That was a nice way of saying the Cowboys, at last, had fired Garrett on the heels of a wildly disappointing season.
“He is, and always will remain, a cherished member of the Dallas Cowboys family, and his contributions to the organization are greatly appreciated," Jones said in the statement, issued during the Seattle Seahawks-Philadelphia Eagles game.
Garrett’s dismissal had been a foregone conclusion, and what matters here is whether Jones finds a coach who can get the Cowboys back to a Super Bowl. But the strange saga of Jones, Garrett and the Cowboys’ coaching situation has been about as curious as it gets during the NFL’s firing-and-hiring season for coaches. Garrett’s 10-year head coaching tenure with the Cowboys was mostly below expectations. Its week-long conclusion was confounding.
The Cowboys interviewed former NFL head coaches Marvin Lewis, who took the Cincinnati Bengals to the playoffs seven times, and Mike McCarthy, who won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, on Saturday.
The search could include prominent college coaches such as Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Baylor’s Matt Rhule, along with former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. Jones could try to pry Sean Payton from the New Orleans Saints or Mike Zimmer from the Minnesota Vikings. He could settle for a current assistant with head coaching experience, such as the Vikings’ Gary Kubiak or the Saints’ Dan Campbell. There has been speculation about the possibility of Jones giving the job to Jason Witten, the Cowboys tight end who already had a short career as a broadcaster and perhaps could try coaching next.
But in the meantime, wouldn’t resolving Garrett’s status sooner have been merciful? Garrett’s contract was to expire Jan. 14. So the Cowboys, technically, didn’t have to do anything. But that’s generally not how things are done in the NFL.
Jones was expected to oust Garrett swiftly following the previous Sunday’s season-ending win over the Washington Redskins. Instead, Jones and his son, Cowboys executive Stephen Jones, held a series of meetings with Garrett early last week without reaching a resolution. A report Thursday night by ESPN that the Cowboys would move on without Garrett in the organization was not confirmed at that point by the team.
Garrett’s professional fate seemed obvious weeks ago. It appeared all but sealed when the Cowboys lost a Week 16 game at Philadelphia in which they could have clinched the NFC East title with a victory. The Week 17 win over the Redskins wasn’t going to change anything. The Cowboys went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, and it seemed there was no way that Jones could stand by and go into another season with Garrett as his coach.
The Cowboys will join two other NFC East teams, the Redskins and New York Giants, in having new coaches next season. The Redskins, after firing Jay Gruden in October, completed their coaching search amid the Cowboys’ chaos. The Redskins struck a deal Tuesday with Ron Rivera, announced it Wednesday and formally introduced him Thursday. The Giants fired Pat Shurmur last Monday and quickly lined up interviews with candidates.
Jones seemed unconcerned that the Cowboys were getting a late start. They’re the Cowboys, after all. But will that still be good enough to lure a coach capable of getting Jones and the franchise back to a Super Bowl?
Garrett is a pleasant and affable guy. He is a competent NFL coach. But he is not at a championship level, or at least he wasn’t during his lengthy Cowboys tenure. So when Jones upped the stakes for this season by handing out a series of lucrative contract extensions to key players on what he clearly considered a Super Bowl contender, then discussed Garrett’s job status publicly and exhaustively as things unraveled for the team, it felt at times as if an inevitable parting was being drawn out, needlessly and excruciatingly.
Jones has spoken of his great affinity for Garrett, once the Cowboys’ backup quarterback to Troy Aikman. Jones groomed Garrett for the head coaching job. He made Garrett an offensive coordinator and paid him handsomely to stay in Dallas as an assistant coach. He gave Garrett nine full seasons as the team’s head coach after initially replacing Wade Phillips with Garrett during the 2010 season.
Garrett produced three playoffs appearances and two postseason victories. He didn’t get the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl, and he never even reached an NFC championship game, losing three times in the divisional round. He had a regular season record of 85-67.
This season’s shortcomings seemed particularly galling to Jones. The Cowboys haven’t been to a Super Bowl since the 1995 season, and Jones seems increasingly fixated on getting back. He made Ezekiel Elliott the NFL’s highest-paid running back with a six-year, $90 million deal completed in early September, ending Elliott’s holdout and allowing the Cowboys to enter the season with their lineup at full strength. That came after previous contract extensions were given to linebacker Jaylon Smith and right tackle La’el Collins.
When Jones signed Elliott rather than taking a hard-line negotiating approach to the running back’s holdout, it was clear that he didn’t want to allow business to interfere with what he thought could be a special season. What he got, instead, was an especially exasperating one.
Jones signaled that it was a win-or-else season for Garrett, no matter his personal regard for his coach, when he didn’t sign Garrett to an extension and allowed Garrett to coach in the final season of his contract. He put Garrett on public notice when he said after a late-November defeat at New England that the Cowboys had lost that game because of the fundamentals of football and coaching.
The public examinations of Garrett’s job security, or lack thereof, continued from there. Jones said he would stick with Garrett because that gave the Cowboys their only chance of crafting a storybook ending to their season. He said he expected Garrett to coach in the NFL next season but didn’t say whether that would be for the Cowboys.
Jones must find his next coach. He still must sign quarterback Dak Prescott to a new deal. The same is true for wide receiver Amari Cooper if the Cowboys want him to stay.
Perhaps Jones will find a coach who can get him and the franchise back to the Super Bowl. It’s unlikely, however, that he will find a coach who will be able to last 10 seasons in Dallas, mean as much to Jones as Garrett did or, eventually, leave under such odd circumstances.
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