EDITOR'S NOTE: This column was published before news broke on Monday morning that the Cowboys are set to hire former Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
In hindsight, there was really little suspense left in the Dallas Cowboys' marriage to Jason Garrett after a dispiriting loss in the November rain and wind of New England. Despite the long wait, his departure was all but inevitable, the outcome not in doubt, only how long the curiously protracted divorce would take. In fact, a firing wasn't even necessary. Garrett was coaching without a contract for next season, so when the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs, the team could simply walk away, albeit slowly, from him. Nobody could argue that it wasn't time.
After days of silence from the Cowboys, Garrett's tenure finally ended Sunday, capping a transformative week for the NFC East. This used to be the gold-standard division of the NFL. Now, it is in shambles, with three of the four teams starting over at head coach and the division champion -- the Philadelphia Eagles -- finishing the season 9-7 and earning a playoff berth. According to NFL Media Research, the only time there were at least three new head coaches in this division was the 1994 season (Norv Turner, Buddy Ryan, Barry Switzer).
Before Garrett was let go, the New York Giants fired Pat Shurmur after just two seasons. Shurmur won just nine games and continued a dispiriting decade for the Giants. Since they last won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2011 season, the Giants have missed the playoffs in seven of eight seasons. And for a franchise respected for its stability and ownership, they have been immersed in uncharacteristic turbulence. Whoever is hired will be the Giants' fourth coach in five years. And team owner John Mara said on Monday that general manager Dave Gettleman's "batting average" must get better.
It says something about the upside-down state of the division that the Washington Redskins may be handling their transition best of all. With other teams' searches just starting in the final 48 hours of 2019, they hired former Carolina coach Ron Rivera. Rivera is a widely respected figure in the league and has the standing to get what he wants from any franchise. That he chose Washington -- which fired Bruce Allen as its top football official last Monday -- suggests that owner Dan Snyder is giving him considerable power to shape the football operation. Snyder said this past week that the team will have one voice, and be coach-centered like the most successful franchises in the NFL. It's also worth noting that it was Snyder who made reference to changing the culture of his franchise. The first indication of what that might look like: Rivera mentioned discipline and pointedly did not anoint quarterback Dwayne Haskins, a former first-round pick and a favorite of Snyder's, as the starter.
The backdrop to all these coaching decisions is the ugly reality of what the NFC East has become. With no dominant team in the division, the Giants, Redskins and Cowboys can envision quick turnarounds with the right hires. That may be especially true for the Cowboys, who have enough talent on offense to be a contender immediately.
That is what made their performance this season so disappointing and ultimately cost Garrett.
Owner Jerry Jones often sounds like a fan, allowing his emotions and public proclamations to ride the roller coaster of a season. He was harsh and unsparing in his assessment after the mistake-marred loss to the Patriots, cutting to the heart of the underachievement with this zinger: "With the makeup of this team, I shouldn't be this frustrated." But when the Cowboys upset the Los Angeles Ramsthree weeks later, Jones bubbled about riding Garrett's coattails to a fairy tale. The guy in the Staubach jersey in the upper deck was probably looking at the standings in the laughable NFC East and allowing himself to dream, too.
But don't let the pom-pom waving fool you. Jones is the general manager of the Cowboys, too, and he knows there is more talent on this team than the results indicate. He is paying heavily for this roster -- and will have to pay substantially more this offseason to quarterback Dak Prescott, a pending free agent -- and too often it was coaching and decision-making that provided the margin of error for the Cowboys.
"I don't think there's a game that a coaching staff has ... that it couldn't do better in," Jones also said that night in Foxborough. "I just don't like it that we've got so many as I'm standing here tonight."
It wasn't new. It's one thing to be out-coached by Bill Belichick. The Cowboys were in good and plentiful company there. It's another to lose to a winless and outmanned Jets team, or the moribund Bears when it was clear the playoffs were hanging in the balance. The Cowboys entered the final week of the regular season with the best point differential and yardage differential of any sub-.500 team in the Super Bowl era, but they were 0-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer. That goes directly to in-game decision making and discipline, the edge that the winningest teams possess. The Patriots had it back in November, as they usually do. The Cowboys -- who didn't use Ezekiel Elliott on third-and-short, who opted to kick a field goal when faced with fourth-and-7 from New England's 11-yard line, trailing by 7 with 6:08 to play -- did not. Too often the Cowboys looked ill-prepared and disinterested, as they did on Thanksgiving in an embarrassing loss to the Buffalo Bills. There are dozens of examples for the Cowboys to deconstruct this offseason, but an overarching philosophical decision from this season has to inform Jones' coaching search: Why did the Cowboys shift to a Prescott-centric offense when they had the most success running through Elliott, and which way will a new coach want to go?
What drove the change now is the sense that Dallas is stuck in neutral again, and that, too, has been a problem for much longer than one season. It has, in fact, been that way since that last Super Bowl in 1995. They have already wasted the careers of Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, and a protracted turnaround would mean not taking advantage of the prime years of Prescott, Elliott and a stellar offensive line. Jones, who is 77, wants desperately to win another championship. He certainly has the talent, especially on offense, to contend again quickly. But the Cowboys need renewed attention to detail and creative play-calling to elevate this roster into a perennial contender. In Garrett's nine-plus seasons as head coach, the Cowboys advanced to the postseason three times, winning a total of two games.
The question looming over the Cowboys search will be if Jones is finally prepared to cede some of his own visibility to get the right coach, college or pro? Of the jobs likely to be available, Jones can offer the roster that is most primed to win right now, but Jones has not had a highly pedigreed coach since Bill Parcells. Garrett was willing to put up with Jones giving weekly state-of-the-franchise updates because he had little choice. Garrett's authority was undoubtedly undermined, though, and that didn't benefit anyone. It is not a condition that exists at any other franchise. Jones certainly should be able to lure whichever coach he wants -- he has plenty of money, a fine roster and monstrous prestige to offer -- but helping a new coach be successful will be Jones' next challenge because he is surely the face of the franchise, beyond what any coach or player could be.
Jones wasn't wrong when he said he should not be as frustrated as he has been, considering the makeup of his team. But to land the person who can end more than two decades of frustration, Jones might finally have to let someone else be the constant voice of the Cowboys.