By Matthew Postins
When I covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2004-07 I heard a lot about “The Buc Way.” That was what the players called the way they did things. Linebacker Derrick Brooks talked about it quite a bit. But you heard it from practically every player and coach. Brooks talked about how the defense wanted to attack and create turnovers. Head coach Jon Gruden talked about how he wanted to “pound the rock,” or run the ball. The “Buc Way” won plenty of football games.
The Buccaneers were a highly influential team in the late 1990s and early 2000s because of head coach Tony Dungy, who assembled a staff high on class and a team that bought into his philosophy of the Cover 2 defense. Dungy has a coaching tree, and it includes Lovie Smith, Herman Edwards, Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli.
The “Buc Way” apparently influenced current Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett when he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2004.
Garrett’s career was about to end and he knew it. To be fair, Garrett probably got more out of his career than he had any right to. But in 2004 he waffled between retiring and playing one more year. He knew he wanted to coach. The Bucs were two years removed from winning the Super Bowl and already had quarterbacks Brad Johnson, Brian Griese and Chris Simms. They really didn’t need a fourth. But Tampa Bay signed Garrett anyway.
Garrett was in Tampa Bay for approximately six months. He was cut twice. The last time he was cut was just before I took over as a beat writer for the paper I worked for south of Tampa. So our paths never crossed.
But to hear Garrett tell it on Wednesday those days in Tampa were a “graduate school in coaching” that put him on the path to where he is today.
A lasting influence
“I went down there with a critical eye on how I could get better as a coach,” Garrett said. “The playing situation wasn’t good. I didn’t get many reps. But from March of 2004 through most of that season I probably learned as much football as I had at any point in my career.”
For the first time since his tenure as head coach in Dallas began, Garrett can accurately claim that he has “his guys” on his staff. You can debate whether you think that’s a stretch. To hear Garrett tell it, Kiffin, Marinelli and new special teams coach Richard Bisaccia had such an impact on his future career that when it came time to replace departed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, Kiffin was the first phone call. That led to Marinelli and Bisaccia, theoretically.
Kiffin may well have been the first phone call, and he may well have been the first guy Garrett thought of when the Cowboys contemplated the switch to the 4-3 defense (or the first person Jerry Jones thought of, depending on your point of view). And it’s not altogether improbable that this trio of coaches made such an impression on Garrett in a short time.
I can speak from experience, having covered all three assistants. Kiffin has a voice that sounds as if his tonsils have been on a first-name basis with sandpaper for quite some time. When he raised his voice during training camp workouts I could see a few veteran players smiling through their helmets. It was comical and lovable at the same time. That voice, in combination with that interesting combover (I rarely saw Kiffin without a hat), gave him an almost grandfatherly feel.
But he knows his stuff. He engenders respect everywhere he goes.
Appreciating the details
Garrett talked about a practice squad workout in which we worked as the quarterback on the scout team. Scout team quarterbacks are supposed to do what the defensive coaches tell them to do. In this case, Kiffin wanted Garrett to throw a go route down the left side of the field. Instead, Garrett threw it to the right because that was what was open. Force of habit.
Kiffin chewed him out. In fact, Garrett said he had never been ripped like that before. Afterward, Kiffin told Garrett why.
“You threw the go to the right yesterday,” Kiffin told Garrett. “Ronde (Barber) needs a go route today or he won’t be ready to defend it.”
“It made a huge impression, his demand for detail, the value of reps,” Garrett said. “I learned a lot.”
Marinelli is a different bird. He’s short and bald and seems like a scholarly drill sergeant. He fought in Vietnam and he has that military swagger. I was actually more intimidated by Marinelli the first time I talked with him one-on-one than I was by Kiffin, who towers over me. Marinelli and I see eye to eye. But he doesn’t handle nonsense in questions or much else.
Marinelli also walks with what would best be described as a limp. Garrett called it a swagger. But, like Kiffin, Marinelli knows his stuff. He’s highly respected. He’s probably on the short list of guys to introduce Warren Sapp when Sapp is inducted in the Hall of Fame. Sapp respects him greatly, if his comments about Marinelli to 670-AM in Chicago back in 2009 are any indication:
“It’s the passion. It’s his conviction. You don’t see many men stand and do what he did up in Detroit, going 0-16 and people attacking him and talking about his daughter and different stuff. He’s a man of dignity who served his country in the Vietnam War. I love the man. I absolutely adore him because he took me on a path to greatness and wouldn’t let me deter off it even a little bit.”
But in a meeting room in One Buc Place – the Bucs’ old run-down training facility leftover from their expansion days – Garrett was exposed to what is best described as Marinelli’s gravitational pull.
“He stood in the front of that room, and if you remember that team was rowdy back then,” Garrett said. “Rod got in front of that group and says, ‘Men give me your eyes.’ Eighty guys sat up and got locked in. That 10 minutes was as good a talk as I’ve ever heard. He got my attention. He talked about the greatness of the game, preparing the right way.”
Bisaccia is the one I know the least, but he might be the most versatile of the three. At one time he coached special teams and running backs in Tampa Bay. He was set to do the same at Auburn before Dallas hired him. Bisaccia always wears wraparound sunglasses and is one of the highest-energy coaches you’ll meet. He didn’t always have the best athletes to work with in Tampa, especially when they were in salary cap hell after the Super Bowl victory. But he got more out of the talent than most coaches could have.
Perception may not be reality – in this case, at least
After all the stories Garrett told during his near-30 minute filibuster, one could make the assumption that he had a lot to do with hiring these three coaches. That may well be the case. The perception the past six weeks has been that owner and general manager Jerry Jones has been pulling the strings when it came to the coaches. Was Garrett going out of his way to let people know that he was all-in on these moves? Or does Garrett have more sway over Jones than we think he does?
Garrett called the moves over the past month “collective decisions.” That’s a smart way to approach moves such as this. But in 31 other NFL cities, there is no question about who the decider is. It’s only in Dallas that questions are even asked about who makes decisions and those questions are asked on such a regular basis that it provides the appearance that the head coach is being undercut.
Once he took questions, the Garrett we know resurfaced. He rarely confirmed anything, except that he would decide who calls the plays in 2013. One could assume he’s trying to be evasive, but then again Garrett answers just about every question with that sort of evasiveness.
It is clear that Garrett has been paying attention this past month. He knows what’s been said. He knows what’s been written. On Wednesday he provided the context to all of the decision-making – at least from his perspective. But he didn’t seem to want credit, which is exactly what Jones seems to crave from his head coach.
Someone asked me earlier this week if Garrett’s press conference provided the appearance of a “neutered” head coach. I don’t think that’s the case because Garrett’s influence, as it’s perceived by the public, was minimized by Jones long ago. While it’s likely Garrett’s been reading the press the past six weeks, I don’t think he cares much what we think of him. Or what we think of the “process,” the word Garrett loves to use.
To Garrett, he got what he probably wanted – a set of assistant coaches who, in his mind, are “his guys.”
In the NFL, you should be careful what you wish for, especially when you’re coming off two 8-8 seasons in which you failed to win the division in Week 17. Because when you get the kinds of things that Garrett has gotten so far this offseason, they come with strings attached, not unlike the strings everyone believes are attached to Garrett and pulled by Jones.