Why Jason Garrett’s job security with the Cowboys is a sore point for black fans
Dallas coach’s long tenure is a reminder that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know
After Jason Garrett’s decision to punt on 4th-and-short cost the Dallas Cowboys a chance at a badly needed win last week, his future with the Cowboys has been a hot topic.
Stephen A. Smith called for him to be fired. But that’s not all he said:
Somebody had to say it, dammit! pic.twitter.com/Lu93GkMiwI
— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) October 9, 2018
Smith explained why, for some black fans, Garrett’s presence on the sideline reflects a painful fact of life in America: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Relationships play an outsize role in opportunities in one’s career.
Currently, there are seven black head coaches in the NFL. That’s as many as there have ever been. But the bond between Garrett and Jerry Jones highlights the next frontier for blacks in the NFL: the absence of black owners and lack of black general managers.
The Rooney Rule, which forces teams to interview black candidates when there is a head-coaching vacancy, was implemented in part because the white decision-makers on NFL teams had trouble seeing black coordinators as potential head coaches. And if those coordinators weren’t getting interviews, it was much more difficult for them to develop relationships and build trust with owners and general managers.
In many ways, football is like any workplace. And as we all know, promotions and opportunities don’t always go to the most qualified people, they go to the people the bosses like and trust. We are all more likely to develop relationships with people that we feel we have the most in common with. Maybe the Rooney Rule opened the minds of NFL decision-makers to hiring more diverse candidates, but there is still another level to reach. All but one of the current NFL majority owners are white. And after this season, when Ozzie Newsome retires from Baltimore and Reggie McKenzie is expected to be fired by Oakland, Chris Grier in Miami will be the only remaining black general manager. But even in Grier’s case, it is understood that he is general manager in title only; Mike Tannenbaum, Dolphins’ executive vice president of football operations, has the power in Miami.
The truth is Garrett has received more runway than most coaches with comparable résumés, not just black coaches. And that is likely because of the relationship Garrett and Jones have been developing since the ’90s, when Garrett was Troy Aikman’s backup during the golden era of Cowboys football. Currently in his ninth season, Garrett is the longest-tenured coach since Jones bought the team in 1989.
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Garrett is one of only eight current NFL head coaches who have led their team for nine or more seasons. Six of those coaches have brought home the Lombardi trophy at least once. The two who haven’t are Garrett and Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis.
Garrett is not an awful head coach. After a string of three 8-8 seasons, Garrett led the Boys to a 12-4 record (tied for best in the league) in 2014. They went on to win their first playoff game under Garrett before losing the following week in controversial fashion to Green Bay. Dez Bryant put the Cowboys ahead with less than five minutes to go, until they were victimized by the catch rule and the call was overturned. Had that play gone differently, they could have gone on to win the Super Bowl. Or, with more than four minutes left, Aaron Rodgers could have pulled off some late-game heroics and beaten the Cowboys anyway.
Which is what happened two years later. After going 4-14 in 2015, with quarterback Tony Romo sidelined through injury for most of the season, the Cowboys roared back in 2016. Led by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, they earned the top seed in the NFC with a 13-3 record. But once again the Cowboys were beaten in the divisional round of the playoffs by the Packers in shocking fashion. With 12 seconds left in regulation, Rodgers miraculously converted a third-and-20 from his own 32-yard line to the opposite 34, leaving three seconds on the clock — enough time for a game-winning field goal.
It’s hard to blame Garrett for how those seasons ended. But coulda, shoulda and woulda normally cost you your job in this league. Many were surprised to see that Garrett wasn’t fired with last season’s crop of underachieving head coaches. Of the coaches fired last season, three had better than a .500 career winning percentage (Garrett has a .552) and two had one playoff win (same as Garrett). But none of them lasted nearly as long as Garrett has lasted.
Jim Caldwell, fired last year by the Detroit Lions and in 2012 by the Indianapolis Colts, might be the coach most interested in Garrett’s staying power. Caldwell was fired by the Colts after three seasons with a winning percentage of .542 and two playoff wins. Last year, the Lions showed him the door after four seasons, with a .563 winning percentage and two winless trips to the playoffs.
Lewis is perhaps the coach with the most in common with Garrett. Lewis has a winning percentage of .533 and is 0-7 in the playoffs, yet secured a contract extension with the Bengals at the end of last season. Garrett and Lewis are earning about the same salaries: a reported $6 million a year. But despite their similar résumés, Lewis has been better than Garrett (though, like most people, I was surprised by Lewis’ extension).
The job he has done in Cincinnati has been more impressive than what Garrett has accomplished in Dallas. Over his 16 years, Lewis should have probably accomplished more, and moving on from him would have been completely justifiable. But given the proper context, it would be hard to categorize his tenure in Cincinnati as a failure.
Admittedly, the Bengals’ AFC North-leading 4-1 record compared with the Cowboys’ disappointing 2-3 record makes me susceptible to recency bias. But the history of the franchises actually makes a stronger case for Lewis. Before Lewis, the Bengals had made it to the playoffs only seven times in their history and were coming off a 12-year playoff drought. Before Garrett took over as head coach, the Cowboys had been to 30 postseasons and won five of eight Super Bowls. They had gone to the playoffs in three of the four seasons before Garrett took over. They went 11-5 and won their division with Garrett as the offensive coordinator under Wade Phillips a year before Garrett took over as head coach.
The Cowboys are the most popular and valuable franchise in all of American sports. Because of that they spare no expense, providing their players and coaches with the resources they need to succeed, while Cincinnati is among the least valuable teams in the league and is notoriously cheap with players and resources. The Bengals are known to have the thinnest scouting department and one of the shabbiest practice facilities. They are one of a few NFL teams without an indoor practice field.
Lewis is also faced with the challenge of the AFC North. Yes, that division has the Cleveland Browns, but it also has the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, two of the NFL’s most well-run and most stable organizations. Although the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles have sprung up to win Super Bowls recently, they have not been consistently competitive like the Ravens and Steelers.
So, while I know Lewis’ goal is to win a Super Bowl and he most certainly should have won a playoff game by now, his time with the Bengals has been a success. Even if most sports fans don’t see it that way, Mike Brown, the owner of the Bengals, appreciates that Lewis has taken his franchise from laughingstock to respectable while on a budget. Lewis is by far the winningest coach in franchise history.
Garrett, meanwhile, has the second-most wins in Cowboys history. That might come as a surprise, but not when you consider his long tenure in Dallas.
While I don’t believe that his race is the reason that he remains in Dallas, it is impossible for me and many other black people to look at the racial demographics of the labor (players), management (coaches and general managers) and ownership in the league and not see reflections of societal disadvantages faced by all minority groups.