Will Cowboys let continuity rule?

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett’s future as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys has been a constant theme in the offseason and will continue to be a topic during the season.

He is in the final year of his contract and there is no rush by owner Jerry Jones to sign him to a contract extension. Garrett’s Cowboys have gone 8-8 the past three seasons, losing Week 17 regular-season finales each time to keep them out of the postseason.

Most of the Cowboys’ questions center around the defense, but quarterback Tony Romo is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year and Scott Linehan will be the third playcaller in as many years. The defense has questions at every level and lost its best player, linebacker Sean Lee, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the first organized team activity. The Cowboys cut their best pass-rusher in DeMarcus Ware and let Jason Hatcher walk as a free agent in the offseason.

The thought (at least it was mine) was that Garrett had to make the playoffs in order to get a new contract in 2015. But what if the Cowboys finish 8-8 again -- or better -- and don’t make the playoffs?

ESPN colleague Mike Reiss had an interesting quote from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft earlier this week. Patriots coach Bill Belichick and QB Tom Brady are entering their 15th season together. Kraft is going into his 16th season with Belichick as coach.

“I learned early on when I came in as a new owner, transitioning from Bill Parcells to Pete Carroll [in 1997], and then looking at other teams around the league, every new coach has their system, how they want to do it,” Kraft said. “Here you’ve been drafting players and doing things a certain way, and then you have to give two to three years to give a chance for a new set-up.

“So I made it a point then to try to find a way -- I think you get a competitive advantage in this league if you have continuity. There are just a lot of little things that are done, and the experience -- whether it’s how you travel, how you train in the offseason, how you train at training camp -- it’s all built up over a learning curve. A new system, with a new coach coming in, it takes quite a while.”

Continuity is important, but Belichick went 5-11 in his first year with the Patriots. He started 1-3 in his second year until Brady and a stingy defense developed into a Super Bowl winner. It’s easy to talk about the importance of continuity when you win every year. Would Kraft have been as patient if Belichick had a second straight losing season?

Because of Brady, he never had to answer the question.

Coaches often point to continuity as a way to save jobs, but how the Cowboys have operated since Garrett took over on a full-time basis in 2011 is a lot different than how they operated under Wade Phillips.

The Cowboys stuck to their offseason plan, eschewing high-priced veterans in free agency and passing on quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round of the draft for a guard. The Cowboys have selected three offensive linemen in the first round of the past four drafts. Jones never took an offensive lineman in the first round before picking Tyron Smith.

Speaking recently on ESPN 103.3 FM, Troy Aikman backed his former teammate, which was not a surprise.

“I really feel strongly in Jason Garrett and think he has done some really good things from an organizational standpoint,” Aikman said. “It hasn’t necessarily shown up win the wins and loss column, which is ultimately all that matters, but this organization internally is better now than it was when he took over as head coach of the Cowboys. I hope he’s here for a long time. ... If he’s not here very long or if this is his last year, then I think the next guy coming in will benefit from the years [Garrett] had here.”

But will the Cowboys have to start over on a process (if you hate the word, I apologize) they started three years ago with a new coach? Would a new coach change the defensive scheme and move back to a 3-4? Would a new coach want to completely revamp the offense even if the skill players remain mostly the same?

There is no rule against a new coach winning in his first year. Bill Parcells took over a team that went 5-11 from 2000-02 and made the playoffs with a 10-6 record in 2003. Mike McCoy, Andy Reid and Chip Kelly took teams to the postseason in their first years in San Diego, Kansas City and Philadelphia in 2013.

Five new coaches – Doug Marrone (Buffalo), Rob Chudzinski (Cleveland), Gus Bradley (Jacksonvile), Marc Trestman (Chicago) and Bruce Arians (Arizona) – missed the playoffs in the first season. Only the Cardinals had a winning record.

The decision will be Jones’ to make. Winning will matter, but will it be the only thing he uses to ponder Garrett’s future? Kraft is one of Jones’ best friends in ownership. Will he think of continuity if the Cowboys don't win in 2014?