By Jim Schutze
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Last time, I bounded down the stairs into the exclusive basement of Sipango for his going-away party.
This time, I wait for an hour in a secluded conference room at Valley Ranch, engulfed by cherry wood and the anxiety of getting re-acquainted with an old friend who's evolved exponentially more than I since our last encounter.
"Hello, coach," I say, a polite nod to the respect deserved by the offensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys.
Jason Garrett may have departed in 2000 as a lovable backup quarterback, but he's back in 2007 as one of the most seriously scrutinized assistant coaches in the history of America's Team.
"I had no grand plan," says Garrett, sipping a cup of water and dressed in a golf shirt and fiery red hair that looks exactly—and I mean, exactly—like you remember. "But I didn't think I'd get the chance to come back here."
Under Bill Parcells, this re-relationship couldn't blossom. So welded to the past and intolerant of speculation, he often harrumphed about refusing to buy green bananas. But new coach Wade Phillips isn't afraid of the future, afraid to let his coaching staff talk or afraid to let his offense be run by the 40-year-old virgin who's never called a play or crafted a playbook.
"For a young guy, he has a very clear picture of what he wants done," Phillips says. "Single-minded in his focus. Really impressive."
Despite his disarming appearance and alarming inexperience, Garrett as Dallas' offensive coordinator now and next head coach later makes perfect sense. After all, "Red" is the new green.
"For me to walk in the door and say 'This is my offense' would be ridiculous," Garrett says. "But I feel like I'm ready for the challenge of helping this team with what I can add. It's a natural progression. I've only had a coaching job a couple of years, but it seems like I've been training in graduate school for a long time."
As an undersized pro with an Ivy League pedigree, heavy on brains and extremely economical with brawn, Garrett bounced between teams and leagues like the rest of us alternate beer and CSI. He played on the New Orleans Saints practice squad, spent a season with the Ottawa RoughRiders in Canada and started for the San Antonio Riders of the World League of American Football before catching on in Dallas in '93.
As Troy Aikman's backup and confidant for seven seasons, he won two Super Bowl rings and somehow remained unpolluted. Like a choir boy persistently humming hymns in the den of devils, he sidestepped the fame, fortune and fornicating orchestrated by the likes of Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders, turning down invitations to the infamous white house in Valley Ranch while forging an image suitable for The White House in D.C.
Garrett married wife Brill in Dallas and in '94 had his one shining moment filling in for the injured Aikman and throwing for 311 yards in a 42-31 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Green Bay Packers. But mostly, he looked, listened and learned that he didn't need to be the most desired redhead since Ginger teased Gilligan. Garrett simply wanted to parlay holding a clipboard into knowing how to hold a lead.
"Dallas feels like home to us, like we belong here," says Garrett, whose old locker is now fittingly occupied by obscure backup quarterback Matt Baker. "I learned so much while I was here. Admittedly there will be a learning curve, and we've got lots of work to do. But this feels great, feels right. I feel like I'm more than ready."
After uneventful playing stints with the New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins capped a 12-year career in which he made only nine starts and threw just 294 passes, Garrett spent a quick two seasons as Miami's quarterbacks coach. He's played behind Aikman and been coached by Norv Turner and Sean Payton, but now, in a move that has some skeptics predicting his inexperience will result in timidity and failure, Jason's running his own deli.
"We'll be somewhat working without a net," owner Jerry Jones admits. "But there's no doubt that Jason is so smart and such a hard worker that he could've been a coordinator before this. In my mind, he's ready."
Says Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, "He's mature and prepared. And he won't stop here. He's got exactly what it takes to be a head coach as far as demeanor and aura."
Though he has a feathery résumé and he awkwardly assumed control of Dallas' offense before Phillips was named to coach the team, Garrett steps into a positive, productive environment not unlike Tom Brady snagging Gisele on the uptick. "I'm not naive enough to think this was the most conventional of methods," Garrett says. "But that doesn't mean it can't work."
No, the Cowboys haven't won a playoff game since Garrett and Wilson suited up for a coach named Barry Switzer. But the offense last year boasted four Pro Bowl players, including quarterback Tony Romo, scored only two points fewer than the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts and will this year add offensive lineman Leonard Davis and return weapons Terry Glenn, Marion Barber and, yes, Terrell Owens.
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