The Dallas Cowboys are the 2014 NFC East champions. Jason Garrett should be the 2014 NFL Coach of the Year too. You may disagree with that, but consider where the Cowboys were four months ago as they opened the season by hosting the San Francisco 49ers.
Quarterback Tony Romo was coming off back surgery and had barely played in the preseason. The Cowboys wanted to emphasize the running game, but we had heard that before. In fact Garrett and owner Jerry Jones wanted to emphasize the run game in 2013 and ended up having Romo throw it more than 60 percent of the time for the second straight season.
The defense was coming off a deplorable 2013 in which it was the worst statistically in the NFL and the third worst defense of all time. To make it worse, the Cowboys cut defensive end DeMarcus Ware, let defensive tackle Jason Hatcher go in free agency and watched linebacker Sean Lee suffer a season-ending injury during mini camp.
The process that Garrett values, that he preaches, is one of the biggest reasons why the Cowboys are playoff-bound.
Remember that season opener? The Cowboys lost, 28-17. Optimism did not reign. Not even close. Many of us who projected a 6-10 season, including myself, looked like we were right on the money. The only people who thought the Cowboys would do better than that, outside of team’s employees, were Cowboys fans.
Since then the Cowboys have gone 11-3, won a division title for the first time in five years and validated Garrett’s tenure as head coach.
This turnaround isn’t just measured by DeMarco Murray’s run to an NFL rushing title and a potential MVP award. It isn’t just measured by the most efficient season of Romo’s career, by Dez Bryant’s 14 touchdown receptions or the emergence of the NFL’s best offensive line. And it isn’t just measured by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli squeezing every last bit of talent and effort out of a defense that, on paper, looks overmatched.
No, it’s also measured by everything that Garrett has spoken about for the past four years but that many of us have taken with a grain of salt, thanks to three straight 8-8 seasons.
Process. Toughness. Focus.
More than X’s and O’s, Garrett wanted to install the qualities that made those Cowboys teams he played on Super Bowl champions three out of four years. They were undeniably talented, certainly more talented than this bunch. But mentally and physically this is a far different Cowboys team than the ones of recent vintage.
Every time the Cowboys have faced a situation that would have vexed them a year ago, they’ve responded with the sort of mental toughness and resolve Garrett has wanted but has long eluded this team. That has made up for some obvious shortcomings, especially on defense.
Garrett as a coach has shown growth too. The game management gaffes have disappeared. He’s shown more trust in his coordinators, especially on offense. He’s embraced the Cowboys’ new run-first discipline and stuck with it, even when it didn’t go their way, which hasn’t been often.
That’s no more clearer than in this December, where the Cowboys are 3-0 after going 5-9 in December the past three seasons. His game plans, built with offensive play-caller Scott Linehan, have been crisp and built on the foundation created the last three months.
These are the Cowboys many fans expected to see with Garrett as head coach, but in an era where we see NFL teams turn themselves around in one or two years, the fact that it took four-and-a-half years for the Cowboys to get here seems like an eternity.
But the Cowboys are here. They are once again a playoff team. And the process that Garrett values, that he preaches, and that he has installed in every nook and cranny he can find in Valley Ranch, is one of the biggest reasons why the Cowboys are playoff-bound and the “Country Club,” as former Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson once described Valley Ranch, is a thing of the past.
Better coaches in the NFL? Maybe so. But not this year. No, this year Garrett should be the NFL Coach of the Year. There’s no question in my mind, and there’s no question in the minds of any Cowboys fans after watching the Cowboys dismantle the Colts, 42-7, to clinch the NFC East.
Think about it: Did you really think the Cowboys would be here in late December? Of course not. The players made it happen, but the foundation Garrett constructed the past four seasons is what this turnaround is built upon.