IRVING, Texas — Jason Garrett is excited.
Excited about the worst defense in team history not looking any better this preseason.
Excited about three inexperienced offensive linemen trying to protect Tony Romo.
Excited about trusting an unreliable kicker.
In his first full year coaching the Dallas Cowboys, shouldn’t those things make him concerned? Anxious? Frustrated?
Perhaps. But you’ll never hear him say it. Garrett avoids those words because he’s trying to create a positive mindset in and around the organization. Before he’ll even answer a question that begins along the lines of, “Are you concerned about … ” he clarifies that he’s excited about whatever that challenge may be.
His consistent avoidance of those words could be considered a little thing — except, there are no little things for Jason Garrett. Everything he does is with a purpose, every move likely rooted in something he saw, did or thought of over the 21½ years he spent in pro football working his way toward this job.
As a backup quarterback, usually a third-stringer, then as an assistant coach, Garrett studied what to do, and what not to, from the likes of Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, Nick Saban and Wade Phillips, Sean Payton and Jim Fassel, Norv Turner and Chan Gailey. He continued the lessons this summer by spending three days in North Carolina with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and by inviting Ri ck Carlisle, coach of the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks, to spend a day at Cowboys’ training camp.
All along, Garrett filled notebook after notebook with details, helping refine his approach.
“Here’s a guy who sat in the room when Norv Turner came in and presented the game plan on the first day of installation in April and he’d be taking notes not only of the plays that were being installed, but also how Norv presented the material, or how Jimmy Johnson came in the first day and talked to the team, how he talked to the team after a difficult loss, how he talked to the team a fter a win, what’d he do when we got a big divisional game,” said Troy Aikman, Garrett’s close friend and former teammate. “When he got this opportunity, he was prepared.”
Was he ever. Players still rave about the speech Garrett gave when he replaced Phillips in the middle of last season, with Dallas languishing at 1-7 and Romo done for the year with a broken collarbone.
Super Bowl hopes were long gone, replaced by doom and gloom. Yet Garrett began implementing his way of doing things and got immediate results. The Cowboys went on the road and beat the division rival Giants that week. They went 5-3 the rest of the season, averaging nine more points per game than they did during the half-season under Phillips.
Garrett’s culture change began with practices being more physical, with a quicker tempo and with referees on patrol. He had digital clocks installed throughout the building, all synchronized so there was never an excuse for being late to a meeting. He set a dress code for road trips. Even the dynamics of news conferences changed. Instead of sitting behind the table used by predecessors P hillips, Parcells, Dave Campo and Gailey, Garrett had a lectern put in that spot the afternoon he became the interim coach.
This season, with Garrett fully owning the job, there’s a nice, new lectern, and plenty more changes at team headquarters — all the way down to new goalposts on the practice fields being yellow, like they are at stadiums, instead of white.
“I know it’s early, but he’s got greatness written all over him,” said tight end Jason Witten, who played four seasons under Parcells and 3 1/2 for Phillips, with Garrett his offensive coordinator those years. “There’s going to be tough situations and we’ll deal with those when we get to those times. But right now, I think everybody has bought into it.”
Garrett emphasizes “making the most of every day” and “stacking good days together.” He talks about wanting players who show “passion, emotion and enthusiasm.”
Simple as those things sound, the way he speaks to the team is among his best traits. The Princeton grad has a knack for being clear and concise, putting everything in practical terms without making players feel like they’re in kindergarten. That ranges for everything from his breakdown of the weekly game plan to him giving the logistics of getting around the team hotel. His pal Aikman s ays, “It’s hard not to listen to Jason talk about anything and not come away saying, ‘Hey, that makes pretty good sense.”’
“I’ve been with coaches before that get up there and there’s a lot said that doesn’t need to be said,” said linebacker Keith Brooking, who’s heard plenty of coaches over his 14 seasons. “Everything that comes out of his mouth, I think, is extremely important.”
All this begs one question: Will it work?
After all, being the most-organized team in the NFL won’t mean a thing if the Cowboys don’t even make the playoffs. And with all those reasons for concern — er, excitement — the consensus prediction for Dallas this season is 8-8.
The Cowboys have too many players in their prime for Garrett and Jerry Jones to admit this is a transition year, but it clearly is. This season ultimately will be judged not by wins and losses but by how much Garrett is able to implement the ideas in those notebooks.
Don’t let his methodical style and easygoing nature fool you. He can be as demanding, and as ruthless, as Johnson or Parcells, the big difference being the lower decibel level he uses to deliver his “my way or the highway” speech.
Just look at the big roster moves made since the lockout, the departures of receiver Roy Williams, running back Marion Barber and starting offensive linemen Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo. Gurode’s departure last week was especially jolting. A Pro Bowler the last five years, he’d returned from an injury and was with the first team. He started the second preseason game and t raveled to Minnesota for the third game, only to discover he’d lost his job — to an undrafted second-year player who wasn’t even healthy enough to play the final two preseason games.
“Sometimes players get evaluated based on what they’ve done in the past,” Garrett said. “You have to kind of look at them and say ‘OK, let’s take the numbers off these guys and evaluate how they’re playing right now.”’
Only 45, Garrett is positioned to become the first coach to last more than five years under Jones, though it’s unlikely he’ll surpass Tom Landry’s 29-year tenure.
The first former Cowboys player to coach the team, Garrett’s ties to the organization run ever deeper.
His dad, Jim Garrett, was a scout when Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989. Jones brought in Jason and his brother Judd as players, and now has three Garretts on the payroll: Jason, Judd (director of pro scouting) and another brother, John, who is tight ends coach and passing game coordinator.
Jones’ infatuation with Jason Garrett’s coaching ability was best evidenced by his hiring as offensive coordinator in 2007, before Jones had picked a head coach. Garrett had chances to leave to be head coach of Baltimore and Atlanta. His reward for turning them down was becoming the league’s best-paid assistant.
The result is a working relationship between coach and owner that could be the best of the Jones era, with respect and authority flowing both ways.
Garrett already has publicly questioned some things Jones has said. It hasn’t been anything juicy, but it’s noteworthy, because Phillips never did it; in fact, he liked to say that he agreed with whatever the boss said.
Perhaps the best evidence of Garrett’s stature came at the opening news conference of training camp.
Garrett answered the majority of the questions, but that wasn’t the giveaway. Nor was it the fact training camp wasn’t a traveling circus as it was last year.
It was the way they were seated.
A sponsor’s decal on the table in front of them was supposed to make it look like they were in the front of a pickup truck. When Phillips was the coach, Jones always sat on the driver’s side.
This time, Garrett was.
Of course, maybe that was just a little thing.