Commentary

Can Jason Garrett get up to speed?

Optimistic Cowboys can't afford to have neophyte coach making rookie mistakes

Updated: June 4, 2012, 3:01 PM ET
By Tim MacMahon | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones believes he has a team built to win now.

He knows the Dallas Cowboys better be ready to win right away when he looks at the roster.

The Cowboys' four most accomplished players -- outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware, tight end Jason Witten, quarterback Tony Romo and nose tackle Jay Ratliff -- will be on the wrong side of 30 when this season starts. The time is now if the Cowboys want to cash in on their prime.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett and Jerry Jones
AP Photo/LM OteroJerry Jones expects Jason Garrett to be the Cowboys' coach for a long time, calling him "my Tom Landry."

How about head coach Jason Garrett?

"I think Jason is just the first steps out of the box," Jones said.

So you have an owner in win-now mode who employs a head coach who is learning on the job. If that seems like a strange fit, you can blame the general manager, which goes for pretty much everything that has gone wrong at Valley Ranch in the past decade and a half.

Just know that owner/GM Jones wouldn't want any other coach in charge of the Cowboys.

Jones, who has hired seven head coaches, said he thought Garrett would be "my Tom Landry" when the interim tag was officially removed from the former Cowboys backup quarterback's title. Jones remains convinced that the 46-year-old Garrett will be a great coach despite a rocky first full season on the job.

"With his intellect and with his passion and his temperament -- he's an overachiever, but a smart one -- I think the sky is the limit for him," Jones said.

Hey, Landry didn't even win a game during his first season in charge of the Cowboys. It took seven years for Landry to have a winning season.

Of course, Landry took over an expansion team with no built-in expectations. Garrett took over America's Team that somehow is part of the annual preseason Super Bowl hype regardless of what happened the previous season, probably in large part due to Jerry's marketing genius.

The marketing genius, however, will be remembered as a football fool if his franchise doesn't win a Lombardi Trophy without Jimmy Johnson's fingerprints all over it. (Figuratively speaking, in the case of the Cowboys' last Super Bowl title.)

And Jones' sense of urgency is as strong as ever, regardless of Garrett's inexperience as a head coach.

There is recent proof that an experienced head coach isn't a requirement to be fitted for a Super Bowl ring. The Pittsburgh Steelers won a title when Mike Tomlin was a 36-year-old second-year head coach. Sean Payton was 46 years old in his fourth season as a head coach when the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl.

Garrett Every single day I look at it, and I never look at any part of my job and say, 'Boy, I've got that down.'

-- Cowboys coach Jason Garrett

"We don't have the luxury of paying too high of a price for that," Jones said of Garrett's on-the-job training. "That's the challenge for him. He's up to it. He's got the right stuff to effectively learn as he goes and, at the same time, coach at a level that will get us to where we want to go next year. He's very up to it.

"I don't know of anybody else in the country that has that upside potential, yet is capable as he is to get the job done this year. That's why I'm excited about him being our head coach."

Let's be brutally honest: Garrett's performance was the Cowboys' biggest disappointment last season.

That's partially because he showed so much promise in his half season as the interim coach, instantly changing the culture of a team that quit on Wade Phillips and making the Cowboys competitive down the stretch despite having no playoff hopes and no Romo. But Garrett's rookie mistakes, as much as anything, cost the Cowboys a playoff spot last season.

Garrett was too aggressive with his play-calling during Romo's second-half meltdown against the Detroit Lions. He was too conservative with his play-calling while the Cowboys blew another lead to the New England Patriots the next week. He had a couple of clock-management crises in close losses to the Arizona Cardinals and New York Giants.

And Garrett's biggest mistake might not have happened while wearing a headset. His refusal to acknowledge that he completely botched the final minute of regulation in Arizona was ridiculous, as if anybody really believed that a Princeton product would be dumb enough to let 26 seconds tick off the clock to settle for a 49-yard field goal attempt by a rookie kicker … and then call a timeout to ice the kid.

That's the kind of PR fumble that can cost a young coach credibility. That's what makes the redhead's spring self-assessment so refreshing.

"Every phase of my job I have to get better at," Garrett said. "I have to get better at the leadership phase. I have to get better at the organizational phase. I've got to get better at what we're doing on offense, how we're doing things on defense and in the kicking game. Every single day I look at it, and I never look at any part of my job and say, 'Boy, I've got that down.'"

That's the way Garrett needs to approach his job, now and for the rest of his career. That's the tone he needs to set for a team that somehow often suffers from self-entitlement despite its puny playoff resume in recent history.

There's no question in the boss' mind that Garrett will become a brilliant head coach. But Jones doesn't have the patience for potential at this point.

The pressing question: Can Garrett get it down quickly enough?