Garrett’s tight leash momentarily works

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The change from ambivalence to command came so abruptly last week that the Dallas Cowboys’ players sensed Jason Garrett had been planning for his first day as a head coach for years. But in a sport where control means everything and coaches are ultimately judged by their authority, an obvious question lingered over the Meadowlands on Sunday night.

Why did Jerry Jones wait so long to fire Wade Phillips and make Garrett his coach?

The Cowboys, who trampled the NFL’s best defense, roaring at will across the Meadowlands’ green turf, were the same dreadful Cowboys of the season’s first two months. The Jon Kitna(notes) who threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns was the same Jon Kitna who was intercepted six times in his previous two starts. The team that looked like it could go to the Super Bowl is the same wretched team that was supposed to go to the Super Bowl but instead flopped.

The players didn’t change.

The coach did.

The need for this had been obvious for weeks around Dallas, maybe for years. But Jones, the Cowboys’ owner, is loath to being wrong. Phillips might have been too casual, too easygoing, never burdening players with fierce interpretations of the team rules, but he was Jerry’s guy and back in January he won Jerry his first playoff game since 1996. And so he stayed, even when it was clear he had to go and firing him was the only thing that could salvage the Cowboys’ season.

Now it’s too late. The Cowboys are 2-7 and if Garrett had been promoted in October there might have been time for Dallas to leap into the playoff hunt in a muddled NFC. Instead, Jones waited and the Cowboys plunged to the bottom of the conference.

Sunday, standing in the middle of the team’s locker room, not far from where linebacker Bradie James(notes) minutes earlier handed Garrett his first game ball as a winning head coach, Jones was asked if the win justified the coaching change.

“I’m not going to get into that,” he said. Then he smiled and made a plea: “Please don’t make too much out of this [victory].”

He chuckled. “But I know you will.”

How could anyone not?

The one thing that struck the players on Wednesday morning when Garrett first addressed them as a group was how prepared he was for the moment.

The rules spilled out.

Meetings, which had been casual affairs under Phillips, now have precise starting times. Players are to be on time, no drifting in late.

During practice every player must be in team-issued gear, in Cowboys colors and Cowboys logos. No more wearing shirts handed out by shoe companies, tucking them under practice jerseys.

When the team travels players have to wear coats and ties and dress trousers. No jeans, T-shirts or sweatshirts.

There is even a rule when the national anthem is played in the stadium. Everyone must stand like sentries on the sideline in one continuous formation of players and coaches.

“The way he did it, he took all the gray area out,” Kitna told Yahoo! Sports. “We are all on the same page now.”

The idea to all of this is to create discipline, to make the Cowboys feel less like a collection of players and more like a team. For too long under Phillips, Dallas had been a promotion vehicle for a group of stars, famous for statistics or flashy lives but disappointments when the season grew late and the playoffs beckoned. The Cowboys do magazine covers and television specials as well as anyone in the NFL. But when it came to the postseason they are long forgotten as the playoffs go on with other teams.

“Coach Phillips had a style that won a lot of games,” Kitna said, making clear as many Cowboys have, that they liked their old coach, that they feel that in losing they took advantage of his good nature and became sloppy.

Garrett jokes around with WR Dez Bryant(notes), who had his first 100-yard receiving game Sunday.
(Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Maybe Garrett’s rules are childish. These are grown men, after all. But policies like wearing ties and standing on the sideline for the national anthem have a track record of success in the NFL. They work. They bring discipline. More importantly they give the players focus.

“I always think when you fire the coach you fire the whole team,” Kitna said. “We weren’t mature. We couldn’t handle what he allowed us to do.”

Sunday evening the Cowboys’ temporary coach who should probably be the permanent coach stood at a lectern beneath the New Meadowlands Stadium. With the cap pulled down over his head, his expression serious but confident, he exuded a sense of control. He looked like a head coach. He was dull, rehearsed, almost.

When asked questions about the changes he wanted to make and the inspiration he tried to give the team he responded with bland expressions like: “one of the things we try to get our players to understand is that adversity is part of this game.”

It was not an exciting comment, it wasn’t wild and fun and exciting as the Cowboys have been in recent years. But for the franchise where details have been missing for far too long it was exactly the message the Dallas needed to hear.

Someone is finally in charge.

Why did it take so long?

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Nov 14, 2010