Over the past two years, as custodian of the NFC East blog, I have received some form of the Jason Garrett question as much as any other:
If the Dallas Cowboys don't make the playoffs, will Garrett be fired?
If the Cowboys lose this game, Jerry Jones has to fire Garrett, right?
Who do you think the Cowboys will hire to replace Garrett when Jones fires him after this year?
Why hasn't Garrett been fired yet?
My responses have been fairly consistent, and rooted in the idea that the outside perception of Garrett and the quality of the job he's doing differs greatly from the perspective of Jones, the team owner, whose opinion is the only one that matters. Jones likes Garrett and sees him as a young, talented coach who's learning on the job and improving, and he values him as part of the long-term vision he has for the team. So while it might seem, looking from the outside, as though Garrett's job security is or should be in question, it has not in fact been.
This point of view is not finding much soft soil, though. You still hear these things. As Sunday's game against Pittsburgh went down to the wire, respected analysts were saying things like, "Garrett may be coaching for his job here," when in fact there exists no evidence to support the idea. Garrett is 21-17 as the Cowboys' head coach, with a roster and coaching staff that have seen significant turnover in the past year and a half. Jones is determined to employ lessons of patience he says experience has taught him, and Garrett's record doesn't scream at Jones to change that plan. So Garrett's job is not in danger at the end of the year, and I don't think it ever was.
The question that arises once that's established, however, is whether Jones is correct in his support of Garrett. And that's one on which I have long believed the jury to be out. Jones has strong personal feelings toward Garrett, and it's possible those could get in the way of honest evaluation. As Garrett has struggled with in-game issues like clock management, play calling and one baffling decision last year to ice his own kicker, outraged fans have wondered why Jones kept looking past the mistakes, and what he was seeing to convince him things would get better.
I think it's to Jones' credit that he didn't let emotion over such gaffes to carry the day, and I think it's paying off now. When you watch this year's Cowboys, you see a team that has bought into the program. Dallas is missing half of its starting defense, played without its starting running back throughout October and November and has one of the worst-performing offensive lines in the entire league, and somehow the Cowboys have managed to win five of their past six games and tie for first place in the NFC East with two games to go. If they win their final two games, the Cowboys will be NFC East champions in Garrett's second full season as their head coach. And whether they accomplish that or not, Cowboys fans have to like the direction in which their franchise is pointing.
You can't exempt Garrett from credit for this. His in-game coaching skill appears to have improved, and I think Sunday's game showed the kind of cool-headed crunch-time decision-making that was lacking a year ago. But regardless of that, the more important part of a coach's job is what he does throughout the week, the ways in which he leads and prepares his team. And when you watch the Cowboys these days, I think it's easy to see Garrett's influence manifesting itself in the way the team prepares and plays.
The Cowboys have a seriousness of purpose about them -- a sense of team and an obvious awareness of the job they have to do. There is very little discord (Jay Ratliff vs. the owner notwithstanding), amid circumstances that could well have led to plenty. The relentless rash of injuries, the 3-5 start and the Josh Brent drunk-driving tragedy that killed defensive lineman Jerry Brown two Saturdays ago all could have worked to tear this team apart. Yet it has hung together and is playing its best football at the perfect time. Dez Bryant breaks his finger and wants to tape it up and play. DeMarco Murray comes back from a foot injury running hard. Anthony Spencer has his best season while linebackers and defensive linemen are hitting the IR at an alarming rate. Tony Romo stays focused and rebounds from his own tough start to the season.
These kinds of things, when they happen in concert and in the face of adversity, speak to good coaching, and I think we're at the point where we can say Garrett's done a good job of coaching this year's Cowboys. You can gripe all you want about play calling, as I assure you every fan of every team does. But considering what the reasonable preseason expectations were, and all that's happened since, I argue that these Cowboys have overachieved. That speaks to coaching as well. The players on Dallas' roster seem to respond to their coach. They seem to like, respect and play hard for him. An honest appraisal of Garrett's body of work in 2012 leads to the conclusion that he's doing a good job. I think it's time people realized that not only is he not going to be fired, but that he shouldn't be.