Most people didn’t have an hour to kill to watch Jason Garrett’s recent media day where he was to introduce the Cowboys’ 2013 coaching staff. If you did watch it, I think most of what I’m about to say will ring true. If you didn’t have time to watch it live or the recording later, I’m going to save you an hour of your life. And, I’m going to tell you up front that Cowboys fans should be very, very concerned about the direction of this team. Whatever ray of hope that I had that there is a master plan going on behind the scenes here that will prove all the naysayers wrong, it disappeared last Wednesday.
There have been countless debates about what is wrong with the Dallas Cowboys as they endeavor to return to the glory days of the 1990s. Sitting through this interview session with Jason Garrett, it became crystal clear to me that he is a huge part of the reason this team seems so far from those days and heading in the wrong direction (Jerry Jones would be another huge reason, but that is a subject for another article).
Now, understand, I am pretty much a “glass half full” kind of guy in most situations. I want Jason Garrett to be a good head coach. I’m willing to give him and the Cowboys the benefit of the doubt most times. I want him to be effective – because that means the Cowboys will be relevant again and not the team most other NFL fans love to mock. After listening to Garrett, I am not convinced there is even a glass. If there is, then it may be half full of something really nasty and bitter.
The nearly hour long press conference started with Garrett speaking about each new addition to the staff individually and why they were excited to have them. Innocuous enough, but the general theme of it was, “Hey, these kind of changes happen every year in 31 other NFL cities”. Really? Every team makes tweaks to their coaching staff each year and some make major changes to top level positions, but I would not categorize what the Cowboys are doing – major staff changes and a complete change in defensive philosophy – as “business as usual. Nothing to see here!” The team made wholesale changes to their staff and announced to the world they are returning to the 4-3 defensive scheme. The entire organization seems to think they just need to get back to what worked in the 90s. Anyone else feel like the game hasn’t changed at all in the last 15 years or so? Heck, if it hasn’t then let’s just imitate what worked back then. And, we’ll hire the coaches that were successful too. Where is Don Coryell these days? Vince Lombardi anyone? Oh, well, then maybe Monte Kiffin can recreate his Tampa 2 defense here with completely different talent. Not impossible, of course, but highly, highly unlikely. This is the “hail mary” of coaching hires and has about the same chance of success. My heart hopes it does, but my head gives me a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on why it probably won’t. Damn that right brain…
The other general theme of Garrett’s opening comments was that this is a good football team. Garrett repeatedly refers to where the team ranked statistically last season as proof of how good they are. Well, coach, when they start giving out Lombardi trophies for the team ranked #1 statistically, you could be on to something. Until then, stats don’t matter – wins and losses do. Piling up stats as you’re trying to dig your way out of a hole is not a winning recipe. Garrett adds that the Cowboys were within a touchdown drive at the end of the game against the Redskins from winning the division and hosting a playoff game. While true at one point late in the game, they did end up losing by 10 points, not a touchdown or less. And, it is the second year in a row that they’ve had that chance on the road against a division rival and got their heads handed to them both times. If we finish the 2013 season in Philadelphia this year when the schedule comes out, could it possibly be fate that it’s their turn to send us home empty handed? That last game against the Redskins wasn’t really as close as Garrett would like us to remember. The Cowboys dug themselves another early hole and when the game was on the line, a one-legged RGIII and the Redskins came through while Romo was throwing his third interception of the game. Close doesn’t count in the NFL last I checked and that same scenario in two consecutive years is a very bitter pill to swallow for most Cowboys fans. Garrett sloughs it off as , “we’ve got to work harder” never explaining in any detail what exactly that means. Everyone in the NFL seems to work really hard – both players and coaches. So, the degree of effort doesn’t seem to be the determining factor in success. Doing the ineffective things really well and trying really hard is still…well, really ineffective last I checked.
But, Jason lives for the empty platitude and general statement. In fact, he should run for office. I’ve rarely seen someone outside of politicians that can talk so much without ever saying anything meaningful. In fact, he’s so good about dancing around an issue, I would not be surprised at all to see him join “Dancing With The Stars” at some point. He’ll win based on his interview performances. He gets asked some very direct questions and it is always a meandering response that doesn’t really address the question at all. “We need to get better. Collective effort. Shared values. Open lines of communication. Task at hand. Be the best player today.” Blah. Blah. Blah.
Despite being the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, we have to remember that Jason Garrett is basically learning on the fly – and it shows. As most fans recall, Garrett was in a uniform (holding a clip board for the most part) up until the 2004 season. He stated that he went to “coaching graduate school” those last few years as a player after he decided coaching is what he wanted to do with his life, but let’s compare his actual coaching experience to just the rest of the NFC East for starters. That’s who he has to beat to get into the playoffs. Garrett has been a QB Coach for the Dolphins for two years and then was hired as the Offensive Coordinator for the Cowboys by Jerry Jones in 2007. He ascended to Head Coach in 2010 after Wade Phillips was fired mid season. If you’re looking for more, don’t. That’s it for his coaching experience – at any level. That’s the real-world equivalent of someone in the mail room being moved up to CEO. His qualifications were that he played for the Cowboys, helped them win a critical Thanksgiving Day game when Troy Aikman was injured, one decent year (his first) as an OC, and…well, that’s about it. His total coaching years add up to SEVEN YEARS! The 2013 season will be his 8th year in coaching. Total. At any level. His inexperience doesn’t guarantee failure – there are those that have beaten the odds – but is there anything we’ve seen so far that indicates he’s going to put it all together? Those that have beaten the odds didn’t have an over involved owner hanging around their neck.
Compare Garrett’s coaching resume to his division rivals. Mike Shanahan is the coach of the division champion Washington Redskins and is likely headed for the hall of fame one day. He has been coaching at one level or another since 1975 with 19 years as a head coach and 2 Super Bowl rings. Shanahan coached at both the collegiate and pro level. What about Tom Coughlin of the Giants? He’s been in coaching at one level or another since 1970 and a head coach for 2 different NFL teams since 1995. He also has two Super Bowl rings and was also a head coach at Boston College before joining the NFL. So, what about Chip Kelly? Well, Garrett has been an NFL head coach longer than Kelly since this is Kelly’s first year, but his coaching pedigree goes back to 1990 and he coached the Oregon Ducks to 4 straight winning seasons competing on a national stage the last 4 years. He has demonstrated success as a head coach. Garrett is and will continue to be the equivalent of a coaching teenager in a room full of coaching professors.
Garrett is smart. Or, so people say. But, coaching involves so much more than just that. You have to be a good communicator. You have to be a good teacher. You have to be a good administrator. You have to be a good leader. You also need to be “the man”. The head coach should be the ultimate decision maker. Garrett seems to want to coach by committee, like the NFL was the United Nations. He talks about getting lots of input, shared values, etc. etc. There are a few examples where that approach might work, but the NFL isn’t one of them. Players MUST respect you and every Dallas Cowboy knows that what Jerry thinks is more important than anything Garrett wants.
A good head coach must also be a good situational coach – and that is where Garrett may struggle the most. I’m sure he prepares as well as anyone for each game. He “trusts the process”, a phrase he likes to use, but no one seems to be able to define. But, when things don’t go the way you planned, he seems like one of the worst at adapting on the fly. Just look at his situational play calling at times – runs when a pass would make the most sense, passes when you have a lead and are trying to run time off the clock, and clock management is still a concept that completely mystifies him. He may be book smart, but he doesn’t seem to think well on his feet or under pressure as a coach.
Of course, play calling was a big question at this press conference too. Who will call plays? Lots of dancing on this one. I thought I was watching a broadway production. Garrett was hoping the “we’re still working through the mechanics of all that” vague answer would be enough, but the press to their credit kept going back to it. I’ll boil it down to this. Either he will continue to call plays or it will be Bill Callahan, but based on Garrett’s insistence that it is a “collective process” and Callahan has already been heavily involved, will it really matter? The same ineffective run game – including the same exact opening running play in 95% of the games – the same 7 and 9-step drop pass plays when the line is giving Romo nothing but “look out” blocks – all of that has Callahans influence all over it. Maybe there are things that Callahan would do differently, but when Garrett insists over and over that he and Bill have “shared values”, my optimism wanes.
Lastly, it is painfully obvious to everyone but Jason Garrett that he is nothing more than a figurehead. When asked a direct question about the amount of respect he has from the players in the locker room with such an “involved” owner, Garrett’s answer speaks volumes. He said, “The relationship speaks for itself. (So, why does everyone keep asking the question). The players understand the situation I’m in. (Yes, unfortunately they do). I have respect for them and they have respect for me and I’m excited about our football team”. Anyone see an answer in there? Anyone? By saying the players understand his position, I think he was saying that they understand I am the guy in charge – unless Jerry wants to do something different. That’s a no-win proposition for a head coach. Can you imagine a Ditka, a Lombardi, a Gruden, or a Cowher ever putting up with that? Me neither. Even Jimmy Johnson wouldn’t stand for it and left after back to back Super Bowls. Garrett can dance all he wants and talk about getting better, but he’s already set up to fail.
Unfortunately, we Cowboy fans get to go along for the ride. Let me predict the future for you. The Cowboys will finish the 2013 season no better than 8-8, will miss the playoffs again, and Jason Garrett will be fired. He may ultimately rise from the ashes and be a good coach somewhere, but it won’t be for an owner like Jerry Jones. Let the rebuilding begin again. And again. And again. If we didn’t have the level of talent we do on this team, we would be looking at 4-win seasons year after year. I hope I’m wrong, but the more I see from this entire group, the more convinced I am that will be the outcome. Sad times. Go Cowboys.