The NFL

February 19, 2007

Taking the Reins

While Wade Phillips shores up the D, the Cowboys entrust their offense to promising apprentice Jason Garrett

I HAVEN'T BEEN an NFL coach for very long," Jason Garrett told a friend a few weeks ago, "but it feels like I've been coaching for a long, long time." No, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn't go young in replacing Bill Parcells as head coach—he chose Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, 59—but by putting the offense in the hands of the 40-year-old Garrett, who will assume coordinator duties, the Dallas owner is striking a smart balance between experience and youth, and getting a chance to evaluate Garrett as possible head-coach material.

Jones acknowledges the risk in handing the keys to an offense that scored 425 points last year—two fewer than the Super Bowl champion Colts—to a man who's never designed an NFL game plan and has only two seasons of pro-coaching experience (overseeing quarterbacks for the Dolphins in 2005 and '06). But the owner isn't too worried. For one thing, there's Garrett's pedigree. His dad, Jim, was a longtime Giants and Browns assistant and then the head coach at Columbia. He often told his four sons, "Always have your ears open." That's what the Princeton-educated Garrett did during his 12 seasons as backup quarterback with the Cowboys, Giants, Bucs and Dolphins. When you start nine games and throw 294 passes in a dozen years, it means you've done a lot of sitting in meetings and standing on sidelines, semi-coaching the starter (in seven of those years, Hall of Famer Troy Aikman). Garrett also played under coaches and coordinators with impressive pro résumés: Jimmy Johnson, Norv Turner, Sean Payton, Jim Fassel and Jon Gruden.

Adding to Jones's comfort level is the presence of line coach and run-game coordinator Tony Sparano, who called plays for the Cowboys last fall, meshing the run and pass well during first-year starter Tony Romo's maturation. It's expected that Sparano and Garrett will work together to develop the weekly game plan. Eventually Jones wants Garrett to call the plays.

Phillips, the architect of San Diego's top-flight 2006 defense, is comfortable with the setup. "Tony [Sparano] called the plays last year, and they scored 27 points a game," Phillips says. "And everyone I talked to about Jason told me he's a really good coach who'll play to the strengths of his players. That's how I coach."

Jones wants Garrett to make a more consistent thrower of Romo, who must take fewer chances without losing his edge as a leader or a playmaker. Garrett will not be soft on his QB. The first thing he told his passers in Miami was, "I'm not your friend. I'm a resource for you."

Says Jones, "[Garrett] is so tenacious, so smart, such a hard worker that I think he could have been a coordinator the last five years. I was mad when he left us [in 2000] to go to the Giants. I wanted to hire him as a coach right then. He was ready."

ONLY AT SI.COM Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.

Three Points

1 Expect the 49ers to make a strong push for seventh-year Ravens outside line-backer Adalius Thomas, one of this year's prize free agents. San Francisco has $38 million in salary-cap room and a big hole to fill at pass-rushing linebacker; Thomas (right) had 11 sacks in 2006, his first All-Pro season. Niners coach Mike Nolan, the Ravens' defensive coordinator from '01 to '04, loves Thomas as a player and a locker room leader.

2 Talk about the devaluation of the Pro Bowl: This year 103 players can call themselves Pro Bowlers—the 86 originally voted in; 15 injury replacements; and two others, Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Jets wideout Laveranues Coles, chosen as subs but notified too late to make flights to Honolulu for the game. With one out of 17 players able to call themselves Pro Bowlers, the tag just doesn't mean as much as it should.

3 Terrell Owens, due a $3 million bonus if he's on the Cowboys' roster in June, is no lock to get it. New coach Wade Phillips said last week that Owens is "part of the Dallas Cowboys family," but owner Jerry Jones has the final call, and he says he hasn't made a decision on the wideout yet.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (ROMO)TEAM EFFORT Phillips (top) will rely on Garrett (in cap) to mentor Romo. PHOTOKIRBY LEE/WIREIMAGE.COM (PHILLIPS)[See caption above] PHOTODOUG MURRAY/WIREIMAGE.COM (GARRETT)[See caption above] PHOTOAL TIELEMANS (THOMAS)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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Double Bogey (+2)