IRVING, Texas -- Whether you like the job Jason Garrett has done or not, no one who really studies the Dallas Cowboys would ever call him a puppet.
There have been times during his four-plus seasons as coach that he has had more authority than others, but he never has been a guy so happy to be the Cowboys' coach that he just let owner/general manager Jerry Jones run amok.
That has not been the case with each of the seven coaches Jerry has hired since he bought the team in 1989.
The easiest way to determine whether the coach is a puppet is to take an informal survey among players. If they believe the coach is the person in charge of their playing time and future on the roster, then he's not a puppet.
If the players believe the GM, or in the Cowboys' case, the owner, ultimately decides their fate on the team then you have a puppet.
Garrett has the Cowboys poised to end their dreadful four-year playoff drought precisely because he's not a puppet.
"Jason is easy to work with, but he's very demanding of his staff, the players and us," vice president Stephen Jones said. "He challenges me and I know he's challenged Jerry a few times.
"He challenges whether this is the right move, is the right player to keep. Do we really want to pay this much money to this player? Sometimes, Jason can be pushy with me, and in his own way with Jerry and his staff and the players, but he's not a bully. There's a difference."
A puppet wouldn't have persuaded Jerry to draft an offensive lineman in the first round in three of the past four seasons, considering the owner had never used a first-round pick on an offensive lineman.
A puppet wouldn't have persuaded Jerry to let DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher leave for free agency after last season. How many times have we seen Jerry give an aging veteran one last long-term deal as a thank-you for past performances?
And if Garrett were a puppet, we all know Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray would already have long-term deals, but Garrett has persuaded Jerry to take a different view on the way the Cowboys do business.
Garrett's greatest contribution to the Cowboys is that he has given the franchise direction. When he took over, it had none.
The Cowboys were a 1-7 team that had quit on Wade Phillips, a coach who loved his players and considered them family. Phillips is the only coach Jerry has ever fired during a season.
One of the first decisions Garrett made was to make the players practice in full pads on Wednesday and Thursday, the two heaviest practice days of the week. Physical practices create physical teams.
"You have to build and compete. That's what you have to do in this league," Garrett said. "Somehow, someway with the group that you have, you have to give yourself the best chance to win on Sundays.
"All the while, you want to move the team in a certain direction. You have a vision of what you want the team to look like. You have to make decisions for today but also for the future."
Only two starters remain from Garrett's first game -- tight end Jason Witten and right tackle Doug Free (then the left tackle). Tony Romo was out because of a broken collarbone and Anthony Spencer is a rotational player these days.
Only 11 players remain on the roster.
Ask the players on this team about this today, about the three-game stretch they have in the next 12 days and how it will affect their ability to make the playoffs, and you get virtually the same answer from everyone.
"We're focused on the Giants," they say.
The majority of the players on this roster have been acquired since Garrett has been the coach. All they've ever known is Garrett's mantras. It should surprise no one that the players sound as if they've been programmed.
The Cowboys are about to embark on the most important six-game stretch of Garrett's career, considering he's in the last year of his contract.
Their health is as good as could be expected. No good excuse exists for them not to make the playoffs.
"Teams have an arc in personnel. We got to a point with a lot of the guys who played on that  team that we had to kind of slowly move on from them," Garrett said. "We had to get younger, and that's a very conscious decision we made, and we had to make some hard decisions right at the outset on players that had been good players for us.
"That was the right thing to do, and you have to bring in good guys to replace them and that has been a process for us. That's what we had to do at the time and we lived through that and we've done some good things to get this team to this point."
A puppet couldn't have done that.