It was the turn of a decade, and the Dallas Cowboys were in the midst of a controversy. The team had a reputation for underachieving relative to its talent level. Their Super Bowl drought had grown unacceptable. Their head coach was the target of much of that criticism.
The Cowboys responded by going to back-to-back Super Bowls, winning one of them, and then won another before the decade was out. The coach ended up being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
That coach, of course, was Tom Landry. He wasn’t new to getting bludgeoned by the fans and media. Critics had wanted to get rid of him as early as 1964, a point at which he had never led the Boys to a winning season. General Manager Tex Schramm and owner Clint Murchison gave Landry an unprecedented ten-year deal. That investment paid itself off in 20 consecutive winning seasons, five conference championships, and two Lombardi Trophies.
The club for which Landry coached annually tops the list of the world’s most valuable sports franchises. The pressure on the head coach is enormous. The current occupant of the position just finished an 8-8, non-playoff season, his tenth campaign with the Cowboys. Jason Garrett’s contract expires early in the new year and many hope (demand?) the team elects not to bring him back.
With big-picture decisions like replacing a key executive, a business always has to look at the replacement options. It has to be sure that what it can bring in will be better than what it let go. And it has to look at the situation holistically. Before you fire an employee you perceive as unproductive, you have to make sure you have supplied them the tools to do their job properly.
In a press session I attended, Troy Aikman, a former teammate of Garrett’s with the Cowboys, seemed to imply that the Cowboys might be best served evaluating their management structure before deciding to scapegoat the coach.
I’ve bumped into Jason Garrett a few times over the years and found him to be consistently even-keeled – a nice guy. That’s too small a sample size to truly understand his character, but does appear his key playing personnel truly respect him, with Dak Prescott saying as much and Jason Witten coming out of retirement to play another season for his longtime coach.
I’m also not enough of a football guru to properly evaluate a coaching staff’s (or a front office’s) operational decisions. It’s possible advanced statistical metrics might reveal Garrett to be a below-replacement level coach. Or maybe they might show him to be above-average and hit with bad luck or subpar performances by certain players. The Cowboys had a lot of dropped passes this year – is that because he brought in a receivers coach who taught poor technique, because the front office improperly valued moves over hands, or was it just bad timing that several guys had uncharacteristically bad years catching the football? I don’t know, but if I’m evaluating a coach based on factors that contributed to losses under his watch, I need to find out. Because if it’s the second or third scenario, t doesn’t go on his ledger.
Garrett has won three division titles and one NFL Coach of the Year award. The team has the eleventh-most regular season wins in the NFL over the last 10 years. Is that more or less than someone else would have done with the same tools? He was a Dez Bryant-inspired rule change away from a catch that would have put his team into a conference championship game. In 2017, he lost three games while his star running back served a personal conduct suspension and barely missed the playoffs. Four of his squad’s losses this season came by four points or less, including road defeats in New Orleans and New England. Are those valid factors to explain away unsatisfactory performance? I don’t know, but I would sure want to make sure I did know before I got rid of an Ivy League-educated, well-respected former player for my last Super Bowl teams.
Because I’d know for sure I wouldn’t want him turning into the next Tom Landry (or Bill Belichick, or even Jimmy Johnson) wearing somebody else’s colors.