By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When he left in 2000 his going-away party was thrown at Sipango, because the guy with the red hair would never venture into the "white house."
When he returned in 2007 he was a 40-year-old virgin who'd never called, much less crafted, a playbook.
And now—in a crazy, capricious 2010—he's been given the job he's always dreamed of, only because his team's season is a complete nightmare.
As the first "interim" in the Dallas Cowboys' 50-year history, the head coaching job is now Jason Garrett's to lose.
"We've got to get back to doing things the right way," Garrett said emphatically last Monday at Valley Ranch hours after being named by owner Jerry Jones to, at least temporarily, replace fired head coach Wade Phillips. "There won't be drastic changes, but the personality of the group is reflected by its leader. I'm going to put my stamp on this team, and my personality as a leader is going to come through."
Just like that, a Cowboys' organization that for three years has tepidly meandered through apologies and underachievement suddenly gulped an energetic, inspiring shot of Red Bull.
Garrett—with red in his hair and green on his head-coaching résumé—isn't as stern as Jimmy Johnson or as passionate as Barry Switzer or as cerebral as Tom Landry. Before Sunday's game against the New York Giants he won't send a player to the asthma field, indulge in a back-slappin' beerfest with Jones or reboot the Flex defense, but one thing's already certain: Unlike they were the folksy Phillips and his relentless onslaught of "well"s and "umm"s, press conferences at Valley Ranch are no longer nap time.
Said Garrett respectfully, yet unmistakably ardently, "Wade is no longer the head coach. I am."
In Dallas in the mid-'90s he became Troy Aikman's backup and confidante for seven seasons, winning two Super Bowl rings and the Hall of Famer's trust and friendship. While teammates Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders were knee-deep in fame, fortune and fornicating over at the infamous white house, Garrett remained a choirboy persistently humming hymns in the den of devils. About as crazy as it would get over in quarterback corner: "Jay-SOWN!" Aikman would crow in Valley Ranch's locker room, an obnoxious nod to their mutual affinity for Adam Sandler's "Cajun Man" character on Saturday Night Live.
Jason 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.
As the Cowboys' offensive coordinator—he was awkwardly hired before Phillips—he's produced 20 Pro Bowl players. But mostly, like the hot girl who teases but ultimately doesn't put out, prodigious yards haven't produced enough points. Garrett may be the NFL's best offensive coordinator between the 20s, but his too-cute play-calling near the goal line—consecutive passes to Sam Hurd against Denver Broncos' Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey comes to mind—has stagnated his rise. Still, in 2008 he turned down head-coaching offers from the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons and got a salary bump to $3 million, making him the NFL's highest-paid assistant and clearly the Cowboys' coach-in-waiting.
Garrett, 44, has played behind Aikman, been coached by Norv Turner and Sean Payton and learned alongside Phillips. He's ready.
But is he ready for this?
Make no mistake, the final eight games of the season will be a referendum on Garrett's future as head coach of the Cowboys. He's charged with everything from changing the culture of the team to inciting tangible success to developing young players such as linebacker Sean Lee and quarterback Stephen McGee.
With Tony Romo and the team's playoff hopes sidelined, Garrett can start by saving franchise face and prodding the Cowboys to simply play hard. The culture—the one that's about as intense as cows grazing, the one he privately despises—led the Cowboys to lose in Green Bay last week, 45-7.
At 1-7 and with Super Bowl hopes having unceremoniously dissolved into a national embarrassment, Jones was left with no choice other than firing Wade. Depending on the next two months, in 2011 he'll either hire Garrett or pursue Bill Cowher.
"Jason does have the opportunity to get this job long-term," Jones said Monday.
I realize the 2009 draft class was wholly a bust and that Jones' last four coaching hires have resulted in one playoff win, but stop it already. Clamoring for Jones the owner to fire Jones the general manager is akin to blaming God for the weather. Accurate? Sure. But an absolute waste of time.
This team—this season—has yanked Jerry into a flip-flopping fog. He admitted to being in denial. Last Friday he adamantly stated that Phillips would coach through the season, then watched the debacle in Green Bay and decided—after further review—that he couldn't take it anymore.
With the shine of the new Cowboys Stadium's honeymoon already worn off, Jones' credibility and popularity are at all-time lows. He likes Phillips personally and admires him professionally, but he also made the right move at the right time.