Cowboys' Garrett goes from hot seat to glowing praise

At midseason, with the Dallas Cowboys sitting 3-5, everyone outside Valley Ranch was ready to fire Jason Garrett. Would Sean Payton replace Garrett next season? Or would Mike Holmgren be the Cowboys' next head coach?

Now, after Garrett has led the Cowboys through an unimaginable tragedy and steered them back into the playoff race, Garrett is being mentioned as a coach of the year candidate.

Welcome to life as an NFL head coach.

"No disrespect to anyone and their commentary, but you just have to focus on doing your job," Garrett said. "I grew up with that. My dad was in football his whole life. That was something I heard directly and indirectly for a long, long time."

Garrett has been through the good, the bad and the tragic in his 2 1/2 seasons as the team's head coach.

There have been big wins, including an overtime victory over Indianapolis in 2010, an overtime win in San Francisco last year and the season-opening upset of the New York Giants this season. There have been tough losses, including a season-ending loss to the Giants that kept the Cowboys out of the playoffs last season as well as an overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals last season in which Garrett was questioned for his game management.

The Cowboys are 21-17 since Garrett replaced Wade Phillips at midseason in 2010.

Garrett's message, though, has remained consistent: One play at a time, one practice at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time. Keep banging away. It's a process.

He even has earned the nickname "Coach Process" from one media member.

"He believes the whole process thing," said Cowboys director of pro scouting Judd Garrett, Jason's younger brother. "That's the way he approaches his life, and he believes that the things that he's accomplished in his life are a direct result of taking that philosophy. So he's espousing what he believes, and I think he also understands that it's easy in this business, it's easy with this media culture, to get distracted. So he's been strong with that message."

His players seemingly have bought in, often repeating Jason Garrett's catchphrases during interviews.

"Jason's one of the best coaches I've been around, and I've been fortunate to have a lot of good coaches," Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. "His ability to stay the course and kind of eliminate all the outside stuff, good or bad, is something I've never seen before. I thought his message in training camp, not just his message, but guys believing in that message ... I remember after the Baltimore game, it was a tough loss, he said, 'I'm proud to be your coach. We've got a lot to correct, but I'm telling you right now, you're going to be proud to be on this team.' I think guys believed that we're going to turn it around."

The Cowboys, winners of five of their past six games, are two victories from their first playoff berth since 2009, when Garrett was the team's offensive coordinator under Phillips. Tragedy, as well as an inordinate number of season-ending injuries to starters, has brought the Cowboys together as a team.

In the early morning hours of Dec. 8, Cowboys nose tackle Josh Brent was booked into jail, charged with intoxication manslaughter in the death of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown, who was Brent's passenger in a single-car wreck. Garrett informed the team of the tragedy on the team charter before it left for Cincinnati and a game against the Bengals the next day.

Garrett has been lauded for his leadership and his compassion in the hours, days and weeks since Brown's death and Brent's arrest.

"He's a natural leader," said tight ends coach John Garrett, Jason's older brother, "and he did a great job of leading us through this tragedy. He really showed great instincts and intuition on how to balance being real sensitive and compassionate toward everyone involved in the tragedy, but also rallying the troops once that was addressed to life goes on and we have a job to do, and Jerry Brown, Jerry's mom, Josh, everyone would want us to carry out what we had to do and play that game the best we could so we could honor them. I think that was the motivation placed in front of everybody, and Jason was very clear with the expectations, and also he showed great sensitivity to everyone, because everybody mourns differently."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and executive vice president Stephen Jones repeatedly have dismissed talk of Garrett being replaced at the end of the season. Sean Payton or no Sean Payton.

Payton, the suspended coach of the Saints, could become a free agent when he is reinstated by the league. The NFL voided a contract extension he and the Saints had agreed to in 2011. Payton has been linked to the Cowboys because he makes his off-season home in the Westlake area, and he has a close relationship with Jerry Jones after spending the 2003-05 seasons here as an offensive assistant.

But the Cowboys are confident they can win with Garrett, and they are hoping to prove it this season.

"I can't make predictions, but he's doing the right things. He has the right philosophy," Judd Garrett said. "The league is filled with guys who have done a good job, but just didn't quite get it there, whether it's coaches or players. But I think he's doing the right things, and whether it ends up with winning Super Bowls or having the type of success we hope, obviously we'll find out. But I think we're going in the right direction and doing things the right way."

Charean Williams, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @NFLCharean

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