. The team had hit rock bottom.
Suddenly, Wade Phillips is gone. Sure, Jason Garret got the nod from Jerry, but more importantly, the players received an official confirmation that they’re all auditioning for next year. All of a sudden, there’s an air of change and transition that’s able to get some spark out of the team. They finally have something to play for. The team responded, with more intensity, if not more skill, remaining competitive over the last eight games of the season.
Now maybe some measure of this up-tempo response came from players who liked Garrett and played for his job. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that you could made damn near any assistant the interim coach and you would have seen the same sort of reaction from the team. It was the atmosphere of change and a clean break as well as the guys realizing they were suddenly being evaluated for the big sweep next year that turned things around, not Garrett in and of himself that prompted the turnaround. The coaching change was the jolt the team needed, not the specific new coach who came in. To boot, they were able to improve so much because they had fallen so far in the first half of the year.
To the point, for all the excitement and bluster about how the Cowboys finished the season, they went 5-3 down the stretch. That’s certainly not bad, and you can point to good showings and close losses against New Orleans and Arizona and Philly. But by that same token, you can also point to near misses against Washington, Indy, and again, Philly. The end result is pretty much the same team we’ve had the last few years – a pretty good, but not great one.
If the team had played this way the entire season, we would have seen the same sort of team that Cowboys fans have seen repeatedly during the Wade Phillips era. It’s a team that is talented but inconsistent, that stands up to big time opponents but has trouble closing the deal. It’s a team that’s right on the edge of playoff contention, but nowhere near reliable enough to warrant great expectations.
That is to say, Jason Garrett did not work any miracles. He did not prompt this team to play up to their potential, merely the slightly above average pace they’ve kept in recent years. I expect he will field a decent team as head coach. Dallas will struggle, but they’ll have a shot until the end of the season. Unfortunately, that’s just the same old same old. Garrett managed to get the Cowboys back to where they were, and maybe that’s worth something, but he’s shown nothing to me that says he can get them any further than the regime he was half responsible for over the last four years.
That “same old, same old” mentality came through in…
The 2009 NFL Draft was a trying time to be a Cowboys fan. After a year where a porous offensive line led to an untimely injury to Romo and the secondary had been torched time and time again, the areas of need were clear. Despite these pressing concerns, the Cowboys entered the draft short-handed.
The Cowboys had traded their first round pick, as part of a king’s ransom. for the suspect receiver Roy Williams. They did not address the offensive line until the third round, where they picked small-school tackle Robert Brewster with a plan to shift him to guard. Then, when it came to the secondary, Jerry and Wade didn’t even bother until the 5th round, where they took DeAngelo Smith with their sixth pick in the draft. The sixth round is when you’re hunting for special teamers and works-in-progress, not future fixtures on the team.
History does not look fondly on the Cowboys 2009 Draft. Roy Williams is gone after a grossly underachieving spell with the team. Dallas cut Robert Brewster before the start of business this year, with him having made meager, if any, contributions to the Cowboys’ line. DeAngelo Smith didn’t even make it out of camp the year he was drafted. The point of this history lesson is a simple one – the Cowboys have needed help on the offensive line and in the secondary for at least three drafts now, and Dallas’ war room has done little to address them.
Supposedly, the 2011 Draft was Jason Garrett’s show to run. One of the biggest concerns among the diehards is finding a coach who can stand up to Jerry Jones, particularly with respect to personnel moves. Garrett was purportedly in control on draft day. He certainly had Jerry in his ear, but the word is that JG, to the extent possible in a team with this owner, was calling the shots. In Garrett’s inaugural draft we ended up with what is, at best, a mixed bag.
Again, coming into this draft, the O-Line badly needed an overhaul. That’s been clear since the Arizona game in 2008 when the offensive line managed to allow both Tony Romo and Matt McBriar to be injured in the same game. It was just as clear in the 2010 playoffs when Minnesota’s D manhandled the Cowboys front. It was just as clear this year when the line did their best impression of turnstiles and let the Giants defense through to thwomp Romo yet again.
This is the one area where Garrett proved his worth. His first pick in the draft was his best – USC tackle Tyron Smith. Garrett selected someone who will hopefully be a fixture for the future on the offensive line and who could give the beleaguered position group a shot in the arm. He followed this up by picking guard David Arkin in the fourth round. Arkin was a solid pick. You can find serviceable guard talent in the 4th round, and there’s something the Cowboys just love about four-year starters from small schools, especially on the line. At least Dallas was drafting at a position of need. Garrett even added lineman Bill Nagy in the 7th round for good measure. If there’s one thing to be said for Garrett’s draft, it’s that he paid attention to the line.
Unfortunately, that’s where the compliments end. With their second pick in the draft, the Cowboys selected LB Bruce Carter, who was coming off a torn-ACL. Carter comes from Jerry Jones’ good buddy Butch Davis’ program in North Carolina. At a time when the Cowboys badly needed help in the secondary, and when Brandon Harris of Miami and Rahim Moore of UCLA were still available, Garrett went with another injury-prone linebacker.
How many injury-prone LBs has Dallas drafted in the past few years? And what success they’ve had! As though the fact that Carter is coming off of an injury weren’t enough, he’s on record espousing his preference for McDonalds as his dinner of choice. Nothing shows maturity and conditioning in a linebacker more than statements like, “Almost every day. I usually get three double cheeseburgers, medium fries, large tea and a six-piece McNuggets. I don’t think eating healthy as far as eating salads and that stuff really works for me.”
And more unfortunate still, the worst was yet to come. In the third round, Garrett selected Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray. Now don’t get me wrong. Despite my distaste for OU, Murray looks to be a quality back without any of the puzzling question marks that come with Bruce Carter. There’s just one big problem – running back is the position where the Cowboys have the absolute least need.
At the time Garrett drafted Murray, the Cowboys had no fewer than three solid options at running back. Even if Garrett had already decided that Marion Barber was not long for this team, there is not a single reason to worry about a backfield of Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
I cannot comprehend why Garrett has it out for Tashard Choice, but even if JG had no in him, Dallas needed help at approximately a million other positions on this team before they needed another running back. This need includes: another guard, another safety, another corner, another d-lineman. Hell, Garrett could have picked up players at all of those positions twice-over before the team reasonably ought to have been on the market for another RB.
Even worse, the word coming out of the second day of the draft was that the team may have been trying to trade up to take Mark Ingram in the first round. I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now. Running back is one of the most easily filled, plug-and-play positions in football. You never, never, spend money or waste draft picks on a running back unless you’re just positive that you’re getting Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson. Almost every runner is up and down and loses tire on their treads pretty quickly. The amount of production you get out of a “great” RB versus a “servicable” RB is incredibly small compared to the talent gap between other positions.
Garrett proved this principle himself when undrafted free agent RB Phillip Tanner played his way onto the team with a stellar performance in the preseason. This loaded the Cowboys up with four running backs on the 53-man roster. Of all the picks in the draft, the Murray pick is the most bewildering. It not only goes against the principle of drafting for need, but goes against the principle of how to maximize the value of your draft capital.
What’s more, as in 2009, the Cowboys did not touch the secondary until the fifth round with the selection of CB Josh Thomas out of Buffalo. In a year where the entire defense, not just the secondary, had been suspect, Thomas was one of only two draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. He found himself cut in the move to the 53-man roster, meaning that the 2011 draft made only contribution to an ailing defense that ranked 23rd in the league for total defense last year – one injury-prone rookie linebacker. There were so many needs going into the 2011 Draft, and Jason Garrett barely addressed any of them outside of the offensive line.
And that problem was exacerbated by…
Despite the fact that the draft did not do much to help the Cowboys in their big areas of need, Garrett & Co. were not especially active in free agency or the trade market to help improve the roster. Part of that stems from the fact that they had a fair number of free agents on the line they needed to sign at home: Doug Free, Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher, and Kyle Kosier, among others. Part of that stems from a hope that new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and his scheming will bolster the defense. Part of that stems from the fact that there is a great deal of dead money of this team.
There was certainly a healthy dose of trimming the fat this year. Since July, the Cowboys have cut notable vets and contributors like Roy Williams, Marion Barber, Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, and Montrae Holland. They also restructured the contracts of DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin. While I applauded many of these moves, they beg the question – why didn’t we cut bait with more of these guys in the uncapped 2010 season?
One of the excuses for why the Cowboys have not been more active in free agency – failing to land big guys like Nnamdi Asomugha who signed with the Eagles and losing guys like Stephen Bowen to the Redskins, is that the Cowboys are scraping against the salary cap. The salary cap, mind you, is likely to remain the same for at least the next few years until the next big television contract. Garrett certainly had a say in prior years, and walked into this year with little maneuvering whatsoever to add depth and talent to the team.
He’s also showed questionable management of the talent currently on the team. The Cowboys have had as many as five kickers on the roster through training camp. After David Buehler’s terribly inaccurate placekicking last season, the Cowboys desperately needed to find another solution. Unfortunately, despite the crowd of kickers in camp, that solution never materialized. The ‘Boys are carrying both Buehler and rookie Dan Bailey into the regular season. The likely arrangement is that Buehler will cover kickoffs and Bailey will cover placekicking. With five men auditioning, Garrett should have been able to find a reliable leg for the team. Instead, there are a pair of kickers taking up an extra roster spot that could help give more depth at a position like inside linebacker.
The Cowboys, of course, have only three ILBs on their final 53-man roster. There’s reliable stalwart Bradie James, the young Sean Lee, and the aging, fading, fired up veteran Keith Brooking. The phantom fourth member of this group is the aforementioned injured rookie Bruce Carter. If all three of these guys can stay healthy, the Cowboys should be alright, but that’s a very big if. Heaven forbid James or Lee have nagging injuries and Brooking has to play more ball. At the ripe old football age of thirty-five, does he still have what it takes physically to step in for more snaps? What is unproven Bruce Carter has to step in to carry the load? Maybe Garrett is putting his trust in Rob Ryan’s defensive mind to use the line or the secondary creatively in a jam, but he’s riding mighty thin at one of the most important positions on the defense.
Speaking of thin, it seems you cannot open the sports page each day without hearing that the Cowboys have jettisoned another offensive lineman. “The Youglies” as they have been dubbed (as in Young and Ugly) are taking over the O-Line. Only Kyle Kosier and Doug Free remain from last year’s line. Replacing the departed are rookies Tyron Smith and Bill Nagy, as well as youngin’ Phil Costa.
The offensive line has certainly needed an overhaul for ages, but this youth movement seems like too much too fast. In the past two months, the Cowboys have released the following lineman: starters Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, and Andre Gurode, as well as backups Montrae Holland and Sam Young. The signing of former Redskins guard Derrick Dockery helps to ease the fears a little, but even he needs to learn the system in time for him to step in where necessary. Maybe Garrett and the Cowboys’ miracle-worker O-line coach Hudson Houck see enough in these Younglies to have them protecting Tony Romo. I cannot help but worry. All the offensive weapons that Garrett’s been stockpiling can only go so far if his quarterback barely has any time to move the ball.
Which leads me to…
1. His Offense
After the Cowboys traded Patrick Crayton to the San Diego Chargers, the capable receiver opened up about his time in Dallas. Crayton said that Jason Garrett was completely in charge of the offensive and that Wade Phillips had little if anything to do with it. Given Garrett’s status as the heir to the throne and Wade’s defensive focus, there’s little reason to doubt this assessment. That means that the Cowboys offensive struggles over the last few years, particularly in terms of playcalling, can be placed squarely on Jason Garrett’s shoulders.
To wit, it was not just the defense that stunk up the joint last season. The offense that putted and sputtered its way through the first half of 2010 can be directly attributed to Garrett. From complaints of an inability to strike a proper balance between the pass and the run, failure to stretch the field vertically, and neglecting to take advantage of the talented players in the Cowboys backfield, Garrett was dodging criticism of his offense all last year.
While JG’s guys rarely failed to put a few points on the board, they simply could not keep pace with the opposition, especially when it counted the most. When it came to punching it in on the goal line, capitalizing on favorable field position, or worst of all, having to play from behind in crunch time, the offense just could not get it done. While the players certainly underachieved, a great deal of that lack of success can be attributed to Garrett and his playbook.
As my friend Todd put it, “If I see another screen or swing pass for a zero-to-three yard gain, I’m going to throw up.” The imagination seems to have escaped from Jason Garrett’s play calling. The Cowboys found themselves in so many 3rd and long situations last year not just because of penalties or good defense, but because more times than I can count, the first two plays were “run up the gut” or “screen to the right” with little to show for either. Where is the spark and fire and creativity that made Jerry have to lockdown Garrett from potential suitors after his first year as offensive coordinator?
Garrett’s offense has underachieved relative to its talent each year after that first promising 13-3 season. For all the opening bluster and fireworks in that initial promising year, the offense has been inconsistent at best since. With the opposition scoring big points, it’s easy to look at Wade Phillips’ defense as the culprits, but the big blunders during Wade’s regime tell a more even story.
In Dallas’ big divisional playoff loss to Minnesota, the offense could only manage a pitiful three points. In the debacle that was the Cowboys’ 2008 season finale, the Eagles lit up the Dallas D to the tune of 44 points, but Garrett’s offense could only manage six points in response. Even in JG’s big first year, the Cowboys closed out the regular season losing two of their last three. Those two losses came against weakened division rivals, who managed to hold Garrett’s “explosive” offense to six points in each outing.
This isn’t a story of a porous defense that the offense cannot compensate for. It’s a story of big missteps on both sides of the ball. Blame Wade Phillips all you want for his defense giving up and falling down, but Jason Garrett’s offense has been nothing to crow about since 2007.
I sincerely hope that I am wrong about all of this. My fondest wish would be for Jason Garrett to prove me hopelessly misguided and lead the Cowboys to a new golden age of continued contention and success. I just have little reason to believe that someone who was a part of the culture of the last four years is going to bring the significant changes the team is going to need.
You can turn over a few coaches, bring in some new blood, and come up with a few new slogans, but at base, Jason Garrett is, in some measure, a continuation of the mediocrity of the Wade Phillips regime. He’s the same touch-and-go offense, the same puzzling personnel moves, the same failure to play up to potential. Promoting Jason Garrett was a half-measure, and the Dallas Cowboys need, and deserve, a bigger change than a half-measure. At the end of the day, Jason Garrett is just the wrong kind of guy for the Dallas Cowboys.