Sunday, September 27, 2009

ESPN Mosley: Garrett Better Get His Money's Worth

Posted by's Matt Mosley

In the aftermath of the Cowboys' 13-3 season in 2007, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was one of the hottest coaches on the market. He reportedly could've had the top jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore, but Cowboys owner Jerry Jones paid him $3 million to stay at Valley Ranch.

Based on the '08 season, you'd have to say that both sides made a mistake. In one season, Garrett went from boy genius to a punching dummy for quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Terrell Owens. Early in the season, Garrett inexplicably kept home-run threat Felix Jones on ice in a loss to Washington, in part, because he was seemingly so busy trying to appease T.O.

In 2007, Garrett leaned on offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who had been the playcaller under Bill Parcells in '06. Sparano left to become head coach with the Dolphins following the '07 season and Garrett was on his own. He had the misfortune of losing Romo for three games midway through the season, which forced famed check-down artist Brad Johnson into action.

I don't think most people know how angry Jones was as he watched Johnson flail around for those three games -- and most of that anger was aimed at Garrett, who had convinced him that the team was set at the backup spot.

When the Cowboys ended the season with a humiliating 44-6 loss to the Eagles, Romo pointed the finger squarely at Garrett -- and he wasn't the only one. I still believe that Jones would've fired both Wade Phillips and Garrett if not for the fact that he may have ended up paying them a combined $6 million to sit out the '09 season. Yes, it sounds ridiculous to say that a man who coughed up roughly $700 million of his own money to build a new stadium would quibble over $6 million, but I think that's exactly what happened. He delivered a message of continuity in the wake of the Eagles loss, but quite honestly there really wasn't anything worth continuing.

But for now, Garrett has a chance to restore the shine to his once-promising future. By all accounts, he and Romo are back on the same page, although the quarterback's three interceptions last Sunday certainly raised some questions. I personally think the Cowboys' success or failure on offense hinges on whether Garrett's willing to commit to the running game. With Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, the Cowboys have one of the most talented groups in the league. Barber and Jones combined for more than 250 yards against the Giants' formidable front seven. But even as the Cowboys' massive offensive line was taking over the game late in the third quarter, Garrett couldn't help himself.

With a first-and-10 at the Giants' 46-yard line and a 24-20 lead, he called a pass play. Romo somehow missed seeing safety Kenny Phillips over the top and delivered an easy interception. As he blew through town for a charity event Thursday, former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson told an 103.3 FM ESPN audience that Garrett had to learn how to "back off" Romo at times against elite teams. Johnson's theory is that Romo will put up huge numbers against the Bucs and Chiefs of the league, but he needs to be reined in against teams such as the Giants and Eagles.

That's the biggest rub on Garrett. For all his innovative ideas, he hasn't been able to take the team's most important player to the next level. You'll recall that Jones was deciding between Phillips and former Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner when Bill Parcells left town. In terms of first-round picks, Jones had invested heavily on defense, so he went with Phillips.

Obviously, Turner would've been the better choice for Romo. He helped launch Troy Aikman's Hall of Fame career and he seems to be doing a pretty fair job with Philip Rivers in San Diego. And not to keep bringing up a bad memory, but Brad Johnson once threw for 4,000 yards, 24 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions under the tutelage of Turner in Washington.

Jones passed on Turner because he thought he'd found a younger version of him in Garrett. What we've now realized is that Romo still had Parcells' voice ringing in his ears in '07 via Sparano. Romo's so immensely talented that we're not able to see him as a bus-driver quarterback. But last Sunday night, that's all the Cowboys needed. Someone who would hand the ball to Barber or Jones and not make mistakes. That didn't happen -- and Garrett has to receive some of the blame.

There are some encouraging signs, though, that Garrett's moving toward a more balanced approach. In the 13 games that Romo started last season, only twice did he attempt fewer than 30 passes. He's yet to have 30 attempts through two games in '09. The Cowboys ran the ball 42.3 percent of the time last season, which makes absolutely no sense -- especially when you factor in the three games that Romo missed. Even in the two full games that Johnson played, Garrett had him attempt a combined 67 passes. I realize that Felix Jones went down with an injury in Week 6 and that Barber was banged up in December -- but 42.3 percent is a West Coast offense number. Now that the Cowboys are running at least 60 percent of their plays out of a two-tight end package -- they call it "12" -- maybe there will be more balance.

I think Garrett still has an opportunity to be a head coach in this league, but his window could shut in a hurry. If the Cowboys don't win at least one playoff game this season, I think Garrett and Phillips will both be gone. Unfortunately for both of them, some of the most talented head coaches in the league are sitting this season out. And at least two of them -- Mike Shanahan and Mike Holmgren -- have close ties to Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys owner will continue to vouch for Romo because he wrote him a check for $30 million two seasons ago. Garrett's in a much different situation. If he can't get through to Romo this season, Jones will find someone who can.

Unfortunately for Garrett, Jones has a few more options than he did in January 2007.