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Jason Garrett learning on the job

IRVING, Texas -- Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

That might have been the difference in the NFC East division race last season.

It definitely illustrated Jason Garrett's inexperience as a head coach.

Before the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants kick off this NFL season Wednesday night, let's flash back to late in the fourth quarter of their first meeting last season. The Cowboys were in the midst of a meltdown moments after seemingly seizing complete control of the fight for the division crown on Dec. 11, having seen a dozen-point lead essentially disappear in a span of less than five minutes.

It was obvious that the Giants would take the lead when New York's Eli Manning and Jake Ballard connected for a first down at the Dallas 1-yard line. The Cowboys needed to save as much time as possible at that point. And Garrett froze for 15 agonizing seconds -- with television cameras catching owner Cowboys owner Jerry Jones screaming for a timeout from his luxury suite -- before forming a T with his hands.

We'll never know if the Cowboys, who had a 47-yard field goal blocked on the final snap of that 37-34 loss, could have taken advantage of that time. The Giants, who snapped a four-game losing streak and essentially started their Super Bowl run that night, surely don't care.

But it was painfully obvious that Garrett, in his first full season as a head coach, failed to put the Cowboys in the best possible position to win. And it came on the heels of an even worse clock-management crisis in the previous week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, a couple of puzzling brain freezes for a Princeton graduate who grew up in a football family.

"You don't become a great head coach Day 1," said Jimmy Johnson, who left Dallas after back-to-back Super Bowl titles, winning the second in the 1993 season with a certain Ivy Leaguer on the roster as a rookie third-string quarterback. "It takes time. There's going to be some growing pains. I think Jason's going to get it done. I believe in him.

"Jason's growing. He's getting better. That's what happens. The more you're in that job, the better prepared you're going to be."

Just to be clear, the clock isn't ticking on Garrett, despite the Cowboys' late-season fade last year, when they went from the driver's seat of the division at the beginning of December to the couch for the playoffs after losing four of their final five games, a collapse capped by a New Year's Day loss to the Giants in the de facto NFC East championship game.

Sure, you can point to Jerry Jones' track record and come to the conclusion that he doesn't have much patience for head coaches. After all, Garrett is the Cowboys' seventh head coach since Jones bought the franchise and fired the legendary Tom Landry in 1989.

But Jones believes Garrett will be his Landry, the guy who stops the revolving door in the front of the Valley Ranch coaches' offices from spinning. Garrett's rope will reach well past this season, with Jones understanding that his 46-year-old coach is going through on-the-job training, although that doesn't mean lowered expectations in Dallas.

"We don't have the luxury of paying too high of a price for that," Jones said this offseason. "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 as capable as he is to get the job done this year. That's why I'm excited about him being our head coach."

The good news, as far as Garrett's development goes: He honestly assessed and addressed his primary growing pains after the Cowboys' 8-8 season without sacrificing any authority.

"I know there is really nothing in my job that I feel like I have down pat," Garrett said, "so I'm trying to get better in all areas."

That's not just lip service.

That list starts with game management and play calling, particularly in the red zone. The hiring of offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan, a former head coach with the Oakland Raiders and University of Nebraska, should directly impact Garrett's most glaring shortcomings.

Give Garrett credit for not letting his emotions and ego get in the way of doing what was best for himself and the franchise.

Garrett has deep respect and admiration for former offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who was on the staff in Dallas when Garrett broke into the league as a player and in Miami when Garrett began his coaching career. But Garrett gently nudged Houck into retirement to make room for Callahan.

While Garrett will continue to call plays, Callahan's voice will carry heavy weight while creating game plans during the week.

It's not a coincidence that Garrett's most successful season as a playcaller came in his lone season working with Tony Sparano, who was at the time a line coach who had play-calling experience. Like Sparano then, Callahan will suggest certain running plays or pass protections during games. Oh, and Callahan also won't hesitate to let Garrett know when a timeout needs to be called.

"He's seen the whole thing from top to bottom, and that perspective helps me," Garrett said. "I can honestly say there are very few days I go through in my life that I don't learn something from each and every one of our coaches, and certainly the more experienced ones are the guys I learn from the most. … I learn from him every day, and just having him around and his expertise in all phases takes a lot off my plate and helps our football team in so many ways."

The Cowboys are confident that Garrett has grown as a head coach. He's got help this offseason, with upgrades on the roster and the coaching staff.

The wait is finally over. We're about to find out whether that's good enough for the Cowboys to win now.