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Thursday, December 20, 2012
Updated: December 21, 12:32 PM ET
Jason Garrett stays the course

By Tim MacMahon
ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- Jerry Jones admittedly didn't have a good answer as he stood in the Dallas Cowboys' locker room while most of the country sat down for Thanksgiving dinner.

The question after the Cowboys fell a game under .500 after another loss: What is there to like about the direction that Jason Garrett is leading this team?

Jason Garrett
Jason Garrett has always preached about "the process." And, as boring as it may sound, Garrett has never wavered and it seems to finally be producing the desired result for the Dallas Cowboys.

A frustrated, frazzled Jones, fresh off watching his team's rally fall short after rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III carried the Washington Redskins to a 25-point halftime cushion, made a somewhat stunning confession. The only positive signs the eternally optimistic Cowboys owner could come up with -- his team's comebacks, the fact they kept playing hard -- were "hollow."

At that point, all Garrett had were his principles and his process. There certainly wasn't any apparent proof of progress.

Fast forward a few weeks. Garrett's Cowboys have stacked three straight wins to regain control of their playoff destiny. The last two victories have been comebacks that occurred under unimaginably adverse circumstances against teams contending for the playoffs.

Many of us expected suspended coach Sean Payton's pending decision to stay in the Big Easy or bolt for Valley Ranch to be the dominant storyline leading into the Saints-Cowboys game. At this point, however, it's extremely hard to envision Jones giving up on Garrett, even if an old pal/proven Super Bowl championship coach is available.

Understand that Jerry really wants to be right about Garrett, who has given his boss legitimate reason to support the belief that he's the right guy for the job.

The Cowboys are experiencing tangible success, although Garrett quickly points out that they've yet to accomplish any of their goals in the grand scheme of things, steering the conversation to preparing to face the Saints at noon CT Sunday.

Garrett displayed the intangible qualities that long ago convinced Jones he would be a great leader of men. He deftly balanced handling a devastating, delicate situation -- an alleged drunken-driving accident that resulted in the death of one player and the second-degree felony arrest of another -- with the bottom-line business of winning a couple of critical games.

A heck of a lot has changed over the last three weeks. Yet Garrett hasn't changed a lick.

"Well, he's shown the same thing that I've seen in Jason for years," Jones said after Sunday's win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, gushing for a few minutes about his redheaded golden child's character and communication skills. "I'm just glad that he's having the opportunity for a lot of people -- and he's done it with hard work -- to recognize that and maybe tune in to it."

Jerry's hand-picked head coach just kept hammering away. Garrett continued taking the right approach. He kept stacking good days. He reported to Valley Ranch wearing his metaphorical hard hat each and every day.

Pick your favorite yawn-inducing Garrett saying. He stuck with 'em.

And the process appears to be finally paying off.

"It's a testament to him that guys have stayed the course with him," said 10-year veteran tight end Jason Witten, a team captain. "We believed it, we believed it, we believed it and now we're coming out on the other end. You've still got to keep believing it, because your back's still up against the wall. You can't let up at all."

It's not as if Garrett has attempted to implement some revolutionary football concepts since taking over as the Cowboys' head coach midway through the 2010 season.

His general philosophy as far as building a winning franchise goes frankly is pretty boring: "It's about putting the right kind of people together and doing things the right way on a daily basis. That's really what it is. I think that's good for football teams; I think that's good for ice cream shops. That's what you try to do in life."

His primary football principles are pretty vanilla, too. Garrett wants a team that plays with a relentless spirit and passion, that wins the turnover battle and that executes well, especially in critical situations.

That, as Garrett notes, probably gives him something in common with 31 other head coaches in the NFL.

Nobody with any sense could possibly argue against any of Garrett's principles. The results, on the other hand, have left plenty of room for rip jobs ... until recently.

The relentless passion and spirit have never been a problem under Garrett's tenure. Hollow as it might be as far as evaluating a head coach, the Cowboys have always played hard for Garrett, which represents progress only because this team quit on Wade Phillips before his firing.

The turnover battle? The Cowboys were terrible for most of this season. They were a miserable minus-11 after 11 games. Not coincidentally, they've forced twice as many turnovers as they've committed during their three-game winning streak.

The Cowboys stunk at situational football last season, blowing five fourth-quarter leads, including a couple in which Garrett's clock-management gaffes played a critical role. The Cowboys had a couple of glaring late-game meltdowns during their 3-5 start this season, too. But they've been clutch conquerors the last two weeks, pulling off impressive comebacks against the Bengals and Steelers.

It's only the right message if it's getting through to the players. And the only way Garrett knows how to do that is to keep delivering the same message in different ways, something he learned from coaching mentors such as Jimmy Johnson, Nick Saban and, yes, Payton.

"I can go back to every coach that I've had and I can tell you what they believe in, because it's important to him," Garrett said. "I'm no different than anyone else. You have to somehow, some way convey that to your team. You have a lot of different opportunities to do that.

"At some point, hopefully it sinks in. Guys understand what you're trying to do. And it doesn't happen overnight. It happens over time."

Garrett's team has given tangible evidence to fuel the hope that it's happening now. There are actual reasons to believe that Garrett is building a winner.

Garrett's process is generating progress. Nothing hollow about it, which is enough to prevent Payton's shadow from hanging over the hole in the JerryWorld roof Sunday afternoon.