Roughly 2 years ago, immediately following the end of the 2012 season, I discussed the end of another year in Dallas. That particular season ended with the team losing a game in Washington to a hobbled QB and to self-imposed mistakes in too many critical moments.
The season featured a football team that seemed talented, but could never string things together and find a stride that would separate them from the peloton of mediocrity. It had been the end of the 2nd full season of Jason Garrett, less than a month after the death of Jerry Brown (who was killed in that tragic auto accident with Josh Brent behind the wheel).
I looked at every angle of the team and tried to figure out where the progress was and what we could expect from this team moving forward. I discussed big changes and little ones and philosophical premises that seemed filled with fantasy over reality. This is where the Cowboys are, but way over here (across the room), this is where the Cowboys need to be to be taken seriously. The span seemed massive and the bright signs seemed few.
From Jason Garrett's standpoint, I felt I had seen enough. I did not call for his firing (in print), as the tragedy made things quite odd inside the organization. In some odd way, the week after the accident, Garrett appeared to the public in a way that had been previously hidden. In other words, he appeared to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys rather than a hand-picked representative of Jerry Jones to follow directions and carry a title that held very little actual authority or power.
Instead, I merely wrote the following on January 3rd, 2013:
I would not argue hard against the firing of Jason Garrett provided it was to turn the team over to a certain type of coach that could be seen as more of an organizational architect. That could be defined a number of ways, so let me clearly explain that to me that is the top tier of expensive, leverage-possessing coaches who could demand and receive a certain level of authority that is rarely afforded to a coach of the Cowboys. Since Jimmy Johnson, this was only given to Bill Parcells - a man who did not take over every responsibility when he was here, but he had the guts to say whatever was on his mind and only deferred to his boss when he wanted to.There is no tangible value on a coach who is clearly the leader of an organization, but the issues that persist when one does not reside here are bothersome. I think Jason Garrett gets the most authority of anyone hand-picked by Jerry Jones, but that is way different than someone who arrives under the condition that he is in charge.Did Jason Garrett have the right to take Felix Jones off of kick returns and Dez off of punt returns? It didn't seem like it earlier in the season. It looked like he had to wait until he could sell it to his boss. And to me, that is really screwed up if a head coach has to campaign for things that basic to coaching a team.But, enough about that. Assuming that there are no plans to hire an organizational architect to replace Jason Garrett, I am fine with Garrett remaining here to continue his rebuild of this program. I do think progress is being made, but at 8-8, the results haven't shown up yet. There is a delicate balance with growing the program while understanding the urgency that the ages of Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware demand. I refuse to discuss a window and whether it is open or not, but if you have a group of exceptional players who are all beyond their 30th birthdays then time is short.
Beyond that, 24 months ago, I dreamed aloud of a physical roster that could handle the challenges of a high-stakes NFL street fight. I had just witnessed a year where the offensive line was a high upgrade from the 2011 version, but still finishing 2nd in most battles with the bullies of the league. The roster still seemed to value skill positions over earth movers, and the Cowboys were certainly not equipped to impose their will on games with might.
Six starters from that night in Washington in 2012 started in Green Bay on Sunday: Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, and Brandon Carr. Several more played roles in both games: Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar, Sterling Moore, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, Jermey Parnell, James Hanna and the eternal flame, LP Ladouceur. A few others were either unavailable that night or this one (or both): Orlando Scandrick, Doug Free, Ron Leary (inactive in Washington) and Sean Lee (and, of course, Josh Brent, who is his own separate paragraph if I were to fully explain why he isn't included in the "roster stability list of names").
20 names. On a roster of 53 players, 20 remain the same from 24 months ago. That stable part of the roster (37%) demonstrates the reason players and coaches will take impromptu team pictures after memorable games - because that moment in time is not ever coming back. Transition and change is as part and parcel to professional sports life as laundry and media sessions. The guy to your left and the guy to your right are perhaps friends, but they may not see the next game on the schedule. You have enough to worry about making sure you do.
That is why talking about the 5-year plan is difficult sometimes. On average, every roster features 20 new players each season. From that time in January of 2013 until today, the Cowboys have morphed into a team that seldom loses the battle at the line. The national press and fantasy football world still makes most everything about Tony Romo and the skill players, but we know upon careful study that this team has transformed from passive and hopeful to massive and relentless. It didn't happen overnight and they still can meet their match, but as a whole, the transformation on offense has been terrific. As coach Dan Devine was shown saying in Rudy, "No one, and I mean no one comes into our house and pushes us around."
This has taken leverage off of Romo's capable shoulders, and evenly distributed responsibility to the offensive line and the running game. It is a balanced attack that requires many pieces working together, and it seems more sustainable than those offenses that ask their QB to be great for 40 plays a game. Aaron Rodgers may have sent the Cowboys home, but no other QB was able to do that this season in 18 games. That is a pretty short list of teams that have guys who can do that.
The defense needs more. We knew that, and with all of the allocated resources (both with cap and with draft picks) being given to primarily to the offense, it is time to remember that stopping a Rodgers-type is not possible without a defensive front of similar quality to the offensive line. Pieces have been assembled - Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence look like foundation pieces (as Tyron Smith and Ron Leary appeared 24 months ago), but much more is required.
In other words, the work has only begun.
But, the 5-year plan of Jason Garrett (well, 4.5 years) has come to the juncture where Jerry Jones will sign up for what we assume will be another 5. Thanks to Garrett's steady progress in making over this roster into the grand vision of replicating the team he was part of twenty years ago, Garrett's contract is certainly already signed. He is here for the long haul and with the help of a front office that disguises the focal point of credit very well (unless you are the type that believes Jerry is watching tape right now - for you, he was right all along!), they have put together a roster that legitimately looks a few pieces away. There is little question that in 6 months, there will be some 2015 preseason publications touting the Cowboys as the predicted NFC Super Bowl representative for Super Bowl 50.
I was fine with Garrett's run ending in 2012. And I am here to say that I was wrong. I was cynical about his ability to solve this team's issues and to truly have a plan and the authority to carry out that plan. And I am here to say that I was wrong.
The Jason Garrett growth has been substantial, and it often takes clear and obvious evidence for some of us to ignore our confirmation bias and just consider the evidence that doesn't agree with our predetermined view.
I like how his team has developed under his plan. I know what a Jason Garrett football player looks like and I know what they are trying to accomplish. I see the vision and it doesn't hurt that it matches my dream of 24 months ago. I wondered how the Cowboys could ignore their past and try to design a team that doesn't rely on 300 pound bullies. Heck, I wondered how they could ignore that Seattle and San Francisco have dominated the NFC in the last 5 years with nothing but might and power. And now, right under our noses, they have become the next team in the NFC that is built to beat you up.
They went to Lambeau Field in January and ran their run-heavy offense and aside from a fateful fumble, the Packers never showed any ability to slow down the bulldozers up front all day. DeMarco Murray distributed punishment and the only thing that ended that demonstration were the Cowboys themselves deciding to stop running. We will never know what happens if the Cowboys kept running on 3rd and 1 before halftime or on that final drive of the game. But, I submit, had they kept running the ball with 5:00 to go (rather than the sack that caused the 4th and 2), Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers may have never touched the ball again.
Ifs and buts are not candy and nuts, so there will be no Merry Christmas this season. But, I see the plan. I see the possibilities, too. They have a complicated offseason which we will cover in great depth soon, but it starts with knowing that the front office has a plan and part of that is a coach who is helping to carry it out.
Garrett is no longer looking like a detriment to this effort. His in-game coaching still has a few warts, but every year they are becoming less of an issue. In other words, he is developing with experience - just as his boss predicted.
He is not afraid of 4th down (as much). He is not afraid of road games (where he used to call the most conservative games). He is no longer risk-averse. He is, at times, no longer laying up on Par 5's. He is now that coach that you can believe in, because he believes in himself more than ever before.
I don't compliment Jerry Jones' football acumen very often, but this one is required. He stood firm on Jason Garrett in 2012 and 2013 when guys like me thought it was a mistake. Head coach required an upgrade, I said. And I was sure of it.
And now, as we enter into an offseason where change is coming, I want to be clear to say something that needs to be said. Had they fired Jason Garrett in 2012, they would have missed out on what he has built (with help) in 2014. In other words, again, I was wrong on this guy.
I have talked with Garrett quite a few times over the years about his philosophy and where idealism and realism cross paths for a coach. He has an idealistic view of football and then he has a realistic view of how the roster he has can be successful. For years, those two ideas were across the room from each-other. Now, as you watch his team, it appears they are right next to each-other. His vision of idealistic football and what he has in Dallas are now the same thing. That doesn't guarantee anything, except that he shall now receive the mandate to keep on his path in the form of a brand new, lucrative contract.
And he absolutely deserves it. Despite what I thought 24 months ago.
There is much work to be done. They desperately need a defense that can do its own heavy lifting more often. But, the state of the Cowboys is strong and headed on the right path with Garrett.