Passed up

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.

Garrett says he can't understand why a reporter would rather talk to him than Troy or Emmitt or Michael, and he's portrayed in the press as a man who's content with his job. Local newspapers depict him as a red-headed square, as someone "making [the] most of backup status" (Fort Worth Star-Telegram), as a man living "a wonderful life" from the sidelines (The Dallas Morning News).

But to represent Garrett as someone thrilled to live behind the guy behind the guy is only to sketch him from a distance. He's too much a competitor to want to come in third the rest of his life. Besides, at his age, when tomorrow's promising young player starts to become yesterday's damaged goods, he knows that with the passing of each football season, his chances of starting--in Dallas or anywhere--recede just a little more.

"Sometimes, they seem in opposition," he says when asked how he reconciles his patience on the sidelines and his desire to be on the field. "But it's important to reconcile them, and a lot of that goes to functioning best when you have patience. As a competitor, you want to play, so I don't want to give anyone the impression I am satisfied. I want to play."

He stresses the last word like a kid itching to get his hands on the ball--and like someone getting a little cold standing in another man's shadow.

"But having said that," he adds, "it's easy for me to understand why I don't play--because Troy is the best quarterback in the league and Wade is a tremendous backup. I function best when I worry about the things I can control."

Being a third-string quarterback is a hell of a way to make a living--preparing every week for the guy ahead of you to get injured. To go down in pain. To get hit so hard he can't remember where he is. But that's what Garrett does every week. He waits for his friends to get injured. Or retire.

Aikman has not missed a start because of injury since December 4, 1994, yet through the first eight games of this season, he's been sacked 16 times--when all of last year he hit the ground only 18 times. Lately, he's also been experiencing back spasms, not to mention Sunday's mild concussion that knocked him from the game.

Wilson, who spent time with New Orleans, Atlanta, and Minnesota before coming to Dallas in 1995, proved during the preseason he would have been more effective if he just stayed on the bench. His contract with the Cowboys expires at the end of the season, and consensus around Valley Ranch has him retiring then.

Which would make Garrett, who signed a three-year deal at the beginning of this season, the most likely candidate for the second-string job.

Almost as an aside, Garrett mentions that during the off-season, when his contract with the Cowboys had expired and he became a free agent, he tried out with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, long the laughingstock of the NFC--till the team began this season with five consecutive wins. Garrett--who was expected to go to Carolina or Jacksonville in the 1995 expansion draft till the Cowboys protected him under league rules--was at first worried about trying out for another team; it might make people think he was unhappy with the Cowboys.

"That was a good experience," Garrett says of his time spent working out with Tampa Bay. "It was intriguing. They contacted me, and I wasn't reluctant. I think all those situations are dicey, because I have strong positive feelings about the Cowboys, and I didn't want to suggest otherwise. I don't want to suggest it was any big deal. Guys do that all the time. Some free agents try out with 10 teams."

But in the end, he remained with the Cowboys--and the Bucs signed former Cowboys first-round pick Steve Walsh as young Trent Dilfer's backup. Garrett says he stayed with Dallas because he was comfortable with the system--and because, he says with the sincerest of smiles, he still has much to learn from a guy like Aikman.  

Yet Garrett has proven time and again he is good enough to lead a team, and good enough to make those around him play better. There have been moments when Garrett was this close to being this close to the starting role: After a startling preseason in 1993, Garrett usurped Hugh Millen to take the role as second-string QB. He did it with off-balance throws, by scrambling to the sidelines until receivers got open, by finding receivers who didn't even know they were open.

On November 7, 1993--his very first opportunity to play in a regular-season game--he came in for an injured Aikman against the New York Giants and led the team on two scoring drives, completing five of six passes. The very next week, he started against the Phoenix Cardinals and brought home a 20-15 victory. Then Bernie Kosar came to town, and Garrett was sent back to the practice squad, which is where the third-string quarterback works during the season.

Garrett played in only one game in 1995, on November 12 against the San Francisco 49ers. That day, he threw five passes and completed four--one of which was a touchdown pass to Michael Irvin. Last year, he played two sets of downs--and the Cowboys scored on both drives. And, of course, there was the day Garrett had Green Bay for Thanksgiving dinner.

Yet Jason Garrett would like to be known for more than just a few memories. No one wants to be a small paragraph in yesterday's history books, especially when Garrett deserves a better tomorrow...and Cowboys fans demand a better today.

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