Next stop for Garrett?

Well-traveled backup and assistant might soon land here as head coach

January 06, 2008|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

He is the Barack Obama of football, a fresh-faced comer whose rapid rise has put him smack in the crosshairs of Baltimore's coaching search.

Three years after retiring as a player, is Jason Garrett ready to run the Ravens?

Those who know the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator say he is. Garrett, a Princeton graduate, has the smarts, the savvy, the winning smile. He knows when to teach - and when to learn.

He is, they say, the brain without the Brian.

See the clipboard in his hand? Garrett, a former journeyman quarterback, has held that coaching prop for many of his 15 years in the NFL, the first 12 as an understudy who clung to his jobs on guts and guile.

He interviewed for the Ravens' coaching position yesterday.

"Jason is a special individual," said Ernie Accorsi, one-time general manager of the Baltimore Colts, who retired last year as GM of the New York Giants. In 2000, Accorsi signed Garrett as insurance for the club that reached the Super Bowl but lost to the Ravens.

"He is positive, upbeat and a natural leader," Accorsi said of Garrett. "There is something stabilizing about Jason.

"I remember seeing him at breakfast before the Super Bowl. I told him, `Jason, general managers don't sleep much, but whatever sleep I get is because of you.'"

Never mind his youth, Accorsi said. At 41, Garrett would be one of the NFL's youngest head coaches.

"Don Shula was 33 when he took over the Colts [in 1963]," Accorsi said. "What coaching skills does Jason have? I don't know of any that he doesn't have."

Those attributes include:

Being a team player.

When starting quarterback Troy Aikman pulled a hamstring in 1993, Garrett expected to get the nod. But the Cowboys signed veteran Bernie Kosar and gave him the job, provided he learned the offense on the fly.

Garrett would teach him.

For four days, the two huddled in a hotel room, Kosar cramming with his mentor. That Sunday, Kosar played and Dallas won.

"I couldn't have done it without [Garrett's help]," Kosar said later. "Jason is one of the few quarterbacks I actually learned something from."

Persistence.

At 14, Garrett was determined to follow his father, Jim, to the pros. Dad was an assistant coach for the Cleveland Browns from 1978 through 1984.

"One day, I mentioned to Jason that [Hall of Fame quarterback] Fran Tarkenton used to keep his arm sharp in winter by hanging a rug on the wall of his attic and throwing footballs at it," Jim Garrett recalled. "For the next three months, in our house, all you heard up there was thump, thump, thump."

The high school freshman beat that rug to a fare-thee-well.

Incisiveness.

Few share Garrett's knowledge of the game, honed by 12 years of scrapping for an edge to keep his job. Undrafted out of college, he was cut by clubs in the Canadian Football League and the World League of American Football. The New Orleans Saints released Garrett twice. The redhead kept coming back.

The book on Garrett was: weak spiral, strong spirit. All told, he piled up seven rejection slips to go with two Super Bowl rings. He earned the hardware while in Dallas.

All of his professional life, he has been a coach-in-waiting.

"That's my role, to sit and wait," he once said of his playing career. But the wheels were always turning.

"Because he wasn't blessed with tremendous talent, Jason had to break down the game thoroughly to be successful," Jim Garrett said. "He's like the .270 hitter who stays in the lineup because he knows exactly how to swing the bat."

There are long-standing links between the Garrett family and members of the Ravens' brass. As a Browns assistant, Jim Garrett coached Pat Moriarty, a running back who is now the Ravens' vice president of football administration. Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, was the tight end on that same Cleveland team.

Should Garrett get the Ravens job, he would move closer to his parents, who live in Monmouth Beach, N.J. Family ties are important to Garrett, one of eight children, three of whom are NFL coaches (John, like Jason, with Dallas, and Judd with the St. Louis Rams).

Garrett and his father are especially tight. In 1985, when Jim Garrett was named coach at Columbia University, Jason left Princeton to play for him. And when winless Columbia fired his father at year's end, Jason returned to Princeton, where he set several NCAA Division I-AA records for passing accuracy.

In 2000, the Giants lured Garrett from Dallas, his home for eight years. That put him near his folks on the Jersey shore.

The Cowboys tried desperately to keep Garrett, then 34, by offering him a job as assistant coach.

"He was ready," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said.

When he finally retired in 2004, Garrett signed on as a television analyst for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The job didn't last. Bucs coach Jon Gruden found Garrett's comments so insightful that he signed him as a backup.

It was a fitting end and a smooth transition to his coaching career.

Though immersed in football, Garrett allows some of his precious time away from X's and O's to be filled with the music of someone else with New Jersey ties, Bruce Springsteen.

Now Garrett might get the chance to be The Boss himself.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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