How Jason Garrett Rebuilt The Dallas Cowboys From Scratch


Jason Garrett has improved in the four years since he was named the eighth head coach in the history of the Dallas Cowboys. That’s saying something, because the red head was awful damn good the day he got here. Garrett led efforts to rebuild the roster, change the culture, align the organization’s departments under one core philosophy, and fix the cap – all while never losing relevance in the most competitive league on earth.

Despite inheriting a franchise in disarray, Garrett has coached in only one meaningless game in four years – a 44-17 pummeling of the Washington Redskins. That win closed out 2014 after Dallas had already clinched the division and couldn’t really improve its playoff positioning.

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Every other game during Garrett’s tenue (not counting those as interim) has held playoff implications. Every other game mattered. It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a first-time head coach who took command of the NFL’s most scrutinized franchise amid a 1-7 grease fire.

The roster Garrett inherited was old and top-heavy. The organizational culture was one of entitlement. The front office was lost. The cap was a disaster. Still, Garrett had his teams playing for the division title in Week 17 in each of his first three years, and won a playoff game in his fourth.

To get there, he had to churn the roster – 70 percent of the players he inherited were gone within two years. By Year 4 it was closer to 90 percent. He changed the culture from one of excess and entitlement to one valuing competition and accountability. The result is a roster with depth and relentlessness Dallas hasn’t known since the ’90s.

Garrett had to define the type of player the personnel department would target – the Right Kinda Guy. He had to coordinate the expectations of the coaching staff and the needs of the schemes with the evaluations of the scouts. He had to get both the coaches and the scouts pulling in the same direction. This led to three first-round Pro Bowl draftees in four years – more than any other team in the league.

Garrett also had to fix the front office. The Cowboys do business differently since Garrett added his voice to the decision room. Future Ring of Honor inductee DeMarcus Ware is a Bronco (as much for his production as his ridiculous contract). Jason Hatcher is a Redskin. DeMarco Murray is an Eagle. Dez Bryant is franchise tagged. None of that happens under the old regime, and those players are all dead cap money waiting to happen.

This year the Cowboys haven’t made a single post-June 1 cut, a strategy that pushes dead cap money to the following year. This is a first for Garrett, as during his tenure the Cowboys have allocated cap space to players long after they were gone, due to signing aging superstars to fat extensions they never played out.

Bad contracts for Marion Barber, Jay Ratliff, Roy Williams and Miles Austin, among others, resulted in dead money that made it more difficult for Garrett’s Cowboys to field competitive rosters. Still his teams were relevant. Now here we are in 2015 and the Cowboys have what many believe is a championship-caliber roster and $0 dead cap money allotted for 2016.

All that is remembered from Garrett’s first three years is the disappointments. Three straight Week 17 losses, when a win would have brought home the division crown. The NFL is a bottom-line business, so in some ways that’s fair.

But Jason Garrett was building something special from the moment he strode into Valley Ranch with the title of head coach, and he was building it from scratch. Outside of a franchise quarterback and an owner who believed in him, he had little to work with. Yet he built something that folks who focus solely on wins and losses couldn’t see: A perennial contender.

These Dallas Cowboys could have won the Super Bowl last year. They were tied for the best record in football at the end of the regular season. They were a bizarre bounce or two from advancing to the Championship round. They’d already drubbed the Seahawks in Seattle. There’s no reason to think the same brand of smashmouth football that brought the defending champs to their knees couldn’t have worked against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Patriots.

These Dallas Cowboys could have won the Super Bowl last year. And they’re better this year. That sounds controversial now, but by December you’ll look back and it will have seemed obvious.

Better still, with the way they’ve positioned their cap, the Cowboys have given themselves an opportunity to be even better next year.

Jason Garrett will tell you himself he’s gotten better as a coach. After all, that’s his mantra: Every day, come to work, be your best regardless of circumstances, and get better.

Make no mistake, though: Garrett was a stud the day he arrived.

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