Only once in the history of the Dallas Cowboys has a head coach been fired in the middle of a season. It happened in 2010 following a humiliating 45-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Wade Phillips was shown the door and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett took over.
Six years later, Garrett is poised to earn his first NFL Coach of the Year award. The Cowboys reached 13-3, tying their best record in franchise history. The top seed in the NFC for these 2016 Playoffs, Dallas is preparing for their first game as they’ll be hosting the Packers this Sunday.
With Green Bay back on the schedule and Garrett’s stock never higher, it’s an interesting time to reflect on how things have circulated since that fateful week in 2010.
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Jason Garrett was always known to be a favorite of owner Jerry Jones. In 2006, Bill Parcells was using a hybrid duo of Tony Sparano and Todd Haley as his running and passing game coordinators, respectively. When Parcells retired in 2007, Jerry brought in Garrett to run the offense. Sparano even stayed on staff as the offensive line coach but all coordinating duties now belonged to Jason.
After Dallas had the league’s 2nd-best offense in 2007 there were plenty of teams interested in making Garrett their head coach. He reportedly turned down offers from the Ravens and Falcons that offseason. Jerry gave Garrett a raise that, at that time, made him the highest-paid assistance coach in the league.
Jason had other interviews the next two years but you always had a sense that both he and Jerry were waiting for the master plan to unfold in Dallas. That may have been why Jerry hired an older guy like Wade Phillips, someone who could only keep the seat warm for so long.
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The early part of the 2010 season is arguably the lowest point in recent Cowboys history. Even with Tony Romo starting, Dallas had a 1-4 record to begin the year. Then, against the New York Giants, Romo suffered his first collarbone injury and was lost for the season.
Veteran Jon Kitna took over and fared no better, losing that week to the Giants and again the following game. At 1-6 and seemingly lost as a team, the Cowboys traveled to Green Bay to take on a Packers squad that would eventually go on to become Super Bowl Champions that same season.
Going into that game, Jerry Jones had said that he wasn’t a fan of firing a coach mid-season. However, the brutal 45-7 thrashing that the Cowboys endured pushed Jerry to take action. There was nothing left to lose with Wade Phillips, so Jones ended his tenure and named Jason Garrett the interim head coach.
Dallas won the very next week, on the road against the Giants. They would finish the year 5-3 despite Kitna remaining the starter. There seemed to be a new enthusiasm and effort throughout the team under Garrett’s leadership, and this generated optimism about what the future would bring once Tony Romo returned.
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The only time Cowboys fans want to see “8-8” is when you’re deciding between blue and white Troy Aikman jerseys. Otherwise, it conjures some disappointing memories.
From 2011-2013, Dallas finished each season with an 8-8 record. They narrowly missed the playoffs each year, either losing a Week 17 game or squandering a good record with a December collapse. Tony Romo’s injuries also played a part as he missed late-season games in 2011 and 2013.
Coaches have been fired for less than what Jason Garrett produced during those three years. However, Jerry Jones likely saw what many of us did. Despite the roster undergoing a massive overhaul and Romo’s occasional absences, Garrett kept them competitive. They were always just on the cusp of the postseason.
If Garrett could finally build his foundation and coach his roster, what would the results be?
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Jerry Jones’ faith began to be rewarded in 2014.
The Cowboys jumped to 12-4, winning the NFC East for the first time since 2009 and only the third time in 16 seasons. Behind the dominant offensive line that began construction with Tyron Smith in 2011, Garrett’s first pick as a head coach, DeMarco Murray set a team record in rushing yards.
Dallas won their first playoff game against the Detroit Lions and then traveled to Green Bay, their first visit to Lambeau Field since that fateful 2010 game. The Cowboys’ postseason ended in controversy with a Dez Bryant catch that was ruled incomplete. Even with that disappointment, everyone was excited about what the future held and the foundation that Garrett had laid.
Those good feelings would be short-lived, though, because of another Tony Romo injury. The 2015 season would mark another low point in Cowboys history as Romo missed 12 games and parts of others. The team fell to 4-12, its worst record since 1989. To put that in context, ’89 was Troy Aikman’s rookie season, Jerry Jones’ first year as owner, and Jimmy Johnson’s first as a head coach.
Despite this fall from grace, many did not blame Jason Garrett. They remembered what he did the previous year and focused more on the lack of depth at quarterback, or the issues with the defense. However, had Garrett not earned the cache of success from 2014, it’s reasonable to assume that last year might have been his undoing.
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While you could’ve made a case in 2014, this season truly feels like we’ve come full circle from the start of Jason Garrett’s tenure. 2014 could have been an aberration, but now he’s won two division titles in three years and with two different starting quarterbacks. There is now a system in place in Dallas, Garrett’s system, and it’s getting results.
One of the most common mistakes in professional sports is when management doesn’t give a coach time to fully implement his vision for a team. How often do we see coaches gone after just one or two seasons, still in the midst of trying to optimize the roster for their system?
This is a case when Jerry Jones’ loyalty, which has gotten him in trouble in the past, yielded wonderful results.
Jerry handpicked his coach, groomed him from 2007-2010 and then stood behind him through some rough spots. The reward will likely be Garrett becoming the first Cowboy to win Coach of the Year since Jimmy Johnson in 1990.
In a way, it’s like Jerry Jones has also come full circle as an owner. He finally seems to get what works and what doesn’t, and Jason Garrett was one of the guys who helped teach him.
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Jason Garrett’s career seems to keep intersecting with the Packers. You can go all the way back to his greatest day as a player, the 1994 Thanksgiving victory that he led over Green Bay as the Cowboys’ third-string quarterback. That performance showed you that Garrett lived what he preaches now to his players, focusing on the moment and being your best at any given opportunity.
Garrett’s coaching tenure began thanks to a crushing loss to the Packers. His peak thus far is the 2014 loss in Green Bay, a game Dallas arguably could’ve won but for a single bad call. Now the Packers are back in his crosshairs as he tries to lead the Cowboys back to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1995.
It’s not often that coaches get more than one window to try to win a championship. Garrett has navigated the closing of Tony Romo’s and led the team into the Dak Prescott Era. He has instilled a culture into the organization that has players giving their best and seemingly fighting for one another and the franchise they represent.
This Sunday, Jason has a chance to separate himself from Wade Phillips, Bill Parcells, and every other Cowboys coach not named Landry, Johnson, or Switzer. A win would be a new milestone in his career.
As always seems to be the case, though, Garrett and the Cowboys will have to go through the Packers first.