ARLINGTON, Texas — About 10 minutes into his tenure as coach of the Dallas Cowboys, Jason Garrett had to step aside to make way for team owner Jerry Jones.
Garrett was asked how much authority he would have over choosing his coaching staff, and Jones wanted to be the one to answer. As Garrett backed away from the microphone and Jones took over, it seemed like business as usual for the Cowboys.
Only, it wasn’t.
“Jason will have the final say on any person that leaves the coaching staff or comes to the coaching staff,” Jones said. “There won’t be a player on this team that Jason does not want on the team. … That’s the way we’re going to operate.”
The overwhelming message from the news conference Thursday introducing Garrett as coach of the Cowboys was that this is the start of a new era, one that could last for a while — maybe not 29 years like Tom Landry’s tenure, but something along those lines.
Garrett is 44 and received a four-year contract. But the real key is how much Jones already trusts and respects Garrett, as indicated by the power he has granted the coach.
It didn’t simply come from Garrett going 5-3 in his half-season audition as interim coach. It was forged over the 12 years he’s spent with the organization as a player or coach. It comes from his dad having been a scout before he ever joined the club, and from having two of his brothers on the staff.
It was evident when Jerry’s wife, Gene, and their daughter, Charlotte Anderson, eagerly hugged and kissed Garrett’s wife, Brill, before this event began, then made way for her to sit between them. Sure, there’s been excitement, optimism and affection every time the Joneses have welcomed folks to the Cowboys family.
The difference is that the Garretts already have been part of the clan.
“There’s no other way to say it,” Jerry Jones said. “All of that has a real impact when we’re making decisions. … We are totally aligned in the vision that I can see in the future, in years to come, with what we might get going here with Jason Garrett as head coach.”
Garrett is the eighth coach in club history and the first who also played for the Cowboys. He was a backup to Troy Aikman in the 1990s, then continued his career in New York and Miami. Jones joked that he was angry with Garrett for two years that he kept playing instead of accepting an offer to get into coaching.
Jones considered him for head coach four years ago. He instead made Garrett the offensive coordinator under Wade Phillips, and then assistant head coach. When Dallas started this season 1-7, Jones fired Phillips and gave Garrett his audition.
He was asked to merely make the Cowboys competitive. He not only compiled a winning record, but his losses were by a total of seven points.
Having seen what Garrett could do, Jones didn’t even interview him. He considered receivers coach Ray Sherman and Miami assistant head coach Todd Bowles, who could still join the staff as defensive coordinator.
“I was fortunate to be on teams here in the ’90s that went to the top of the National Football League,” Garrett said. “I understand how those teams played. I like to refer to it as the Cowboy way.”
Although Garrett was partly to blame for the mess this season had become, he jumped right into the cleanup.
He started the workday earlier, added hitting to midweek practices, required players to jog between drills and cracked down on rules, including ones he added. He had huge digital clocks installed around the locker room to avoid any excuses about being late to a meeting. He was constantly upbeat.
The Cowboys responded, cutting down on turnovers and penalties, and began forcing other teams into mistakes. They won four games with 38-year-old backup quarterback Jon Kitna and another with third-stringer Stephen McGee making his first career start.
The NFL labor uncertainty and possibility of a lost season played into Jones’ decision. Whenever players return — as scheduled this offseason, or whenever a new collective-bargaining agreement is done — they already will be familiar with Garrett. Starting over could slow the turnaround Jones expects.
Dallas has appeared in a record eight Super Bowls and won five. However, the club is in the midst of its longest drought — 15 years since reaching the big game, and counting. Dallas has won just two playoff games since its last championship, in 1996 and 2009.
Jones can’t afford any more bad seasons because he needs to sell seats, suites — and perhaps naming rights — for the team’s $1.2 billion stadium that opened last season.