Commentary

Jason Garrett laying solid foundation

Interim coach making changes that should help Cowboys, and keep him on the job

Updated: November 17, 2010, 9:54 AM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Jason Garrett isn't just keeping the seat warm for one of those Super Bowl winners Jerry Jones claims have called about becoming the Dallas Cowboys' next head coach.

In fact, the odds are that Garrett's lectern will remain in the Valley Ranch atrium for a long time.

Garrett isn't treating these eight games as an extended job interview. He's simply operating as he sees fit after taking over the NFL's biggest 2010 failure, laying the foundation for the Cowboys to live up to their potential at some point in the near future.

What would it take for Garrett to earn this gig on a permanent basis? Princeton's most famous football alum would rather discuss the greater meaning of Marion Barber's refusal to wear a suit and tie on the recent road trip.

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant, Jason Garrett
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJason Garrett didn't waste any time taking a firm grasp on the Cowboys' head coaching job.

"Not really something that's even in my consciousness right now," Garrett said the day after his impressive debut as interim coach. "Talking about being focused on the day, I'm focused on today."

Garrett just wants to get back to work. Jones wants it to work, and that's what really matters regarding this issue.

The owner/general manager is vague when discussing what has to happen in the final half of this otherwise wasted season for him to commit to Garrett as the Cowboys' coach. (The league's Rooney Rule requiring a minority candidate to be interviewed for the vacancy and the potential complications due to the looming lockout could have something to do with that.)

But Jones is giving Garrett plenty of room to prove him right. Remember that Jones identified Garrett as a head coach candidate in 2007 and has been paying him like a head coach for the past two-and-a-half seasons after talking the ex-Cowboys backup quarterback into turning down offers from Baltimore and Atlanta.

"I want us to make improvement, period," Jones said. "I want to see that materialize, see it tangibly."

If that's all it takes, mission accomplished in one week.

After all, that's all it took for the Cowboys to match their win total from the first half of the season. They did it with a convincing road victory over a New York Giants team considered one of the NFC's Super Bowl contenders.

More importantly, there was more discipline instilled during three practices last week than in the three-and-a-half years of the warm, fuzzy Wade Phillips era, when Garrett apparently bit his tongue instead of stepping on his boss' toes. Garrett immediately and drastically changed the atmosphere and attitude at Valley Ranch for the better.

It took Garrett six days to turn doubters into believers. Never mind the knee-jerk media types, myself included. The vast majority in the locker room, including defensive players who really didn't know him until his take-charge meeting last Wednesday, now hang on Garrett's every word.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware and Jason Garret
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe defense didn't know much about Garrett when he took over, but that has changed. "You never know what the future holds, but right now, he's doing a great job," DeMarcus Ware said. "He's putting good structure in and everybody has his back."

It's not like any of Garrett's changes -- such as practicing in full pads on Wednesdays, jogging between drills, the new travel dress code, the strict instructions for how to stand during the national anthem -- are revolutionary. But they get his message across: The details are a big deal.

"I think he's laying a foundation down for right now to pave the way for the future," outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware said. "You never know what the future holds, but right now, he's doing a great job. He's putting good structure in and everybody has his back."

Well, maybe not everybody. Barber's open defiance of the dress code was disturbing, especially considering his status as a team captain.

However, Garrett couldn't have handled the situation any better. He enforced his rules without letting his ego get the best of him.

Garrett could have pounded his chest and let Barber rot on the bench Sunday in the Meadowlands. But he didn't believe that would have been in the best interests of the team. (As a pro-Tashard Choice guy, I'll respectfully disagree, but that's another debate for another day.)

But Garrett didn't let Barber get away with such blatant disrespect. Barber got fined an undisclosed amount, and there will be further consequences if the man with the $45 million contract (and the $450,000 production) refuses to dress like a professional on the next road trip.

Garrett's message to the media when pressed on the issue was succinct. He basically said the expectations are made clear to the players, that there would be consequences for those who don't follow procedures, and that it was really none of our business.

This isn't a case of an interim coach concerned about his image. This is a coach with strong convictions implementing changes he firmly believes will benefit his team, right now and down the road.

"The business is a bottom-line business," Garrett said. "You have to win games; you have to perform on Sundays. But I think the best way to go about doing that is taking care of the process along the way."

Added tight end Jason Witten: "He's made it clear that's the way we're going to go about it. There's no question that it's not just a remainder-of-the-season deal. We're going with it for the long haul, and we're going to win a lot of games."

If the Cowboys can win four of their final eight, given the circumstances, it ought to be a foregone conclusion that Garrett continues as their coach.

Jerry, who regretted that Garrett's promotion couldn't have come with more "ceremony," would love nothing more.

First of all, there are major financial benefits if the Cowboys move forward with Garrett. He'd come at a significantly lower price than what Jones would have to pay to persuade, hypothetically speaking, a Super Bowl champion like Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden to leave a cushy television job. Plus, if the Cowboys hire an established head coach, an overhaul of the assistants would follow, no matter how many on the current staff were still under contract.

It's also about perception. If Garrett succeeds, Jerry gets credit for identifying him as a head coach in the making and keeping him from leaving. If an established coach succeeds, the only thing Jerry gets credit for is finally getting out of the way.

OK, so those aren't necessarily the right reasons to keep Garrett for the long haul. But based on a one-week snapshot, Garrett certainly appears to be the right guy for the job.

If the Cowboys can build on that for the rest of this season, it's a smart bet that Garrett will be back. And it'd be a wise move.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.

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