Jason Garrett found himself with the dubious “lame duck” label a year ago, going into a season without a contract beyond it.
That’s not comfortable territory for anyone, particularly a head coach who is working for an organization whose general manager … well, has a lifetime contract.
But Garrett delivered when it mattered most, leading the Dallas Cowboys to an NFC East title and to the second round of the playoffs last season. Jerry Jones rewarded Garrett with a five-year, $30 million contract extension.
Lame duck to job security is nice, of course, but Garrett maintains that never crossed his mind.
“I can honestly say to you, I never really thought very much about [my lame-duck status],” Garrett said recently. “What I do every day is I wake up and try to do everything I can to build the kind of football team that we all can be proud of.
“We try to instill that mentality in our coaches and players. That’s how we think — try to control what we can control. Don’t worry about what people are saying on the outside, just do what we can do to the best of our ability every day. That’s really the way I live.”
Garrett said something along those lines dozens of times throughout the year, but it seems easier said than done in some cases.
After all, Jones has swapped out coaches like cars throughout his ownership. He gets a new one every three to five years, history tells us.
Ever since making the still unpopular decision to fire Tom Landry after purchasing the club in 1989, Jones has had seven coaches. None of them lasted longer than Jones’ first hire, Jimmy Johnson, who won two Super Bowls in five seasons between 1989-1993.
Garrett, who took over midway through the 2010 season, will become the longest-tenured after this season under Jones, and with four more wins will pass Johnson for the second most (44) in the organization’s history.
That’s still a far cry from Landry’s 250. But Garrett has developed as a head coach, much like a rookie player to a seasoned veteran.
The Cowboys report to training camp on July 28 in Oxnard, Calif.
“Hopefully I’m better in every way, and that’s really something we try to emphasize in the culture that we’ve established in our team,” Garrett said. “One of the things we try to do all the time is analyze what we’ve done, almost on a daily basis, a weekly basis, anytime we have something that we do as a team, whether it’s a game, whether it’s a draft, whether it’s some kind of event of any kind, we go back and we look at it. What did we do well, what didn’t we do well.
“And that starts with me. So in every phase of my job, hopefully I’m better than I was. Hopefully I’ll be better tomorrow than I am today.”
The biggest change last season came with the arrival of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Garrett had given up calling plays before the 2013 season, but he never appeared to be fully on board with Bill Callahan running the offense.
With the addition of Linehan, however, Garrett had a play-caller he fully trusted running the offense. The Cowboys relied heavily on the offensive line and running game, handing it to DeMarco Murray an NFL-high 392 times.
The success of the running attack helped pave the way for a career year by quarterback Tony Romo. For the season, the Cowboys ran it 508 times and called for 506 passes.
In the end, any hesitation Garrett might have had becoming a “walk-around” head coach has disappeared.
“It allows me to handle the head coaching responsibilities in a more focused manner,” Garrett said. “There are coaches in this league who have done a really good job structuring their staff like the way we have structured now, an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator, a special teams coordinator, that’s how we have it. I think it’s a good fit when you have people in those roles that you trust to execute things the way you want to do it.
“We have other coaches in this league who are a coordinator on one side of the ball or the other, but one of the things you have to understand is being a head coach is a full-time job, being a coordinator is a full-time job.
“If you are doing both of them, you have to find ways to get those other tasks and responsibilities allocated, so it’s really a matter of kind of divvying up the work and the responsibilities. If you can find guys you can trust to do those things the way you want them to, either way can work.”
Garrett has found the right balance, and the proof is in the results. And it’s a credit to Garrett that he never lost the locker room despite carrying the “lame-duck” label.
Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise, as veteran tight end Jason Witten explained.
“Jason doesn’t allow negative thoughts to enter his mind,” Witten said. “He’s a realist, but he also believes in the process and building a program and being your best every day. His focus was providing us perspective and putting our team in position to be the best it can be.”
Sure, winning a division title and a playoff game is great, but the ultimate goal is a championship.
A contract is job security only to a point in professional sports.
“You’ve got to go do it again. You’ve got to go prove it again,” Witten said. “For us, it was never to make the playoffs and win a playoff game. It’s to compete for a championship. So if anybody’s been satisfied by that, we let them know real quickly that’s not what we’re going for.
“There’s no second-place-is-a-winner here. Our job is to compete for a championship. We have a tough task and we’re going to need all hands on deck.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760
Dallas Cowboys’ key dates
Team reports to training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
First full team practice
Preseason game: Cowboys @ San Diego, 9 p.m.
Preseason game: Cowboys @ San Francisco, 7 p.m.
Break camp in Oxnard
Preseason game: Cowboys vs. Minnesota, 6 p.m., AT&T Stadium, Arlington
Preseason game: Cowboys vs. Houston, 7 p.m., AT&T Stadium
Regular-season opener: NY Giants at Cowboys, 7:30 p.m., AT&T Stadium