Jason Garrett is no longer the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. After a season full of crushing disappointment—and a strange week of meetings, misleading reports, and foot-dragging—the inevitable outcome was finally reached. For nearly a decade, Garrett roamed the sideline in this role, clapping away as one of the league’s prestige franchises routinely fell short of expectations. He finishes his tenure with an 85-67 record. Dallas won two playoff games under his watch, and never advanced past the divisional round.
Garrett’s nine full seasons at the helm probably say more about the Cowboys as a franchise than about his abilities as a coach. He was hired in 2007 as the hotshot offensive coordinator Dallas couldn’t afford to lose, but it didn’t take long for that shine to wear off. After being elevated to head coach on the heels of Wade Phillips’s ouster in 2010, Garrett showed some initial signs of promise, but struggled to get the most out of the Cowboys’ considerable roster talent. Garrett’s conservative nature and lack of imagination prompted quarterback Tony Romo to simply change plays at the line of scrimmage, and Garrett eventually gave way to lackluster offensive coordinators like Bill Callahan and Scott Linehan handling play-calling duties. Yet even as Garrett’s shortcomings as an offensive mind became clear and his skills as a CEO type came into question, Dallas stuck with him—because in many ways, Garrett was the ideal coach for the Cowboys’ power structure.
You’d think that an organization like Dallas, with its deep pockets and supposedly grand ambitions, would want the best coach possible. But Garrett’s presence allowed Jerry Jones to maintain his preferred dynamic within the franchise. Garrett was one of Jerry’s guys: a coach and confidant for whom the owner has great affection, but also someone who Jones could easily keep under his thumb. The question now, as the Cowboys begin their first national coaching search in more than a decade, is what type of franchise they want to be.
Dallas has built one of the most talented rosters in football. It finished second to only the Lamar Jackson–led Ravens in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA in 2019, with a unit featuring Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, the terrific receiving tandem of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, and one of the league’s best lines. The defense lagged compared to last season’s group, but the core players on that side of the ball—Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Leighton Vander Esch (pending his health)—should form a strong nucleus heading into 2020. Of the five head-coaching jobs now open, the Cowboys have the most complete and proven roster. And while Prescott and Cooper’s long-term futures with the franchise remain uncertain, both should be back in the fold next fall; a loophole in the CBA could allow Dallas to use both the franchise and transition tags this offseason, giving it a mechanism to keep Prescott and Cooper even if neither signs an extension in the months to come.
The Cowboys’ premier talent alone should make this job attractive to any offensive-minded head coach, but there’s a reason why some people around the league view the Giants opening—which comes with embattled general manager Dave Gettleman and a roster that went 4-12 this season—as more appealing. That’s because working for Jerry Jones isn’t easy. The Cowboys’ org chart allows Jones to carry more titles than Daenerys Targaryen, and while his son and executive vice president Stephen Jones and vice president of player personnel Will McClay handle the day-to-day operations on the roster-building side, Jerry is still the general manager. He’s also the most visible owner in the sport, one who holds court with reporters multiple times per week and creates the occasional firestorm with his comments.
When it comes to Jerry’s influence during this coaching search, it may not be a matter of whether a high-profile name like Urban Meyer or Lincoln Riley wants to come to Dallas, but whether Jerry wants them. The Cowboys’ ability to wrest major personnel decisions away from Jerry and hand them to Stephen Jones and McClay in recent seasons has coincided with a string of excellent draft picks and trades; in the past few years, Prescott, Smith, Lawrence, cornerback Byron Jones, tackle La’el Collins, guard Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick have given Dallas a stable of homegrown stars, while moves to add Cooper and defensive ends Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett have effectively subsidized that talent. But when it comes to major decisions such as finding a head coach, Jerry still holds much of the power. Aside from his personal feelings about Garrett (which unquestionably played a factor in his longevity, as well as the prolonged process of parting ways), Jones seemed to enjoy having a head coach he could control. Meyer and Riley are highly sought-after candidates who’ve spent their respective careers creating and building programs as singular football voices. Either may bristle at the idea of ceding much say to Jerry, meaning that both could represent options he prefers to avoid.
Jones could look at the landscape and think that a first-time head coach like Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale or Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is more suitable for his purposes. But after the underwhelming season Dallas just had, it’s unlikely this kind of hire would appease a restless fan base. Jones hasn’t been shy about saying that he’ll do whatever it takes to build a winner in Dallas, and bypassing splashy hires like Riley, Meyer, or even Baylor’s Matt Rhule to go with the latest trendy coordinator wouldn’t necessarily reflect that mind-set.
Even with all the complications that come with working for Jones, the Cowboys should be able to land a big fish. The roster remains loaded, the franchise has a history of finding top talent, and Dallas has the deepest pockets in the league. Plus, while the Jerry factor can be construed as a negative for Dallas, at least the ownership and power structure are known quantities, unlike the situations in Cleveland or Carolina. The Cowboys didn’t mind dragging their feet in making their decision about Garrett because they knew that it wouldn’t hinder their chances with the highest-profile coaches on the market. If the Cowboys want to extend a godfather offer to a coach like Riley or Meyer, they can.
The decision to slowplay the Garrett move out of an “abundance of care and respect” for the coach amounts to further proof that the Cowboys are run like a family business that wants to take care of their own. Only this family business is the most visible and valuable sports franchise in the world, led by a 77-year-old owner who’s been vocal about his obsession with winning one more title before all is said and done. As that pursuit begins anew, Jones and the Cowboys have to decide whether chasing greatness is more important than maintaining a dynamic that’s close to the status quo.