In Jerry Jones' 'lost' years, Jason Garrett will be defining lesson about cost of patience for the Cowboys

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist

In the NFL, patience is not always rewarded. Sometimes it’s only tested, exhausted and then finally broken.

This is the epitaph for the decade of Jason Garrett with the Dallas Cowboys, a head-coaching era that challenged every last molecule of the fan base, from muscle to marrow.

The Cowboys finished this season 8-8 after defeating Washington 47-16 on Sunday. They weren’t good enough to take the NFC East from the Philadelphia Eagles, who clinched the division with their own victory in the regular-season finale.

When Garrett’s contract expires this week, his 9 1/2 seasons as head coach will have spanned 157 games.  The tally: 85-67 in the regular season, 2-3 in the playoffs. In the spectrum of Jerry Jones’ ownership, the peaks never reached Jimmy Johnson levels, but the valleys never fell as low as Dave Campo, either.

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Jason Garrett may have coached his final game with the Cowboys. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Jason Garrett may have coached his final game with the Cowboys. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Instead, it will be a decade that settles into something just a shade above average, better known for some of the careers it devoured rather than the championships it produced. Garrett-era guys like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and others will largely be remembered as relics in the “lost” years of Jerry Jones lore — a span that is now 24 years and running without a single Super Bowl berth.

For many Cowboys fans, that will be depressing. For Jones, it had better be instructive. His grandest visions about one more Super Bowl run during his lifetime can’t afford another Garrett. And as he has just learned, gifting a decade of patience to the wrong coach can devolve into stealing 10 years from his ownership legacy. That might be seen as an overly negative assessment of what has taken place in Dallas, particularly given the billions of equity added to the Cowboys franchise, but in the cold analysis of NFL history — which remembers the winners first — Jerry just frittered away a decade that he will never get back. And he’ll know it, too. The same way Jim Irsay looks back at the Peyton Manning era and wonders how the Indianapolis Colts captured only one Super Bowl and the defining storyline of Dan Marino has a cruel subtitle of “never won the big one.”

The bottom line is that expecting greatness has consequences. Especially when opportunities are fumbled away for a decade.

That’s the part of the Garrett era that probably gets undersold — the reality that he had some quality players to build around for the majority of his run. As much as Jones is ripped for his roster mistakes, and there were more than a few, that cupboard was never close to being bare during the Garrett era. He had some very, very good players. Some of them will ultimately even be Hall of Famers. Guys like Witten, Ware and Tyron Smith. He had two good quarterbacks in Romo and Dak Prescott, which is more than some organizations can say for a 30-year span, let alone a decade. And every year, there was a maxed-out salary cap, indicative of a spendthrift attitude that was at least trying to buy the right pieces, if not draft them.

None of that means Jerry didn’t meddle — because of course he did. You can’t ignore that he was willing to roll the dice on guys who were occasionally going to hurt the cause more than help it. Guys like Greg Hardy, who was nothing less than a massive character mistake. Or draft picks like Randy Gregory, who, while being an absolutely great young man, was also a costly missing piece over the past several seasons.

So yes, Jerry had a hand in the past decade of middling results. But his biggest problem was the one everyone could see, too. A brand of patience with Garrett that started with three years of 8-8 mediocrity and then evolved into a see-saw of raised expectations followed by deflating letdowns. And throughout it all, Garrett’s responsibility for the uneven results always seemed to be getting redefined. First, he was learning on the job, then he had learned too much to be fired. He was calling plays, then he wasn’t. He was part of building the game plans, then he wasn’t. If the Cowboys were a transit company, Garrett would have gone from driving the bus to directing the bus from a passenger seat to sitting in the back and hoping nobody noticed he’d missed all the stops.

This is what happens when the patience gets too deep for an owner. The boss stops drawing a clear and singular line of expectation and starts gerrymandering the standard to earn more opportunities. Jerry Jones did that for Garrett repeatedly, either because he is afraid to start over with a coach or because he always wanted to let Garrett go one year too late rather than one year too early.

Whichever it was is irrelevant now. Jones has arrived at the crossroads of those two fears. However you measure it (one year, or three or six), he waited too long with Garrett, and now he’s going to have to start over with a new coach, who may bring a new culture and a new way of doing things. And he paid a hefty price of 10 lost years and more than a billion dollars in salary-cap space just to get here.

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