Where Does Jason Garrett Rank Among Dallas Cowboys Coaches?

The Dallas Cowboys organization was founded in 1960 with a young, spry, coach named Tom Landry at the helm. The first year of Cowboys’ football ended with zero wins, 11 losses and one tie. Sadly, the franchise didn’t reach .500 until 1965 but by then the winning culture had been established. Landry went on to lead the team for 28 years.

Since Coach Landry was ushered off into the sunset, there have been seven other individuals who have tried to replace him. They’ve all learned the great and intense pressure that comes along with leading “America’s Team”. They’ve also learned that it takes a great deal of intestinal fortitude to stay in what has become one of the NFL’s versions of coaching hot seats.

As Jason Garrett, the eighth head coach in team history, embarks on his fifth full season as the main man, it’s clear that he has not lived up to the lofty standards set by at least three of his predecessors. I took the time to research the history of Dallas Cowboys coaches and put together a chronological listing, as well as analysis to determine where he ranks among them, today.

Where Does Jason Garrett Rank Among Dallas Cowboys Coaches?

  1. Tom Landry (1960-1988) – Two Super Bowl championships, Five Super Bowl appearances, 12 NFL/NFC Championship games, 13 Division titles 

Coach Landry is the obvious choice to sit atop my list. In his 28 years in charge, Landry’s achievements remain second to none. He was the driving force behind the development of some of the league’s most distinguished gentlemen including quarterback Roger Staubach, running back Tony Dorsett and defensive lineman Randy White. All three are in the Hall of Fame.

Landry carried an air of professionalism that his players could not deny. He created a culture that eventually become so glamorous that an NFL Films Executive named Bob Ryan coined the phrase “America’s Team” while putting together the team’s 1978 highlight film. For the most part, the team lived up to the name during Landry’s reign.

From 1970 through 1983, the Cowboys appeared in five Super Bowls, played in 12 NFL/NFC Championship games and won 12 division titles. None of the rest of the guys on my list can claim anything close to achieving that kind of success, not even the next guy on my list. Yes, Tom Landry is the cream of the Dallas Cowboys’ crop. It’s going to take someone more than special to surpass the legacy he’s left behind. 

  1. Jimmy Johnson (1989-1993) – Two Super Bowl championships, Two Super Bowl appearances, Two NFC Championship games, Two Division titles 

Following in Coach Landry’s shoes never seemed to bother Jimmy Johnson. Coach Johnson had already proven the majority of his critics wrong by the time his old Arkansas Razorbacks teammate, Jerry Jones, purchased the Cowboys and brought him aboard as the team’s second head coach. In fact, Johnson had achieved national notoriety at the University of Miami by presenting himself and his team as brash, trash-talking, warriors with nothing to lose but a whole lot to prove.

When Johnson arrived, the team was stocked full of old players who had passed their primes. Some would even say the majority of the guys were sitting high on the hog and satisfied with collecting their checks. Well, Johnson wasted no time getting rid of them and filling his roster with a number of young, talented players. He inherited his top player at Miami in wide receiver, Michael Irvinthen hit the mother lode by trading away the rights to Herschel Walker.

In what is known in the sports world as the “Great Trade Robbery”, the Cowboys acquired a number of draft picks that enabled them to build a winning roster in rapid fashion. By his third season the team was back in the playoffs and actually won a game, surprising the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in 1991. They got smashed by the Detroit Lions the following week but the “Triplets” (Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith) had established themselves as the cornerstones to a prolific offensive attack.

As powerful as the offense was, Johnson gets the number two nod because he built his team with defense. He used the draft picks from the Walker trade on several athletically-gifted, speedy players like defensive linemen Russell Maryland, Jimmie Jones and Leon Lett. He also found several gems in the form of defensive backs Darren Woodson, Larry Brown, Kevin Smith and a rugged linebacker in Ken Norton Jr.

Johnson was also instrumental in prying legendary, speed pass rusher Charles Haley away from the San Francisco 49ers, molding a group that put the doomsday back into the Cowboys’ defense. The fact that Johnson led the Cowboys to back to back Super Bowl Championships in his four seasons at Valley Ranch ties him with Coach Landry as far as championships are concerned, but his tenure was just too short to earn the top spot. I also praise Johnson for going two for two in NFC title games against the hated San Francisco 49ers.

  1. Barry Switzer (1994-1997) – One Super Bowl championship, One Super Bowl appearance, Two NFC Championship games, Three Division titles

Ironically, Barry Switzer is my favorite coach of all-time at any level but he resides in the number three spot on this list. Switzer inherited Johnson’s high-powered squad while resting and relaxing in retirement from the University of Oklahoma in the spring of 1994. Jerry Jones is now infamous for getting into a drunken spat at a Dallas area bar and declaring that anybody could coach his young team to a Super Bowl or something to that affect. Anyway, Johnson walked out and Switzer was invited by Jones to take over.

Sure, the environment became much looser than the dictatorship Johnson had established but the bootlegger’s boy delivered similar results. He led the team to three consecutive division titles, as well as a pair of NFC Championship games but failed to deliver a third straight Super Bowl appearance in the first season after Coach Johnson’s departure.

I believe Cowboys fans will never truly forgive Switzer for being the guy who didn’t deliver the three-peat. It’s a feat that’s never been done by anybody. So, why beat him up for failing to get it done? Switzer’s an easy scapegoat but there were several culprits on the premises by the time he was essentially run out of town. Still, while Coach Switzer was in Valley Ranch he was able to continue the winning ways of the Jones’ regime. 

  1. Wade Phillips (2007-2010) – Two Division titles

Wade Phillips is known as the softest guy to ever sit upon the coach’s throne at Valley Ranch. He’s the fourth best to ever do it as far as I’m concerned. I give him the nod over the rest of the guys on the list because on his multiple division titles. Plus, I never really bought into this “Mr. Nice Guy” label everyone seemed to want to put on him while he was in town. He always struck me as the guy who was always the common denominator on somebody’s successful team.

It didn’t hurt that he was former Houston Oilers head coach Bum Phillips’ son. Coach Phillips took over the Cowboys in 2007. Bill Parcells had just left after producing a couple of playoff appearances in his time at the ranch. Phillips inherited a pretty good team in Dallas. Wide receiver Terrell Owens and young quarterback Tony Romo had begun to demonstrate flashes of brilliance. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was chomping at the bit to assume a larger role within the organization too.

Things were alright when Phillips became the guy. In fact, in his first season the Cowboys finished with a 13-3 record, won the division and earned a first round bye heading into the playoffs. There weren’t any rumblings from Owens or any other noise coming from inside the Cowboys’ house. Well, at least until Romo used the bye week to take a trip to Cabo with his best friend/tight end, Jason Witten and their ladies. Interestingly, Romo’s lady at the time was none other than the famous pop singer turned divorcee, Jessica Simpson. They were kind of a big deal around the area.

The result was a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants at home. All Phillips could do at the postgame press conference was say something to the affect like, “Ah shucks.” He didn’t actually say that but the fact is he didn’t say anything which is what eventually led to his demise. Phillips wasn’t a dictator. He ran the Cowboys by the book. He treated grown men like, well, grown men. He used the fine system to levy punishment and allowed the league to handle any substance abuse issues. Phillips just wanted to have a competitive team and a nice, quiet environment. He definitely failed at one of those.

The quiet environment dried up and his competitive team pretty much imploded, forcing Jerry Jones to relieve him of his duties in the middle of the 2010 season. However, the fact remains he put two more division championship trophies in the trophy case which is one more than the next couple of guys on the list. 

  1. Bill Parcells (2003-2006) – Two Playoff appearances

Here’s where it gets tricky. The fifth guy on my list wasn’t supremely successful by any means but what sets Bill Parcells apart from the bottom three is his two futile playoff appearances. I consider them futile because his teams never stood a chance against either of the opponents they were matched up against but mathematically, two is more than one.

When Parcells got to Dallas, the Cowboys were mired in a 5-11 conundrum of mishaps and underwhelming performances for three straight seasons. The fact that he was able to build a team good enough to squeeze into the playoffs a couple times was impressive.

Former Georgia standout Quincy Carter had been drafted by the team in 2001 and won the starting quarterback job. Carter was mobile but limited as a passer and still young, leading Parcells to build the team around a physical running game that did not include the NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith and a tough defense.

Parcells was able to provide Cowboys fans with a glimmer of hope that a resurgence was imminent. The resurgence wasn’t without its bumps in the road. Carter washed out fairly quickly after the coach found out the player had a relationship with cocaine. The team released Carter to begin the 2004 season.

The one thing we didn’t have to worry about when Parcells was here was discipline. He had a strong grip on the goings on in the locker room. He also monitored what went on in the press, giving the local and national media just tidbits of information. He fed them just enough to keep them coming back for more.

Owens was signed before Parcells’ final season. The coach never really seemed to embrace the idea of bringing the talented yet annoying receiver in. In fact, he never even called the player by his name during the introductory press conference. In the end, he discovered Romo then soon realized the city wasn’t big enough for him, Owens and Jones to coexist. 

  1. Jason Garrett (2010-Present) – One Division title 

Coach Garrett is the sixth choice primarily because of the 2014 season. There were no expectations heading into that season, but Garrett quietly put together his first truly solid season as the head coach. The coach seemed much more polished and comfortable being the leader of “America’s Team.”

Led by Romo and an offensive line filled with solid draft choices, the running game became the focal point. Romo was still the man and his receiving corps showed great reliability throughout the entire season. Receiver Dez Bryant continued his development into one of the league’s best as well. Ironically, it was a dramatic play by Bryant in the divisional playoff game in Green Bay that ended the season. Some people, including myself still think Bryant caught that ball, but that’s neither here nor there.

Ultimately, Garrett led the team to a 12-4 record, the division title and a controversial playoff victory over the Detroit Lions. The following season, Garrett’s flaws came back to the forefront. Garrett will never be able to shake the fact that he was the shot-caller when the Cowboys let running back Demarco Murray leave in free agency. Garrett also OK’d the signing of defensive end/troublemaker Greg Hardy to try and bolster his flimsy defense.

His biggest failure to this point may have been his inability to find a quality backup for Romo. The quarterback was knocked out for the season, exposing every guy who was listed behind him on the roster.  Since Garrett was a quarterback during his playing days, I found it despicable that the majority of the team’s losses in 2015 could be directly connected to poor quarterback play. The immediate future is still bright for the Cowboys but another horrible season might signify the need for a change once more. 

  1. Chan Gailey (1998-1999) – One Division title, One Playoff appearance 

The Chan Gailey era can be best described as the beginning of the end of the triplets. The Cowboys reign as a power throughout the 1990s had come to an end. All of the players who were once considered cornerstones to a dynasty had begun to show their age. The damage they had sustained throughout their historic run had taken its toll. Gailey inherited a team in disarray. There were a number of off the field issues and injuries that prevented him from fielding a truly competitive team. Luckily, the rest of the NFC East was struggling too, enabling him to slip up and win the division with a 10-6 record in his first season. However, it was all downhill from there.

  1. Dave Campo (2000-2002)

Coach Dave Campo was stuck between a rock and a hard place from the start. He was trying to fill the lofty shoes of the guy who brought him to town in Jimmy Johnson but he never had the pulse of his team like Johnson did. Campo was also a players’ coach. He had good relationships with most of his players like Switzer did, but he didn’t have enough talented players to produce any winning seasons.

Campo took the job at a bad time for the entire organization. He finished his Cowboys coaching career with a 15-33 record which is the lowest winning percentage by any Cowboys’ head coach in the history of the team. He was never considered for a head coaching position ever since.

When it’s all said and done, I can see Coach Garrett moving up the list. He has the pieces in place to make a strong run this season provided his team remains healthy. The schedule looks formidable but losing has a way of rekindling everyone’s fire in an entire organization. The Cowboys have proven unable to handle prosperity over the years since they won their last Super Bowl. With what happened in 2015, I suspect there will be a higher level of focus around the facilities this year. If Garrett succeeds in getting the team back to the NFC title game or even another Super Bowl appearance, he’ll move up to number four on my list. What say you?