Jason Garrett and the Case For Midseason Firings

Jason Garrett is by all accounts a brilliant, philanthropic, interesting human being. But as an NFL head coach, he stinks. In Garrett’s eight seasons (yes, eight seasons) as Jerry Jones’s puppet, he’s lost three Week 17 play-in games in a row, been an abysmal game coach, and concocted an offensive playbook about as dynamic as the color beige, all the while wasting the prime of one of the most talented offensive lines in NFL history.  His inability to inspire the Cowboys was most recently illustrated by an embarrassing loss at home to the Titans last Monday Night Football. His players seemed lost and deflated.

Cameras captured Jones’s frustration that night. In fact, his restraint in not shattering his hand once the loss was cemented was by far the night’s most impressive performance from the Cowboys. Jones was livid. Fans blew out their vocal cords from the booing.  With an upcoming schedule that includes the Eagles on Sunday Night Football in Week 10, the red-hot Saints and NFC East leaders Washington and Philly, the Cowboys may soon be fighting the Giants for the division cellar.

After the hapless loss to the Titans, Jones said the team “look tired” and called the night “a step backward,” but when the elephant in the room was asked – WILL YOU FIRE JASON GARRETT NOW? – the Cowboys Owner/GM/Spokesman/sleepy caricature of his old self let out an emphatic NO.

Garrett’s leash has seemingly been never-ending but that may soon change. Everyone agrees change has to come in Dallas and since the obvious move – Jerry Jones replacing himself with a real GM – is as likely to happen as Donald Trump asking someone to proof his tweets before hitting send, that leaves Garrett on the chopping block.

With a regressing team and an outdated offensive philosophy exposed as even more ineffective in the shadow of this season’s offensive boom, the Cowboys have a reached a failure threshold. Many NFL observers believe Garrett be gone at season’s end, as does one source inside the Cowboys organization when posed as a yes or no question. So with the team reeling, why prolong the inevitable?

There is a long held belief, especially in the old guard NFL, that midseason change is a negative. That it disrupts the flow of a machine, even if that machine isn’t terribly well-oiled. There is truth to the negative cloud given that a midseason pivot signals a lost season. And yes, the NFL is rooted in routine and structure and any tweaks can come with pitfalls.  But no pitfall is as treacherous as losing, especially as an underachiever like Dallas.

Once a team senses their head coach is a goner, that coach loses the locker room. He doesn’t command inherent respect. Players in non-contract years can become less motivated. The combination of disgruntled players and nervous assistants can swell into a very toxic situation.

Instead an interim coach offers freshness in terms of style and philosophy. Baker Mayfield had a little more swing in step after the first game in the post-Hue Jackson era. Players and other assistants also inherently step up their game because they just witness the rapidly fleeting security of any NFL gig.

For an owner and GM, making a midseason pivot can sometimes serve as an audition.  The Titans made TE coach Mike Mularkey an interim in 2015 after firing Ken Whisenhunt midseason, and while the teams only racked up a couple of wins, ownership saw enough to strip the interim label (after thoroughly complying with the Rooney Rule, of course).  Most teams find a new head coach from outside but why not get a leg up on the auditioning if you think you have an inside candidate with even a sliver of possibility.  Of all people Jones followed that exact path in 2010 when he fired Wade Phillips and replaced him with personal protégé Jason Garrett.

The Cowboys probably don’t have the heir apparent in the organization. But what they do have is a huge mess with not much hope on the horizon. Aside from the Eagles on national television in Week 10, they travel to Atlanta before hosting the Redskins and Saints at home in consecutive weeks on national television.

When Jones fired Phillips in ’10  he said:

“An in-season coaching change is not something I’ve done before, something I was reluctant to do as recently as last week. But I think what’s best for the organization and the fans is a coaching change.”

If the Cowboys continue to embarrass themselves, how can Jones not say the same thing?