Jason Garrett can learn from the past

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Now comes the hard part for Jason Garrett.

All of the talk about how Garrett changed the culture around Valley Ranch in his eight-game stint as the Dallas Cowboys' interim coach is true.

Players wore full pads to Wednesday practices. They jogged from one drill to the next. Garrett installed clocks around the locker room to make sure players had no excuses to be tardy. He shut off the music during the stretching portion of practice. He instituted a stricter dress code for road games. He fined Marion Barber for failing to adhere to the code and fined some other players for being late to meetings or having a cell phone go off in a meeting.

Everything was more businesslike.

The Cowboys responded with a 5-3 finish with Garrett calling the shots and had a chance to win all eight games. And they did it with Nos. 2 and 3 quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee starting because of Tony Romo's broken collarbone.

But Garrett also benefited from the 1-7 start to the season that led to Wade Phillips' dismissal. The expectations were so low that whatever Garrett did would seem like an improvement. And the players had increased motivation, too.

With Phillips gone, it was on them to improve. If they didn't play better, they were the next to be gone. They started to play for their jobs with the Cowboys or for another team in the future.

Garrett deserves the credit for taking a bad situation and making it a lot better. The Cowboys were not as talented as they were made out to be when just about everybody called them Super Bowl favorites when the season began. But they were not a 1-7 team, either.

Phillips let too many things slide and it cost him his job.

Under Garrett, the Cowboys played to what was their proper level -- a 10-6 team -- even with their backup quarterbacks.

Jerry Jones believes the Cowboys can be a playoff contender in 2011, putting a lot of that on the return of a healthy Romo. Jones is correct. A successful quarterback makes everything run smoothly. How the Cowboys' defense fell apart after Romo's injury against the New York Giants is the biggest mystery of the season.

Now that he has lost the interim tag, Garrett has to show he is more Marty Schottenheimer than Bruce Coslet.

In 1984, Schottenheimer took over as Cleveland's interim coach and went 4-4. Within two years he had the Browns as close to a Super Bowl as they ever came only to see John Elway orchestrate The Drive. A year later, they suffered through The Fumble against the Broncos in the AFC title game.

While he never made it to the Super Bowl, Schottenheimer won 200 games with Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington and San Diego.

Coslet is a more cautionary tale. In 1996 he took over for Dave Shula in Cincinnati after the Bengals got off to a 1-6 start. Coslet went 7-2 and the Bengals thought they had found their coach. Coslet played for franchise's founder, Paul Brown. He learned under Bill Walsh. He brought a toughness that Shula lacked.

Given the permanent job, Coslet won 14 games over the next four-plus seasons.

Garrett must get the players to continue to play with the same effort and pride that the team showed when it had nothing on the line. He has to be tougher on the players than he was as the interim coach and then he can back off.

Garrett learned under Jimmy Johnson as a player for two seasons and considers Johnson a mentor. His first coaching job came under Nick Saban in Miami in 2005 as the Dolphins' quarterbacks coach.

Saban and Johnson are/were disciplinarian-type coaches, and Garrett has to be a disciplinarian.

That's the only way the Cowboys take Garrett's "be great today" approach and become great tomorrow.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.