Jason Garrett was the hot coaching candidate who had everything the Ravens were seeking. He was a former NFL quarterback, Ivy League-educated and groomed in a football family. He was young and bright, and in just a couple of seasons as an NFL assistant, he had carved out a reputation as one of the freshest offensive minds in football.
The Ravens had some recent success, a roster with defensive stars and a front office that was one of the envies of the league. It appeared to be the perfect fit, only Garrett didn't see it that way. After two visits to Baltimore and an offer to succeed Brian Billick as the coach of the Ravens following the 2007 season, Garrett opted to stay in Dallas where he was the offensive coordinator and become the assistant head coach and heir apparent to Wade Phillips.
This weekend, he returns to Baltimore as the coach of the Dallas Cowboys, who will face the Ravens on Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium. Garrett said this week that he has no regrets with the choice that he made, and the Ravens, who eventually hired a more under-the-radar candidate in John Harbaugh, certainly aren't lamenting their choice.
While Garrett has gone 15-13 in parts of three seasons as the Cowboys' coach, Harbaugh's team has posted a 53-25 record since 2008. He's the only coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first four seasons.
"The numbers are very clear cut. It doesn't take much to recognize the brilliant success that John has had," said Billick, who will serve as the analyst for Fox's broadcast Sunday. "It's certainly an interesting dynamic that the job was offered to Jason, and he chose to stay in Dallas for a number of different compelling reasons that only Jason can answer. I don't know that Jason has second-guessed not taking the job given the success that Baltimore has had, but it doesn't take a math genius to look at the two records and what John has been able to do with the four consecutive years in the playoffs and likely going to be five. Dallas is still looking for a playoff win that they haven't had since 1996."
The Ravens are 4-1, in first place of the AFC North and coming off an ugly 9-6 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs. Garrett's Cowboys are 2-2 and committed five turnovers in an embarrassing 34-18 home loss to the Chicago Bears in their last game. It's not quite a case of two teams headed in different directions, rather than one team establishing itself as a perennial playoff participant and the other still searching for that distinction.
"One of the approaches that I've always taken in my life is you make decisions and you go forward. I was really fortunate to be able to go through that process, but we love it here in Dallas," said Garrett, who also turned down the Atlanta Falcons' coaching job following the 2007 season. "We are trying to build a championship-type team here. We're fortunate to be in the situation that we're in and excited about what we can do as a football team."
Asked this week how close he was to being the Ravens' coach, Garrett said, "That's a long time ago, so I don't want to get into too many details. … It's really a remarkable organization. Their history of success has been outstanding. The people are really special. Just at that time, I just felt, and my wife felt, it was the best thing for us to stay in Dallas. We certainly have no regrets, and I'm sure the Ravens don't have any regrets either. John Harbaugh has done a fantastic job with that team. They are one of the elite franchises in the league."
If nothing else, Garrett's return to Baltimore provides an interesting subplot for the fans and media, and an opportunity to wonder how things could have been different for both franchises. The Ravens' players and coaches, however, couldn't care less now — but that seemingly wasn't always the case.
"That's in the past, man," said Ravens safety Ed Reed.
Before the Ravens played the Cowboys in 2008 in the final game at Texas Stadium, then-defensive coordinator Rex Ryan reminded his players of Garrett's decision and reportedly told them that Garrett "didn't believe in the character of the Baltimore Ravens." After the Ravens won the game, 33-24, several of their players were critical of Garrett's play-calling.
Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis was asked about Ryan's pre-game speech this week during his conference call with the Dallas media. "You all [are] bringing up old stuff. … That's definitely water under the bridge," Lewis said. "I don't know how it can ever be personal. It's one thing to be here in Baltimore and then have a choice to leave or stay here and not come back here. But to not even be here and part of our organization, to be a part of the Cowboys and to have that option open to go back to the Cowboys, hey, it's a business."
The Ravens are obviously thrilled with the job that Harbaugh has done, not just winning, but leaving his mark on a locker room that was fractured following the departure of Billick and the decision not to hire the beloved Ryan.
Like Garrett, Harbaugh was from an impressive football family and had the backing of some of the game's most successful coaches, like his boss at the time, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick who called Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to recommend Harbaugh.
Still, he was viewed as a less conventional candidate because he had never been a head coach or an offensive or defensive coordinator. He did spend nearly a decade on Reid's staff, first as a special teams coordinator and then as a secondary coach. He also hadn't interviewed for an NFL head coaching position, though he was a finalist for the UCLA job that went to former Ravens assistant Rick Neuheisel.
However, Harbaugh made an immediate impression on Bisciotti and the Ravens' front office, which loved his passion, drive and attention to detail. Some reports at the time indicated that a few key decision makers wanted Harbaugh over Garrett, but it was Garrett who got the first offer.
In a column on the Ravens' website following the Harbaugh hire, team president Dick Cass wrote that Garrett told owner Steve Bisciotti that he wanted to be the team's new head coach, and "after several hours of discussion, thought we had an agreement on compensation. However, Jason decided later that night that he wanted to stay in Dallas as offensive coordinator."
It was speculated that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones matched the Ravens' monetary offer and guaranteed Garrett the eventual head coaching job. There has also been some talk that Garrett was concerned that the Ravens lacked a franchise quarterback, while the Cowboys had Tony Romo, a rising star at the time. Three months after hiring their new coach, the Ravens drafted quarterback Joe Flacco and running back Ray Rice with their first two picks of the 2008 draft.
Garrett inherited a 1-7 team from Phillips, who was fired midway through the 2010 season. The Cowboys finished 5-3 in the second half and went 8-8 last year, failing to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Harbaugh has won from the very beginning, albeit in a completely different situation and environment.
"One of the things that you've seen with [Harbaugh] is the consistency every year, not the ups and downs," said Charley Casserly, a long-time NFL general manager who now works for the NFL Network. "He's a guy that puts the team first, puts his ego aside and he's a smart guy. His personality is such where he's not going to get the publicity that some other coaches get, but the success that he's had is outstanding."
Casserly, who believes Garrett will be successful as the Dallas coach, also credited Harbaugh for his adept handling of the potentially volatile situation that he inherited with so many veterans used to the laidback Billick, and wanting Ryan, who stayed on as the defensive coordinator/assistant head coach under Harbaugh.
Asked if Harbaugh's personality made him a better fit for the Ravens, Casserly said, "It's a good question, but I can't answer that. To me, you have to judge it by, 'Here's what John Harbaugh has done in that situation and he's an A-plus. I have to leave it at that.'"
Baltimore Sun reporters Edward Lee and Aaron Wilson contributed to this article.