FRISCO, Texas — It was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be better. But, the beginning of the coach Mike McCarthy era — where the Dallas Cowboys are 1-3 — does not look dissimilar to the Jason Garrett era.
The Cowboys’ present meets with its past Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS) at AT&T Stadium when Garrett arrives as the offensive coordinator for the New York Giants.
It has not been the start Garrett — as well as first-year Giants head coach Joe Judge — wanted, either. The Giants are 0-4 and their offense is as miserable as the Cowboys’ defense. The Giants lost running back Saquon Barkley for the season to a knee injury in Week 2. They have scored 47 points in four games, or 2 fewer points than the Cleveland Browns scored in a Week 4 win against the Cowboys.
But New York’s problem is of little concern to the Cowboys, considering their own issues.
For nine seasons, Garrett was the Cowboys’ full-time head coach. He was tagged as owner and general manager Jerry Jones’ Tom Landry almost from the minute he was named offensive coordinator before Wade Phillips was named head coach in 2007. Midway through the 2010 season, Garrett took over as the interim coach when Phillips was fired with a 1-7 record.
Three times, Garrett led the Cowboys to the playoffs. Twice they were knocked out by McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers.
Garrett, during his Dallas tenure, was critiqued for game management, questionable decision-making and conservative play. The Cowboys got off to slow starts in games, struggled against quality opponents, had crushing penalties, turned the ball over too much and took the ball away too little.
In four games, McCarthy has been critiqued for game management and decision-making, but there has been nothing conservative about the approach in-game from eschewing a short, game-tying field goal in the season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams to two failed fake punt tries against the Atlanta Falcons in a Week 2 win. The Cowboys in 2020 have gotten off to slow starts, struggled against quality opponents, had crushing penalties, turned the ball over too much and taken the ball away too little.
“I’m disappointed,” McCarthy said Sunday after the loss to Cleveland. “Now that we have four games under our belt, we need to start games better. We need to do a better job of bringing our preparation to the performance and that starts with me. When your team performs and makes similar mistakes, four weeks is a pattern. So, this pattern needs to stop. That starts with leadership. That will be the focus.”
McCarthy has been 1-3 once in his head-coaching career, a mark that came in 2006, his first season with the Packers. Green Bay rallied to an 8-8 finish that season.
Garrett was never 1-3 as Cowboys coach, but he had four 8-8 finishes, including in 2019 which culminated in his departure.
“The biggest mistake people make are pulling the trigger too soon,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “I just believe that. Anytime you make changes, you’re going to have growing pains when you change things out. Some coaches have different ideas of the personnel they want. Some have different systems which require different personnel. … I’m a big believer that tenure is a really good thing.”
To the Joneses, it’s not that Garrett and the Cowboys under him lost, it’s that he ran out of time. He had the second-longest tenure (nine) and second-most wins (85) in franchise history to Landry. But he could not do what Landry, Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer did: win a Super Bowl.
Garrett won two playoff games and had the best record in the NFC in 2016. And while the Cowboys were in contention every season but 2015, Dallas never made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Jones gives Garrett credit for part of the Cowboys’ draft success because of how well he worked with vice president of player personnel Will McClay and forced the coaches and scouts to come to a consensus on players.
“Even though the guy is super smart and did a lot of good things, sometimes in order to make the next step, which we all knew was our goal every step of the way and still is — you’ve got to make a change,” Stephen Jones said. “Your players need to hear a different way of going about it, a different voice. I think that’s just where we ended up. In no way is it a negative in my mind toward the way we think of Jason. It’s just thinking, ‘Hey, as an organization, our players, our staff, everybody, it’s time to hear a different leadership voice.'”
If Garrett’s players did not always play well, they almost always played hard. It’s something McCarthy has come to learn about the core group that grew up under Garrett, including offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
Players are adjusting to McCarthy’s more direct style and believe in what he is saying. After Sunday’s loss, Prescott said his hope in a turnaround comes from leaders on the team, which starts with the coach.
Rex Ryan blasts the Cowboys’ defensive efforts against the Browns after allowing 49 points to Cleveland and 108 over the last three games.
“He’s one of those coaches that it hurts when you lose a game like this. It hurts that you let him down,” Prescott said. “You’re more hurt that you disappoint him, and you’d rather him be mad at you. He comes in each and every day and leads the right way, and we have to be better executing on the field for him and the rest of the coaches. … Each and every man on this team and the resiliency of this team together will show as we keep moving forward this season.”
Prescott said something similar under Garrett after the Cowboys’ 3-5 start in 2018 turned into a 10-6 finish and a playoff appearance.
In 2014, McCarthy’s Packers were 1-2 when quarterback Aaron Rodgers told everybody to R-E-L-A-X and they finished 12-4 and made the NFC title game, eliminating Garrett’s Cowboys in the cruelest of ways in the divisional round when Dez Bryant’s catch was overturned by replay.
“Nothing really ever surprises me in the National Football League and game of football,” McCarthy said. “The longer you’re in this league, just when you think you’ve seen everything, something else crazy happens. I don’t like what our record is. There’s a number of things I love what we’ve been able to do and players are in tune with the mistakes we’ve made. The only disappointment I have as the head coach is we’ve had some repeated mistakes, repeated issues and that’s the part we have to get that right.”