Friday, August 09, 2013

Oxnard Blog: On Parcells, Garrett, And Keepin It Real

One of the more enjoyable aspects of Hall of Fame weekend was reflecting on the coaching ability and traits of Bill Parcells.  The Hall of Fame coach did a nice job of talking about his career and thanking people, but he couldn't help but drop in a few of his philosophies of coaching that I so respected.

And it is clear, by the way, that when it comes to Parcells, and the way he believed in the sport, that it all could be traced back to his time at Army (when his friendship with Bob Knight began) and no doubt a time in his life when he saw the way a proper leadership structure can make all of the difference in the world.  Parcells knew that a team had to become a team to figure out a way to navigate through the troubled waters that a football season would present.  There will be losses, and mistakes, and injuries, and yes, occasionally a very serious off-the-field matter that would test the continuity and resolve of every member of the organization.  If they were all together and on the same agenda, they could get through it.

But, if they were on 5 different pages (See: the 2008 Cowboys) then they would take something great and turn it into something you take to the curb so that the garbage man will take it away when he makes his rounds.

In many ways, so much of Parcells' message on Saturday night in Canton was built around unity, leadership, and team.  I think perhaps the one that hit home the most was a story he told near the end of his speech about a moment he had with Giants' owner Wellington Mara moments after Parcells was first named the head coach decades ago.  Mara walked him over to a plaque on the wall in the Giants' locker-room and showed him the following inscription.

"Losers assemble in little groups and complain.  Winners assemble as a team and find ways to win." - Emlen Tunnell

There are certainly fun little sayings that we all email to each-other and then forget about, but there are times where a quote seems to properly capture what a person is all about.  In this case, I feel that Parcells lived this quote as a coach and installed it on the hard drive of any player who would listen.  I think the single most important trait of a football team that achieves greatness can be found on that plaque.  And that is why I have hope for the Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys.

We don't know what goes on behind closed doors as fans or media.  We can guess and piece together anecdotal evidence of things operating smoothly or not.  But, it was clear to me that when Parcells left the Cowboys, there was a real climate change in the room.

Now, many players enjoyed the heck out of this change. To them, the freedom of not being afraid that the principal was stalking the hallways was labeled as "treats us like men" as they described Wade Phillips to the media.  They were tired of being treated like schoolboys and being told how to behave and to cut that hair and to get back in line.

But, now, we are allowed to conduct ourselves as we please and say what we want.  We can wear our uniform as we wish and workout back home if we want and even take a little vacation during the bye week (Cabo!).  Isn't it great that we are allowed to make our own decisions?  Why did Parcells treat us like we were in high school?

Eventually, having a head coach who did not demand respect, but instead asked politely for it began to cause alternate agendas.  It even started on the coaching staff where assistants, hired before Phillips in some cases, would not fully protect the authority of the head coach and at times either undermine him or stand down when someone else would.  The pyramid of authority and chain of command that was so thoroughly in place from 2003 to 2006 had all but disappeared when we heard of a legendary and divisive spat in the offense to wear Terrell Owens and company took on Jason Garrett and Tony Romo, even suggesting that Romo played favorites with his pal, Jason Witten, at the expense of getting Owens and his fellow receivers the ball.

By the way, this sort of thing springs up anywhere football is played.  The difference between a Parcells staff and a Jerry Jones staff is that Parcells staff would have weeded that out of the room about a nanosecond after it presented itself.  Instead, with players unhappy, the coaching staff fractured, leading the team to collapse, and ultimately they quit on several occasions in that '08 season and I look back and wonder how that would have been handled differently if they simply assembled as a team and found a way.

Instead, we got "Keepin' It Real Thursdays" in the next few years where receivers would get in their positional meetings and speak their minds about how they aren't being used properly.  Good gracious.  They actually gave those who thought they knew more than the head coach or offensive coordinator a forum to speak?  I doubt this happened much at West Point.

Losers assemble in little groups and complain. 

I don't know what kind of coach Ray Sherman is these days (WR Coach in St Louis), but when he was in Dallas, he helped create an environment that harbored complaining and separate agendas rather than uniting behind his superior.  He was painted as a player's coach, which is something that sounds good in print but seldom plays well when a head coach loses his team because his assistants are trying to set themselves up for their job promotion.

It is possible that Sherman thought he could design an offense better than Jason Garrett.  And maybe he was right, but as it was happening, the offense would undermine Romo to their sources and we are still trying to pick up the pieces of Romo's assassinated character despite his solid play throughout his career.  The factions created on this team when Phillips had no idea how to lead as a head coach were severe and difficult to heal.

But, I believe Jason Garrett is making big progress in this department.

Now, again, we don't know exactly what goes on behind closed doors, but one thing I have seen in the last 3 seasons is a feeling that the Jason Garrett Cowboys swing closer to the Parcells' days than the Phillips days with regards to structure, unity, and weeding out divisive forces that tend to cause issues in the name of personal agendas.  Now, certainly, Rob Ryan's bravado did not help Garrett's unified message and it is clear that Jerry Jones does not realize that it all starts with making sure the assistants that work here are working with loyalty to the head coach as their top priority.

But, expecting Jerry Jones to understand what Tunnell was saying is sadly, an unreasonable goal.

Does Garrett understand it, and more importantly desire that?  I believe he absolutely does.

Hopefully, you had a chance to see him address the team from a few weeks back (if not, watch it here) or you had the opportunity to hear him on our radio show on Wednesday (if not, the audio is here).  In both cases, you can see him without his normal "press conference mode" setting on that frustrates so many.

He is a football man from a football family.  His dad was a football coach when Jason was born.  He understands what loyalty and unity can do to maximize a team's performance.  He knows when adversity hits, it can go two ways and a team that is unified has a better chance not to implode under its own pressure.

Now, unlike Bill Parcells, Garrett did not name his entire staff, nor does he have the credibility of winning Super Bowls that allowed the old coach to act in any sort of Darth Vader way he wanted and get away with it.  He still has a boss that doesn't seem to acknowledge that a military chain of command that ends with the head coach is a proven way to win in this league, rather than the meddling owner model that seems to usually end in unintentional comedy.

But, I believe the program is being built. I loved what I saw from the head coach in 2012 when great adversity hit the team and they played some of their most inspired ball as they were going through the Josh Brent/Jerry Brown tragedy.  They also never quit when injury after injury hurt the team's quality, rather we started to see the "next man up" mentality that is adapted by the good teams in the NFL.

Parcells mentioned in his Hall of Fame speech that on several occasions, his career almost ended before it started because of a losing streak.  He thought he was one loss from being fired and it took a great escape or we would never know his story or his life lessons.

Now, many of you will read this and remind me that Parcells didn't set the world on fire in Dallas, and that Wade actually was the coach to get an elusive playoff win - not the Big Tuna.  And that would be true, and short sighted.

The best leaders on today's Dallas Cowboys were all trained as young players by Parcells back in their formative years.  Romo, Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Miles Austin all were Parcells' guys with his memories and quotes in their heads.  Unfortunately, the legacy that Wade left is never talked about and Wade's guys are pretty much all gone already.

Nobody will make the case that Garrett has it all figured out.  He makes mistakes and has issues like any coach in the league.  He also is at a place in his career where it can go either way.  He is 21-19 and if he doesn't hit the gas soon, Jerry will get the itch again to find his next headline grabbing hire.

But those traits that made Parcells great are traits that Garrett values.  He preaches and promotes unity and coming together as a team and leaving your personal gripes in the trash.  And for these reasons - among others (including his ability to assemble young promising talent), I believe he still has a real chance to be considered a strong head coach in the next 24-36 months.

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