JJ: Jason Garrett can make team believe
They could not have known it at the time, but the meeting Troy Aikman arranged between Jimmy Johnson and Jason Garrett brought together the only coach in Cowboys history to lose 15 games in a single season and the red-headed hopeful who just this week was provided the challenge of trying to avoid equaling Johnson's infamous record while transitioning into his own first NFL head-coaching job.
"Jason has prepared himself well,'' Johnson said Thursday. "He's very organized and even though this is a very difficult situation -- as difficult as it can get -- I sent him an e-mail this morning telling him to give it his best shot.''
It should be noted that as impossible as Garrett's task seems to be, that the former backup quarterback did, at least a few times, capably replace Aikman. If Garrett can accomplish that, winning with the players who betrayed Wade Phillips so badly that Jerry Jones fired him shouldn't be all that difficult.
Aikman and Garrett have remained friends well beyond their playing careers, which is worth noting on Garrett's resume. A year after Garrett turned down head-coaching offers from the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens following the 2007 season, he approached Aikman about traveling to Johnson's sun-drenched paradise in the Florida Keys to allow the former coach with whom they each won two Super Bowl rings to educate him on the requirements of succeeding in the NFL.
Johnson had helped prep Garrett for his previous job interviews by speaking to him on the phone for an hour or so.
But their meeting lasted a few days, and the additional time allowed for more detailed conversations. Garrett arrived with a purpose and was thoroughly prepared, and Johnson clearly was not. Garrett had several pages of questions, which he asked relentlessly. At one point, Johnson turned to Aikman, laughed and said, "I need a little break. Let's enjoy each other a little here.''
The three spent a few days discussing Garrett's role as offensive coordinator under Phillips, the Cowboys' personnel and what Garrett should be prepared to do whenever his next head coaching opportunity was presented.
"He wore me out,'' Johnson said.
In his very first day with the players as the only interim head coach in Cowboys history, Garrett did some of the very things Johnson had recommended. He started their day with an early meeting in which he warned everybody that they would get exactly what they earned -- regardless of whether they were millionaires with guaranteed salaries or undrafted free agents. He tolerated no walking between drills, and he will have them practice in full pads every Wednesday.
Aikman noted the changes Garrett had implemented in an e-mail to Johnson on Thursday morning, saying, "I know you will love it. Full pads!''
That tells you how far they've fallen. How deep their problems are, how low it has gotten when you have to tell millionaires to try. The last couple of weeks was embarrassing. It's embarrassing to anybody affiliated with the sport.” -- Former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson
"He's doing all the things they've needed to be doing for years,'' Johnson said Thursday. "That is how you win games. The No. 1 thing Jason has to do is bring out the best in what they have there. Especially the veteran players -- the old veterans -- their habits will be hard to break and, unfortunately, they have some bad habits.''
Coaches with powerful personalities and genuine authority like Bill Parcells and Johnson are the only ones who have succeeded in Jones' two decades of ownership. The players must view the head coach as the one person in the organization who controls their playing time and their ultimate fate or dysfunction will ensue.
That was never the case with Phillips, who took a different approach and began mocking Parcells at his introductory news conference. I'm not sure whether he continued in his farewell address to the players who got him fired Monday.
Johnson witnessed plenty of awful football when he took over the Cowboys, but he was appalled as he saw a Cowboys team that began with Super Bowl expectations in a 45-7 debacle that would be Phillips' final game as coach.
"It was obvious to anybody who watched -- from the astute football person to a housewife -- that team had shut it down, and that's a shame,'' Johnson said. "I don't think it's too far wrong when people said this was extremely talented team, and this year is wasted. It's a shame to see all that talent wasted.''
Despite all of his positive reinforcement of Phillips and his refusal to see the damage being inflicted by his refusal to hold players accountable, it was Jones who finally defined how far the Cowboys have fallen.
He did that when he outlined his expectations for the Cowboys under Garrett.
The owner, who once drove Aikman crazy because he expected a Super Bowl every year, doesn't even expect victories from his team over the second half of the season.
He just wants Garrett to convince the wealthiest locker room in the NFL to play hard.
"That tells you how far they've fallen,'' Johnson said. "How deep their problems are, how low it has gotten when you have to tell millionaires to try. The last couple of weeks was embarrassing. It's embarrassing to anybody affiliated with the sport.''
Johnson made no qualms as to what he would have done to cornerback Mike Jenkins, a talented Pro Bowl player who, for the second time in his career, turned down a tackle that might have prevented a touchdown. "It would never have gotten to that point,'' Johnson said. "We didn't have anybody do that when we were 1-15.''
Garrett does have that in his locker room, starting in his secondary. So in that regard, his challenge is more difficult than that Johnson accepted in 1989.
Johnson had a multi-year contract and won a national championship at Miami. Garrett has eight games and no head-coaching experience.
After I mentioned that it seemed Garrett had succeeded in convincing even the most ardent Phillips supporters such as linebacker Keith Brooking to believe in him, Johnson cut me off.
"I don't need to hear anything from the players,'' he said. "I just need to see performance.''
Almost nobody expects Garrett to accomplish enough in a very short time with an extremely difficult remaining schedule to win the job permanently.
But I think Jones sincerely wants this to be the long-term solution because Garrett offers the owner and general manager his best opportunity to avoid overpaying for the credibility of a Super Bowl winner such as Jon Gruden or Bill Cowher.
If Jones pursues one of them, he will be forced into a negotiation in which Jones would be almost certain to concede some of his power.
Jones viewed Garrett as the Cowboys' head coach when he hired him before Phillips and paid him an identical salary to turn down the Falcons and Ravens.
In fact, Jones' actual plan never included Phillips. He wanted to hire Garrett to be included on Parcells' final coaching staff and then have him take over when Parcells retired. That line of succession couldn't happen when Parcells retired a year sooner than expected and Garrett was deemed not ready.
"I think without question Jerry wants it to work with Jason,'' Johnson said. "Jerry 100 percent wants it to work, and I think 100 percent it can work. But it won't be easy. I think Jason will need tremendous people skills to make sure there's everybody on the same page and positive. There's going to be resistance, and so it takes people skills to make sure they believe what he needs them to believe.''
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.com and contributes weekly to ESPNDallas.com.