Jason Garrett, the Hot Seat, and Building a Winner for the Cowboys

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Back-to-back 8-8 campaigns for the Dallas Cowboys, each ending in agony in the final week, have prompted a tired and uninspired chorus from the “experts” in the national media: They say head coach Jason Garrett’s teams have underperformed. They say if he doesn’t win this year he’s sure to taste Jerry’s axe. They say Garrett is now on the dreaded “Hot Seat.”

June 11, 2013; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (center) talks to his team after minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

One expert says it, another repeats it, and before long it’s accepted expert dogma: Jason Garrett is fighting for his job this season. Well, they’re right. Sort of. Strictly speaking, every NFL coach is on the hot seat. Head coaches in the NFL compete for their jobs every week.

Wade Phillips wasn’t on any expert hot seat entering 2010; to the contrary, he was coming off a season in which the Cowboys won the franchise’s first playoff game in more than a decade. It didn’t matter. Phillips was canned by mid-season. The elevated temperature of Garrett’s office furniture is hardly a revelation – chairs are on fire, every day, all across this league.

The notion that at 8-8, Garrett’s teams have underachieved the past two seasons is more such lazy analysis. All the expert bothers to look at is the record, and the painful season-ending loss. But a closer, smarter look at Garrett’s tenure suggests he’s building something special in Dallas. Consider the following:

The 2010 Cowboys were a bad football team: Garrett took the helm of a 1-7 team that was not competitive. It had just been blown out 45-7 in Green Bay. This was Phillips’ fourth year in charge and, in retrospect, it’s clear nearly the entire roster had been “Waded.” A synonym San Diego fans may recognize is “Norved.”

Wade loves his players. He’s their buddy. Wade’s players get comfortable. His players lose their edge. Wade creates a family atmosphere as opposed to a competitive atmosphere. His players stop competing. Need proof? Teams that play hard and compete on every down don’t get beat 45-7 on NBC’s primetime Sunday Night Football.

Garrett’s leadership in the second half made a bad team that had quit into 5-3 winners – and Garrett did it without his franchise quarterback, who was on IR. The 2010 season was a dumpster fire that could have consumed the entire franchise for years to come; Garrett stepped in and calmly, competently put it out. It was a notable feat of coaching awesomeness, and it’s an important, relevant part of Garrett’s resume.

Garrett has kept his teams competitive despite massive rebuilding: Finishing 8-8 and missing the postseason the past two years looks bad, assuming the rosters were playoff-caliber. They weren’t. Garrett had each of these teams playing for a division title in Week 17, and he did it in the middle of a comprehensive roster rebuild. Don’t think the Cowboys were rebuilding in 2011 and 2012? Just two years after Garrett officially took the helm, he has churned nearly 70% of Wade’s roster. That’s not turnover, folks. That’s rebuilding.

A new head coach can’t turn a 1-7 train wreck into a playoff team just by changing the culture and expectations. If he’s got 1-7 talent, he needs new talent. That means rebuilding from the draft up. Garrett’s done well in the draft so far, and he has had his teams competitive every week while rebuilding the roster – a rare accomplishment in the NFL. So rare, in fact, that it has confused the experts into thinking Garrett’s teams have underachieved.