When reading up on the man some locals have started referring to as Red Jesus, the first thing you'll probably understand is that Jason Garrett is an intelligent guy with Ivy league-level book smarts. But to truly understand Coach Garrett and the path he is leading his guys on, you have to understand this about Jason Garrett:
The man is a nerd.
Just listen to his nerdy laugh. There's more than a little bit of snorting to it when he is particularly tickled by a statement he just made or a question he was just asked. Just listen to how folks describe his study habits or his plan for the team.
But understand this about a nerd: They often have a single-minded focus. And this is often accompanied by the characteristic of not giving a rip about what those around them think of their nerdiness. So I'm not using nerd as a derogatory term; in fact, to me, the term can often be a compliment.
Some of my very favorite people are nerds—or they are at least nerdy about something they love. Even former Dallas Cowboy coach Bill Parcells was a bit of a nerd. He was all nerd and all football all the time. But he also brought a Northeastern bravado, and he definitely knew how to command a room, whether it was filled with nerdy reporters or hyperaggressive athletes.
Still, when it comes to coaching an NFL team, nerds aren't always the most respected guys in an NFL locker room. The most respected guys are usually the alpha-male, Ray Lewis types that will get in your face and make sure you understand exactly why they are the most respected guy in the organization.
At least that's the perception that Garrett is up against and why I think many Cowboy fans misunderstood him in his first year as Dallas coach.
You see, I'm not saying Garrett is bad with people. I think the opposite. I view him more as a ginger Ron Washington. Sure, maybe not with the same in your face "Drop-the-Antlers-On-'Em, Drop-The-Claw-On-'Em" bravado.
Instead, Garrett is a straight shooter who will let you know what is expected of you, why it is expected of you and what the consequences are if you fail to do what is expected of you—or, even worse, fail to care about what is expected of you.
You see, this isn't the early 1990s when a big spender like Jerry Jones can just overload the roster with talent that is too big to fail, regardless of character or attention to detail. This is a league where it is often the team that makes the fewest number of bad plays over the course of the game wins—not the team that makes the most spectacular plays.
Mistakes kill in this league. Little mistakes get your starting QB Tony Romo knocked out for the season. And part of Jerry's recent shortcomings as a GM is his failure to recognize that sea change.
However, Jason Garrett is a sharp one. And I believe it took somebody Jerry trusted—one of Jerry's own guys—to sell Jerry on this concept. Jerry has been trying to win by focusing exclusively on landing big-play talent; he has seemingly downplayed the importance of getting a great coach and acquiring the high-character role players necessary to winning.
So last year was about a cleansing. Thing is, if 75 percent of the locker room bought in to what Garrett was trying to get them to accomplish as a team, were the rest chuckling under their breath at the guy before, during and after team meetings?
I don't know that to be a fact, but I do feel it's a very safe guess, if only because of the way Jerry Jones ran the club as the GM up until Garrett's hiring. Jones enabled me-first players like Terrell Owens and Adam "Pacman" Jones—and even Patrick Crayton, who was never above taking a jab at his quarterback in the press during his time in Dallas.
And these are the types of personalities Jason Garrett had to eliminate last year. It was very obvious that 2011 was a "take-a-step-back" year from the moment they released veterans like Andre Gurode and used a second-round draft pick on a long-term project like linebacker Bruce Carter.
There was a plan in place. And it wasn't just to get the guy who would sell the most tickets.
This change in focus is cause for great optimism in Cowboy land. They have a new plan, and it's the plan put forward by a 100 percent football nerd, Jason Garrett.
In recent years, the Cowboys have become sort of laughing stock, known as an overconfident team that makes critical mistakes rather than the plays needed to win big games.
Tony Romo has shouldered a lot of that blame, as highly touted quarterbacks do. Some of the criticism is fair, some not.
But with the injection of youth and character into this Dallas roster, I expect 2012 to be the year that fans' perception of Tony Romo changes. The same people that have been blaming the Cowboys failures on Romo's inability to "step up" at meaningful times will suddenly think they see a different Tony Romo.
A big win could mark the true beginning of the Jason Garrett age, now that he has had a real offseason to reshape the locker room. If he is successful with his plan, I expect the Cowboys to start resembling franchises like the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers—teams full of team-first guys, guys who don't show up late to meetings and are serious about the process of becoming winners.
Teams that are known for their consistency instead of their boneheadedness.
A similar locker-room change took place around the Mavs Dirk Nowitzki a couple of years ago with the arrival of current Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle and players such as Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd—real professionals who replaced the likes of Josh Howard and DaSagana Diop. And once Dirk was surrounded by a locker room committed to winning, the former "choker" proceeded to destroy the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, LeBron, Dwyane Wade and anyone else who stood in the way.
I expect we could be about to see a similar change in the Dallas Cowboys. If there's anything to what I've spelled out above, I would expect to hear a lot of "this looks like a different team" during and after today's game. If that's the case, the Cowboys could be on their way back to respectability, and even a return to glory.
All because of certain nerd.