Cowboys' Garrett takes hints from former coach JohnsonNov. 19, 2010
By Jamie Aron
IRVING -- As a third-string quarterback on the 1993 Dallas Cowboys, Jason Garrett tried to absorb every nuance of the game and he especially took note of the way coach Jimmy Johnson ran the club.
Johnson set a tone that resonated throughout the locker room and all of team headquarters. The Cowboys were good and knew it. They knew hard work got them from 1-15 to Super Bowl champs and only more hard work would keep them there. Rules were spelled out, consequences, too; only novices or fools tested the boundaries. Practices could be as tough as games.
By following Johnson's lead during the week, the Cowboys won on the weekends. Garrett never forgot that. And now that he has Johnson's old job, he is using a similar blueprint to make the franchise a winner again -- so far, that is.
Garrett is only 1-0 since replacing Wade Phillips last week, but soundly beating the division-leading Giants in New York helped win over a lot of skeptics. On Tuesday, he took a break from planning for the Detroit Lions to let Johnson know his way is back in vogue at Valley Ranch.
"Making sure I get the maximum performance from everyone in the organization every day is my No. 1 daily focus," Garrett wrote in a text message to Johnson.
Garrett has learned from every coach he's been around, crafting his theories on offense by playing for the likes of Norv Turner, Ernie Zampese, Sean Payton and Jon Gruden, and getting more lessons in leadership from Nick Saban in his first stint as an assistant coach.
Yet after his first season as offensive coordinator in Dallas, it was Johnson who Garrett turned to for advice on whether to become head coach for the Falcons or the Ravens.
"We talked at length about those jobs and the alternative of staying in Dallas, about the pluses and minuses and what the risks were," Johnson said. "Then he flew down here to the Keys and spent three days with me."
Garrett was invited for a guys' weekend of fishing, drinking and talking football. He brought along Troy Aikman and several pages of questions.
"I told Troy, 'This guy is wearing me out!'" Johnson said, laughing. "I wanted to drink beer and have fun and all he wanted to do was talk football."
It wasn't about strategy. They mostly discussed running a football team, how to lead 53 players and a staff of assistant coaches. That was among Johnson's greatest attributes as he took the Cowboys from one win in his first season to Super Bowl champions in his fourth and fifth seasons.
"Xs and Os sometimes clutter people up," Johnson said. "They forget that players win games. Jason understands that. He's going to make sure his players are upbeat and motivated. And it's not just the players, it's everyone in the organization -- assistant coaches, second-team offensive guards, secretaries. They all need to be positive, upbeat."
Dallas was 1-7 when Garrett took over, so the first thing he did was create a new, tougher atmosphere.
Wednesday practices are now in full pads. Players must hustle from drill to drill every day. They have to show up earlier every morning and must dress like professionals on a business trip when they travel. On Wednesday, digital clocks were being installed throughout the facility, all synchronized together. Everyone was told the consequences for violating each rule and several guys already have been punished.
It's all part of the "culture change" team owner Jerry Jones wanted when he made the first in-season coaching switch in franchise history.
"Intelligent people that work at it, they can solve the problems," Johnson said. "That's what I like about Jason -- he's intelligent, has a passion for the game and he'll work hard. That's what gives him a chance. Is he the greatest in the world in every phase? Probably no, not right now. But smart people figure out a way."
Garrett was smart enough to get a history degree from Princeton. In fact, he's the first Princeton alum to become an NFL head coach. His wife, Brill, went to Princeton, too, and she also got a law degree from Harvard.
Garrett comes from a football family -- his dad, Jim, was in pro football nearly every year from 1954-2004, the last 17 years as a Cowboys scout. His oldest brother was a high school coach for more than 20 years, and two more brothers are in Dallas as the tight ends coach and assistant scouting director.
Garrett's career journey is a tale of hard knocks: a year on the Saints' developmental squad, a year as an assistant coach at Princeton, time in the World League and the CFL, all before making an NFL roster. He ended up lasting for 12 seasons and it wasn't because of his arm; he played only 25 games. But he was ready when called on, going 6-3 as a starter.
Those who know him best are convinced he has what it takes to be a successful coach.
Aikman told Fox viewers Sunday that Garrett could've become president of the United States had he chosen politics over football. Cowboys radio analyst Babe Laufenberg, a former quarterback, compares Garrett to Bill Walsh.
"I'm not saying he's going to win three Super Bowls like Bill Walsh," Laufenberg said. "But Bill Walsh recruited me to Stanford and I see so many of the same characteristics in Jason -- as a person, how they approach football, how they teach it."
Former Cowboys safety Darren Woodson still remembers a conversation he had with Garrett more than 15 years ago. Garrett wanted to know how a safety decides which way to cover a tight end on passing downs, whether to move up and bump him off the line of scrimmage or to back off and follow his route.
"I had to think about it myself," Woodson said, laughing. "You just knew then that this was his life. You could sort of see that this is what he's going to do. He's so organized. He pays attention to all the details. He asks all the right questions. So what he's doing now doesn't surprise me."