To the drumbeat of blue-balls fans tortured by a quarter-century of frustrating foreplay, and the backbeat of construction clangabang violently serenading the team’s annual state-of-the-union address, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones set the tone for the 2019 season by … pretending to be deaf.
Eschewing traditional softball questions for a grenade aimed at holding the controversial boss accountable for his mediocre head coach, NBC 5 sports anchor Newy Scruggs kicked off training camp July 26 in Oxnard, California, by demanding to know the parameters of Jason Garrett keeping his job in 2020 and beyond.
“Jerry, let’s cut to the chase,” Scruggs said. “What do you need to achieve this year to bring back Jason?”
Seated just inches to the left of Garrett — the lame-duck coach entering the season without a contract for 2020 and, therefore, any shred of security — Jones became visibly squirmy. With his trademark toothy grin, he pretended not to hear the question.
Even when Scruggs repeated it.
“What did you say? I really didn’t hear you. I really didn’t hear you. There’s a drill going on back over there,” Jones said, chuckling as he mocked hand-to-ear as if straining to listen. “Next question.”
Despite the faux confusion and lighthearted humor, the noise couldn’t drown out the loud-and-clear message deciphered from persistent, follow-up inquiries from other questioners: This season, Garrett is coaching for his job.
“There’s no secret that the guy to my right here, I want to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys for as long as I’m around to spell it,” Jones eventually said, pointing to Garrett. “That would be my goal, and that’s no secret. So, let’s see what’s ahead.”
That conditional love — I want you around, but only if you win more than you ever have — echoed Jones’ previous actions and words. After the Cowboys’ playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams last January, he revealed his intention not to extend Garrett’s contract past its 2019 expiration date until he sees what Garrett can deliver this season. In May, he reiterated the stance and reinforced the strategy.
“I’m satisfied with where we are with (Garrett’s) contract right now,” Jones said on The Rich Eisen Show podcast. “We all know that we need to get out here and win ballgames.”
Added Vice President Stephen Jones: “I think we’ve had some really solid football teams under Jason. I’ve never seen this team not play hard for him, even in tough situations. The guys respond well to him. I do feel really good that Jason is the right guy for this job.
“But we’ve got to take the next step.”
For a once-proud franchise that owns five Super Bowl championships but none since 1996, what exactly is that next step?
Will Garrett’s limbo prove motivation or distraction? Will players play inspired football to save their old coach, or sabotage via sleepwalking in hopes of landing a new one?
Welcome to 2019, the Cowboys’ season of stress management.
Could You Repeat That?
Regardless of their coach, there are ominous trends, stark realities and glaring omissions that raise doubts about whether last year’s NFC East division champs will repeat this year.
First, the Cowboys — as a byproduct of their success — play a brutal, first-place schedule. Though they start at home against the lowly New York Giants on Sept. 8 at AT&T Stadium, they’ll ultimately face six games against 2018 playoff teams, including visits to the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears and games against last year’s Super Bowl teams, the New England Patriots and Rams. In a daunting December stretch, they face the Bears, Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in consecutive weeks.
Then there’s the confounding, unpredictable DNA of the NFC East. One of the fiercest and competitive divisions in the NFL, it hasn’t spawned a back-to-back champion in 14 years. Add to it the Cowboys’ recent plunges in the year after winning the division — 6-10 in 2010, 4-12 in 2015 and 9-7 in 2017 — and a first-to-worst pratfall seems more likely than repeat champions advancing to playoff rounds not seen in DFW this millennium.
There are also personnel predicaments muddying the water.
Starting defensive linemen DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford missed most of training camp with offseason injuries, and free-agent pass rusher Robert Quinn suffered a broken hand the same day he was suspended the first four games of the season by the NFL for violating the league’s ban of performance-enhancing drugs. Top receiver Amari Cooper didn’t catch a pass in the preseason because of a nagging foot ailment, and NFL leading rusher Ezekiel Elliott was not in California, but rather Cabo.
Elliott is the Cowboys’ most high-profile, potentially destructive contract holdout since another league-leading rusher — Emmitt Smith — made a similar move in 1993. Smith’s absence spilled into the regular season and kicked his defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys into a 0-2 hole before Jones caved. He gave Smith his money — like Elliott, Smith demanded to be the league’s highest-paid runner — and the back proceeded to lead the league in rushing and his team to another title.
Over years and drafts and micro-tweaking of the roster, the Cowboys have stubbornly attempted to recreate the ’90s glory blueprint, spending high picks on offensive linemen to open holes for the NFL’s best running back. The impressive — overhyped — preseason by rookie Tony Pollard notwithstanding, the Cowboys are doomed without Zeke.
“This is one of the most experienced teams we’ll have had, and I expect them to be ready to handle anything that’s thrown at us,” Jones said before the Aug. 24 preseason game against the Houston Texans in Arlington. “I still expect to get Zeke signed, but we’re going to play football either way.”
(Editor’s note: At deadline Tuesday, the Cowboys and Elliott were reported to be nearing a deal.)
Two’s the Charm
Despite the imposing intangibles, the Cowboys indeed have the talent to do something they haven’t since their coach was Barry Switzer: win two playoff games in the same damn season.
The return of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick from a bout of Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune illness, and the improved health of future Ring of Honor left tackle Tyron Smith should only improve an already dominant offensive line. Quarterback Dak Prescott still frustrates with his lack of pocket presence and untimely inaccuracy, but his durability and leadership have produced a 32-16 record with two division championships in three seasons. Not bad for a Day 3 draft pick.
In yet another vote-of-no-confidence for Garrett, the offensive play-calling now belongs to 30-year-old rookie coordinator Kellen Moore. Despite his calling card as an offensive guru and his fate twisting in the wind, Garrett will not directly call plays in 2019. In a year in which Garrett’s contract wasn’t extended, the owner decided to promote his underling.
“He’s shown so much command,” Prescott said of Moore, a former quarterback whose previous and only claim to fame was a meaningless 435-yard passing performance in the 2015 season finale. “A guy like that, maybe sometimes that’s what people question, is his command: ‘He played backup quarterback most of his career; does he have that? Can he take over the room?’ He most definitely can. He gets in front of the whole offense. He gets in front of the team, whatever it may be. He demands respect. He demands respect by his knowledge. He demands respect by what he asks of us.”
Cooper is a game-changer; signed free agent Randall Cobb (previously of the Green Bay Packers) will make fans quickly forget about departed slot target Cole Beasley (now of the Buffalo Bills); and the offense will be further bolstered by the return of future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten. After a disastrous year as an analyst in the Monday Night Football booth, he traded his wig for his helmet and will lend the Cowboys both leadership in the locker room and a reliable option on third down.
“Life has a crazy way of going sometimes,” said Witten, an 11-time Pro Bowler who is unretiring at age 37. “It’s a winding road. I’m very fortunate this organization has given me this opportunity. I’ve got a lot to prove. There’s a lot of questions about what I can do and rightfully so. I think that’s a hell of a challenge for me to kind of be able to go out there. Look, it’s a ‘show me’ game and you’ve got to be able to show it.”
Defensively, coordinator Rod Marinelli’s squad will boast a stingy secondary led by cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie, immense line depth that could be further aided by the return of suspended pass rusher Randy Gregory, and arguably the NFL’s best young linebacker duo in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
How good could the Cowboys be? Las Vegas has pinned their Super Bowl odds — sans Elliott — at 20-1, 10th best. The Sporting News says they’ll win Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2, 2020, in Miami.
Should the Cowboys not surpass 2018’s 10 wins, division title and wild card victory, the players won’t be held accountable. That blame for underachievement will fall on the ginger noggin of Garrett, the man who has coached more Cowboys games than anyone not named Tom Landry, but with only two playoff wins to show for it.
Good, Not Great
As an undersized pro with an Ivy League pedigree heavy on brains and extremely economical with brawn, Garrett, the quarterback, bounced between teams and leagues like the rest of us alternate naps and the Red Zone Channel. He played on the Saints’ practice squad, spent a season with the Ottawa Rough Riders 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 by those teams’ epic culture. 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 to forge an image suitable for the White House in D.C.
Garrett married wife Brill in Dallas, and in ’94 had his one shining moment when, filling in for the injured Aikman, he threw for 311 yards in a 42-31 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Packers. But mostly he looked, listened and learned.
After innocuous playing stints with the 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 quarterback coach. He played behind Aikman and was coached by Norv Turner and Sean Payton before returning to Dallas as offensive coordinator in 2007.
“I had no grand plan,” Garrett said. “But I didn’t think I’d get the chance to come back here. To say the least, things have worked out well.”
When the Cowboys quit on folksy coach Wade Phillips in the middle of 2010, Garrett was inserted as the younger, more innovative and energetic interim head coach. Jones, in essence, ordered a shot of Red Bull. Garrett took the job as a 40-year-old virgin, having never crafted a playbook or even called an NFL play.
The job then was his to win. Despite underwhelming results and, at times, a maddeningly bland persona, Garrett hasn’t lost it.
In his 10th season, he is who he is. Not as stern as Jimmy Johnson or as passionate as Switzer or as cerebral as Landry. He claps so much, often at insanely negative times, you could be convinced it’s a nervous tic. He turns us into zombies with his consistently cardboard coachspeak littered with “process” and “all three phases.” He’s the flabbergasting coach who punts from the opponents’ 40-yard line in overtime, then a month later calls a fake punt in a blowout of a meaningless game. He routinely gets outfoxed by coaches who at season’s end are promptly fired. And somehow his Princeton education is wholly worthless when it’s time to decipher the science of clock management.
Garrett is the epitome of his Cowboys: Good, but just bad enough to never be great.
There are only four NFL head coaches with more seniority than Garrett: John Harbaugh (11 seasons, Baltimore Ravens), Mike Tomlin (12 seasons, Pittsburgh Steelers), Payton (12 seasons, Saints) and Bill Belichick (19 seasons, Patriots). Each has won a Super Bowl, with the quartet combining for nine.
Garrett has never led the Cowboys to even a conference championship game, which is precisely why he begins 2019 on the hottest of seats.
He’s had elite talent — Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Witten, DeMarcus Ware, DeMarco Murray, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Elliott, Sean Lee — just never matching results.
He has, however, successfully coached without a net. In 2014 he also entered the season without an extension and led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record, division title and a playoff win. Afterward, Jones rewarded him with a five-year, $30 million contract, and here we are.
Along with their five Lombardi Trophies, the Cowboys own 10 conference championships, 23 division titles and 17 Hall of Famers. There was a time when God watched his favorite team through the hole in the roof of their iconic stadium in Irving. The glory days, however, are now merely grainy YouTube clips.
Dallas won its last Super Bowl 24 seasons back and its last road playoff game almost 10,000 days ago. There are only two teams with longer droughts from an NFC Championship Game: the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions. Yeah, ouch.
Garrett is on notice. Take the Cowboys to at least the conference championship game. Or else.
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If he feels added pressure, the coach’s robotic wiring doesn’t permit him to exhibit an ounce of human vulnerability.
“To be honest with you, I never really think about that,” Garrett said early in camp in California. “I never thought about that as a player. I don’t think about that as a coach. I just come to work every day and try to do the best job that I can do in the position that I have. Very fortunate to do what I love to do in this great league, in this great organization with the people that we have, the coaching staff that we have, the players and the support staff that we have. So, just come and try to embrace that opportunity each and every day, and try to contribute as much as I can.”
Translation: He’s either fibbing in an effort to project an aura of calm excellence, or he’s clueless about the urgency of his predicament.
Either way, hard-of-hearing ploy be damned, Jones’ message to his coach is unmistakably perspicuous: He won’t put a ring on it, unless Garrett wins him one.