Who is the real Jason Garrett?

Is it too early to say Jason Garrett is on the hot seat? Perhaps. But this will be Garrett’s 7th full season as the Cowboys head coach. In that time he’s gone 58-46. He’s won the division twice. He’s had two playoff wins — both in the wild card round. His first three full seasons as head coach, Garrett went 8-8. Each time, the Cowboys missed out on the playoffs in the last game of the season, each time to a hated NFC East rival, the Giants, the Redskins and the Eagles, respectively. After a magical and unexpected 12-4 season in 2014, Garrett’s Romo-less Cowboys crashed and burned into a torturous 4-12 campaign the very next year. On the other hand, in 2016, he took the Cowboys to a 13-3 record with a 4th round rookie QB at the helm.

It was an outstanding job of head coaching and for that, Garrett was named Coach of the Year. Both the 2014 campaign and the 2016 campaign ended in glorious near-miss playoff games defined by a single play (the Dez (No)Catch and Aaron Rodgers’ incredible 3rd down throw). Great games though they both were, they were losses nonetheless. In other words, there is no easy fix on the enigma of Jason Garrett.

Play to Win

For years, all many fans asked was for Jason Garrett to play winning football — as opposed to try-not-to-lose football. If there’s one thing you can glean from a 40-40 record over five seasons, it’s a coach who’s not a loser, but who hasn’t quite learned how to win either.

Last season, it seemed that Garrett had turned a corner. Two plays in particular, the 4th and 1 call against Washington in the second game of the season and then the 4th and 1 call in overtime against the Eagles, seemed to reveal that at last, Garrett had learned when to go out and win a game. (I might even throw the failed on-side kick in the Redskins game in there. It didn’t work, but it was a good call.) Even benching Cowboys legend Tony Romo for Dak Prescott was a similar, “winner-take-all” call. But then, in the playoffs, faced with the same choice, Garrett played it safe–and a game and a season were lost. Granted, it’s unfair to say that that one call lost the game but that one call was the equivalent of blinking first in a stare down.

There’s Always the Learning Curve

On the other hand, even the best coaches have to learn how to win. Bill Belichick was 36-44 during his five years as the Browns head coach. Think the Browns or the Ravens (who-the-then- Browns-became) wish they had stuck with him? Tom Landry, the greatest coach in Cowboys history and one of the greatest in NFL history, didn’t start winning at all before he’d been on the job for seven years. He didn’t win a championship until year twelve. They don’t make ropes that long any more in the NFL. Jason Garrett is already one of the longer tenured coaches in the league. He doesn’t have twelve years to win a championship.

Jason Garrett is Developing a Culture

But Jerry Jones has learned that only losers switch coaches constantly. Real winners develop a winning culture. If a coach is developing that, then sticking with him is the logical choice. There is no question that Jason Garrett is developing a winning culture and that the players are buying in. This was never more telling, paradoxically, then in the Cowboys 2015 4-12 season. Dismal as that season was, the Cowboys were in every game. Even the Patriots and Packers blow-out losses were closer than the final score would have you believe. The players still bought into Garrett’s message even after 4-12. That’s telling.

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    Rob Corr (Getty Images)

Jason Garrett is Raising the Stakes

Now, after his second twelve win or more record in the last three seasons, Garrett is looking to take the next step, not just for his team, but for himself as a coach. He is in danger of being saddled with the dreaded sobriquet of Coach-Who-Can’t-Win-the-Big-One. And with good reason. Whether or not it’s “fair” right now Garrett’s record in elimination games is 2-5. 2-5. Two of those losses were in the playoffs and came by a total of 8 points, 4 points a game. When it’s that close, one coaching decision either way could be the difference.

Raise, Call or Fold?

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Garrett however, isn’t waiting to make that decision in the game itself. Like any good coach, he’s knows championships are won in the off-season. This should be heartening for the Cowboys faithful. There’s a lot of change in Big D. Far from resting on his laurels (such as they are), Garrett is taking big risks in order to win big. His hope is that each card he’s drawn is building a royal flush. Some of those wild cards include:

The Hand in Hand

  • The vaunted Best Offensive Line in the NFL is being shuffled around a bit, players lost, players added, players moved. No single facet of a football team is more dependent on continuity than the offensive line. Is this dabbling with the defining characteristic of Garrett’s 13-win team wise?
  • Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and J.J. Wilcox were all left to walk during free agency. According to Cowboys Crunchtime’s K. D. Drummond that’s approximately 2600 snaps that Garrett’s allowed to let walk out of the defensive backfield. Garrett’s depending on the combination of a bevy of exciting rookies and a couple of middling veterans to make up that experience vacuum.
  • Jaylon Smith. Despite all the defensive backs taken during the draft, the Cowboys decided not to shore up their linebacking corp. Which means they have a lot of faith that their 2016 second round draft pick, Jaylon Smith, who lost a season to a devastating injury in the last game of his college career, will return to form. He may never become the monster he was in college, but will he be good enough to at least merit that second round pick?
  • The wildest card of allis another one that Garrett drew last year: Dak Prescott. Choosing the NFL’s reigning Rookie of the Year over Tony Romo was a decision that didn’t sit well with a lot of the Cowboys faithful. Prescott can win all the Rookie of the Years, Breakout Stars, etc. that he wants. There’s only one way to justify that decision and everyone knows what that is.

Maverick

jason garrett

What is Jason Garrett thinking? Who takes this many major gambles all at once with a championship, a career and the hopes and dreams of millions of football’s greatest fan-base on the line? Who is this coach who has been known for playing it safe for as long as he’s been in charge, who is now playing high-risk poker with his football team? Jason Garrett, apparently. Is he bluffing? Or did he just pull to an inside straight? JG’s pushing all his chips into the center of the table. The hope is that the culture he’s created over the last seven years is strong enough to sustain the team in the midst of all these gambles, and that the Cowboys are going to be raking in the big jackpot — and not losing their shirts.

Know When to Hold ‘Em

In the two weeks before training camp begins, we’re going to take a look at some of these calculated risks that Garrett and the Cowboys brass are taking, and look at why they might work, and why they might not. They’re big gambles but if you’re going to win the biggest prize, you can’t sit at the table scared. It’s not the cards you’re dealt, after all, it’s how you play them. Any qualified poker player knows that.