Garrett will have offseason to prepare

IRVING, Texas -- For once, Jason Garrett will have some normalcy as the Dallas Cowboys' head coach in 2012.

When he took over as the interim head coach for Wade Phillips, he was asked to win a game in five days, and he did beat the New York Giants that first Sunday in the Meadowlands. When he was named the permanent coach a year ago, he was asked to get a team ready to play without the benefit of an offseason because of the lockout.

Garrett will have a normal offseason -- albeit a slightly scaled-back version because of the new collective bargaining agreement -- to put the players through a strength and conditioning program and a series of organized team activities and mini-camps.

With Sunday's loss to the Giants, he will have more time to detail that plan because the Cowboys finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the second year in a row.

Garrett is 24 games into his tenure, but the stamp he has put on the team has yet to dry.

"When you start a program, what we're trying to do is start with getting the right people together, and I think we've done that," Garrett said. "And hopefully we'll get our systems in place and get better and better as we go."

Garrett has a 13-11 record and his team lost four of its last five games down the stretch to miss the playoffs. The loss to the New York Giants on Sunday was a setback. A win would have made 2011 a success for those who believed the Cowboys were in a rebuilding or transition year whether they won a playoff game or not.

The defeat makes for a long offseason, looking for answers at a number of positions -- cornerback, safety, defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and offensive line. And they won't be able to answer all of them in free agency and the draft.

That's why the direction Garrett implements from now on matters and his "be great today" message won't change.

"I believe people believe in the direction we're going in," Garrett said. "I think there is evidence of positive things, positive direction we've taken. Again, we've had to make some decisions to get on the path that we're on. Hopefully, we'll continue to work through some of those growing pains and keep getting better. We have to learn from the positive things that happened. We have to correct some of the negative things that happened and go forward. Hopefully, everyone in the organization understands that. I believe they do."

The "they" Garrett is referring to are the players, coaches and the front office. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones has professed his faith in Garrett publicly. So have the players from those who will be here for the long-term, like Dez Bryant, and those who might not, like Keith Brooking.

His first full year included several hiccups, from the pass-happy second-half against Detroit that saw a 27-3 lead evaporate to the clock mismanagement against Arizona that led to an overtime loss.

"Hopefully I am [a better coach]," Garrett said "Absolutely. Hopefully I am and again we talked a lot about our players. We go through this process every week of playing. You watch the tape and you try to learn from it. We do the same things as coaches and I certainly try to do that in all the responsibilities I have as a coach. It's just an important process and we do that week by week and we'll do it again at the end of this season."

Garrett said goodbye to the players Monday and turned his attention to 2012. First up is the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where the coaches will get their first look at college players. In February is the NFL scouting combine.

Garrett earned rave reviews for his work leading up to last year's draft, creating a synchronicity between the coaches and scouting department that wasn't necessarily there under Phillips. The team's approach to free agency will depend on the dollars and players available, but Jones has promised to be aggressive.

"I do think people understand the program that we're putting in place here," Garrett said. "I do think we have the right kind of guys. I do think guys come to work and do things the right way. We just need to get better."

Things have to get better for Garrett's program to fully take hold.

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.