It’s looking more and more likely that, whenever their season ends, the Cowboys will part ways with coach Jason Garrett. So what will happen next?
The names that have generated the most steam to date are Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley and former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, primarily because he self-generated the steam. But before the universe of potential candidates can be fully appreciated, it will be important to know one thing: Is owner Jerry Jones willing to surrender the keys?
After the surprise firing/resignation/whatever of Jimmy Johnson deep into the 1994 offseason, Jones wanted to assert himself, taking greater responsibility in the building of the team. That continued through the disintegration of the roster that Jimmy Johnson built and a haze of Switzers and Gaileys and Campos, when Jerry Jones became sufficiently desperate to chase Bill Parcells, even if it meant letting Parcells be even more of “the guy” than Johnson was.
Post-Parcells, the pendulum swung back the other way, with Jerry (and son Stephen) assuming greater control and visibility from Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett, neither of whom were ever inclined to quibble with others making the big decisions — and with others hogging the microphone and the spotlight.
Garrett, the Dallas coach with the second-longest tenure behind Tom Landry, was supposed to become Jerry’s Landry, with time and care and feeding and patience resulting eventually in an elite football mind capable of taking the talent that he’s given and work wonders. It hasn’t worked, and the failure is no more evident than this year, with the Cowboys having the best team since the days of gloryhole gone by . . . and with Garrett unable to coax that talent into as many wins as it should have.
The flaws with Garrett’s systems and style are now well documented. There’s no flexibility, no opponent-specific game-planning, no in-game adjustments, no active involvement in the coaching of players during games. Just standing, watching, and clapping.
So the question is whether Jerry will now bring in a coach who will want ownership to stand, watch, and clap? It all comes down to whether Jerry, 78, is sufficiently desperate to win and to win now to pursue a coach who will make it clear that three media availabilities per week from Jerry are three too many, and that there is indeed a new sheriff in town.
Jerry also could probe for a middle ground, someone with head-coaching experience who would coexist with Jerry’s publicity jones and not try to stifle it. Someone who would let Jerry think he’s running the show, like Uncle Junior, while the coach is one calling the shots, like Tony.
It’s unclear how Riley or Meyer would fit into that equation. Jerry may want someone who has been a head coach and someone he knows well. Saints coach Sean Payton was at the center of speculation until he signed an extension. It would be naive to at least not consider the possibility that Payton’s extension was motivated at least in part by not having constant chatter and Sunday Splash! reports regarding a jump from New Orleans to Dallas undermine Payton’s effort to win a second championship this year.
Ultimately, the question is whether Jerry would try to pry Payton away from the Saints. If Jerry can’t get Payton, would he look to other former Cowboys assistant coaches who are now thriving elsewhere, like Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who is signed through 2020? Or how about former Cowboys assistant Dan Campbell, who doesn’t have non-interim head-coaching experience but who is regarded in some circles as a potential head-coaching hire in the coming cycle?
And what about Ron Rivera? He has done far more in eight years than the Cowboys have done in the last 24, and he’s suddenly available. Would he be willing to let Jerry be Jerry and just coach the team?
Things can go in plenty of different directions, but the first fork in the road will depend on Jerry’s broader agenda, which will be driven by the true and full extent of his desperation when it comes to winning at least one more Super Bowl while he’s still the owner of the team. One he determines how badly he wants that, he’ll know whether it’s time to revert to the days of Johnson and Parcells.