During last Sunday's broadcast of the Cowboys' big win over the New York Giants, FOX commentator Troy Aikman said that former head coach Jason Garrett deserves credit for Dallas' success so far in 2021. Is Troy correct, and if so how far should that credit go?
It's no secret that Aikman and Garrett have a friendship dating back to their work together as starting and backup quarterback for the Cowboys during most of the 1990s. Despite his usual attempts to appear detached from all things Dallas, Troy spoke out in defense of Jason when the team fired him following the 2019 season.
There was immediate social media backlash to Aikman's pro-Garrett sentiment on Sunday. But while there may be some personal bias at work, was Troy entirely off base?
Several things currently working so well for the Cowboys were found and installed during Garrett's last few years as coach. First and foremost would be Dak Prescott, who went from a 4th-Round project to one of the best rookie QBs in history following the unexpected loss of Tony Romo in a preseason game.
Garrett's influence on Prescott is there. Sure, Kellen Moore opened up the passing game when he rose to Offensive Coordinator following Garrett and Scott Linehan's departures. Bigger numbers have led to bigger praise for Dak, but those aren't all that make him a franchise quarterback.
Prescott is a natural leader but he had a good example to follow in his first NFL head coach. You can be sure that Garrett's experience as a longtime pro QB helped him make that sudden transition in 2016 and take ownership of his locker room.
Another huge help to Dak then, and now, are a league-leading rushing attack and strong pass protection. The 2021 line remains a strength thanks to Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, two former 1st-Round picks of Garrett's.
Will McClay rightly gets most of the credit for Dallas' draft success, but the picks invested in guys like Smith and Martin were also born from Jason's commitment to fundamental offensive football. Tyron was Garrett's first draft pick a head coach and the start of a new philosophy that quickly led to Travis Frederick and Zack Martin as well.
That same philosophy also played into drafting RB Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. We can forever debate the merit of spending a 4th-overall pick on a runner, but there's no arguing that Zeke is enjoying one of his best seasons in 2021. The rushing prowess of Elliott and Tony Pollard has been a key to Dallas' success so far this year.
To be fair, current coach Mike McCarthy has built on what Garrett left behind. He turned the offense over to Moore and seemingly unleashed Prescott's full potential in the process. He also made WR CeeDee Lamb his first pick in a seeming commitment to giving Dak ample weapons around him.
In early 2018, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, and Geoff Swaim were the other starters in the passing game. It wasn't until midseason that Dallas went and got Amari Cooper via trade; a glaring admission that they hadn't respected the pass enough.
Respect also went too far in the wrong direction at times for Jason Garrett, particularly when it came to his coordinators. Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli had outlived their usefulness before the Cowboys finally cleaned house. Arguably, Garrett cost himself his job in Dallas by being too loyal to these men.
Garrett's loyalty and largesse wasn't all bad for the Cowboys, though. He stuck by Randy Gregory through four years of personal struggling with drug use and suspensions under the NFL's policy at that time.
In 2021, Gregory is delivering in ways we've been waiting a long time for. Under a different head coach during those early years, Randy probably never makes it this far with one team and may not even be in the NFL today.
While we joke about some of Jason's shticks, from the clapping to the canned responses about “good football players” and “the right kind of guys,” the culture he built in Dallas was one of mutual respect. Garrett-bred players remain the leaders today, taking that culture forward as the foundation for the strong team we see right now.
There's really no denying that the new brain trust of McCarthy, Moore, and Dan Quinn is superior on the X's and O's of modern football. They deserve the majority of the credit for what the Cowboys are currently accomplishing, doing more with some of the same players than Garrett, Linehan, or Marinelli ever did.
Still, Troy Aikman wasn't wrong with his comment. Jason Garrett does deserve some credit for what we're currently enjoying. But with that, the Cowboys front office should also be praised for recognizing that different minds and voices were needed to take Garrett's foundation to new heights.