Passed up

Cowboys QB Jason Garrett doesn't deserve to be a backup all his life

It's about 6 p.m. on the Thursday before the Dallas Cowboys are to fly to Philadelphia to be humiliated by the despised Eagles. Most of Jason Garrett's teammates are at home or doing some radio call-in show or grabbing dinner with the wife and kids. Or maybe they're out getting baptized with Deion and Emmitt--baptism being the hot new fad among Cowboys, having replaced whoring and doping as favorite off-the-field pursuits.

Garrett, having spent a whole day watching game film and learning the plays for a contest in which he will not see a single snap, also has a little free time this evening, so he does what any Dallas Cowboy does when he's not playing football or finding God. He calls a newspaper reporter to volunteer better responses to questions he already answered seven hours earlier.

"Hey, it's Jason Garrett," the 31-year-old quarterback begins, his voice cheerful and friendly. "You know those questions you asked earlier? Well, I didn't give them enough thought."

Man, sometimes it's just easy to like Jason Garrett for what he's not, especially on a team filled with players who treat outsiders as though they're the enemy, who answer reporters' questions with threats and boasts. Players who consider themselves above reproach--and, too often, the game itself.

Garrett, now in his fifth year with the Cowboys, has never been like that. He talks constantly about his "love" for the game, about his "joy" at being able to throw a football, about how much of a "thrill" it is to suit up for a game every fall Sunday. He's a walking grin, an exuberant cliche--one of those guys who's just happy to be here and do whatever I can to get us to the playoffs and thrilled to be playing behind the greatest quarterback in the league and waiting for my opportunity whenever it comes. And so on.

Garrett means every single word of it. He is indeed happy to be playing for the Dallas Cowboys--as he should be, being one of the rare players from Princeton (hell, the whole Ivy League) to make a career in the NFL. He's happy to have a job where he gets to be around great football players--as he should be, having been cut from the New Orleans Saints' developmental squad before the beginning of the 1990 season.

And he's happy to have a job that allows him the possibility of playing in the NFL--as he should be, having once played for both the World Football League (before a shoulder injury, he started for the San Antonio Express) and the Canadian Football League (with the Ottawa RoughRiders).

With a resume like that, playing behind Troy Aikman and 17-year journeyman Wade Wilson is indeed the greatest job in professional sports. During each game, Garrett takes the plays from offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese, relays them to Aikman, then lets them unfold without ever bearing the responsibility for the outcome. He never wins, yet he also never loses.

Garrett has three Super Bowl rings, though he has played in only 13 NFL games his entire career--and even then, he has started a mere two, both of which he won. For his work, Garrett takes home about $300,000 a year, or less than what Aikman makes per game.

"It's a tremendous amount of fun to be a quarterback and throw a football and be part of all this," he says, his eyes wide and his grin broad. "For me to have any gripes would, as my daughter says, fly in the face of what I do for a living."

But, quite possibly, Garrett also has the most frustrating job in the world, especially for a man who's held it for five years now--and has proven almost every time he's touched the ball that he deserves far better than the role of an understudy waiting for the leading man to trip over the stage lights.

Just three years ago, on a Thanksgiving Day against the Green Bay Packers in Texas Stadium, Garrett made the second (and most recent) start of his NFL career--and it was the sort of nationally televised battle that transforms the anonymous into the adored. On that day, with Aikman and second-string quarterback Rodney Peete sidelined with injuries, Garrett led the team to a record five consecutive second-half touchdowns--and a remarkable come-from-behind 42-31 win. He did it by throwing long, by bombing the hell out of Green Bay.

The day before the game, Barry Switzer remarked that "life hands very few opportunities like this for a young man," and Garrett made the most of it: He threw the ball as far as he could, as often as he could, and as well as anyone could, gaining 311 yards. As a result, he was named the NFL Player of the Week and became more than another Glenn Carano, Craig Kupp, or Scott Secules, forgotten Cowboys who spent their wonder years as clipboard jockeys.

Last Sunday in Philadelphia, as Aikman sat on the bench with a mild concussion after a helmet-to-helmet sack and Wilson reminded us why he's thrown for one touchdown pass since 1993, it was hard not to long for Garrett to once again jog from the sidelines and rescue this dying team. Instead, we watched an old Cowboys second-stringer (Rodney Peete) embarrass this year's model. Instead, we were treated to yet another shameful performance by the Cowboys' offense, another whacked-out Barry Switzer post-game tirade, and another nail in this season's pigskin-lined coffin.

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