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Dallas Cowboys Coaching Candidates: What The Numbers Say

Jason Garrett is making a strong case for himself as the next Dallas Cowboys head coach, but this season is far from over and the "Who should be the next Coach" debate remains in full swing. 

There are three basic options open to Jerry Jones: Keep Jason Garrett, hire a promising assistant or hot college coach, or hire someone with previous NFL head coaching experience.

In this post we'll look at the latter option and run some potential Cowboys head coaching candidates with previous head coaching experience in the NFL through a statistical coaching combine. We'll look at five current and former head coaches whose names have been vagabonding around in the press recently and run them through three coaching tests.

Can they win? Can they draft talent? What system would they play in Dallas?

The Candidates

Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher are the two most obvious candidates. Brian Billick's name has also been mentioned and his 'campaign' has been gathering momentum recently. Jeff Fisher is another hot candidate whose claim to fame in this group is that he actually currently holds a head coaching position. And finally, if Jerry were to be looking more for a GM/head coach hybrid similar to what he tried with Dan Reeves, perhaps Mike Holmgren could be persuaded to come to Dallas and mentor either Jason Garrett or a young gun brought in from the outside. Pure speculation, I know, but that's what we do here.

This statistical combine test will be based on the one thing all five candidates have in common: they were all head coaches in the NFL between 1999 and 2006. Some candidates coached earlier, some coached later and Fisher is still coaching. But that common time period provides a frame of reference in which to compare all five candidates and see who has the best 'measurables'. Those eight years are also the common drawback for three of the five candidates: they've been out of the NFL for a while now, and arguably the glory days of every candidate are behind them, not ahead of them.

In the following, we'll look at all five candidates based on their records from 1999 to 2006. In this 8-year time period, all five candidates faced the same teams, drafted from the same talent pool and made choices about their scheme based on the same competitive NFL landscape. So while many a personal preference for a HC candidate may be based on any number of intangibles, this is as close as we'll get to a head-to-head comparison.

Oh, and if somebody is wondering why John Fox is not one of the candidates, the answer is simple: Three winning seasons out of nine seasons as a head coach simply is not good enough for a position in Dallas. End of discussion.

Can they win?

We start off by looking at the regular- and postseason wins in the eight years for each candidate, and for good measure, we compare it with the Cowboys performance during the same period

W/L Record 1999-2006
Billick Cowher Fisher Gruden Holmgren Cowboys
Regular Season 75-53 (.586) 78-50 (.609) 73-55 (.570) 69-59 (.539) 72-56 (.563)
57-71 (.445)
Post Season 5-2 7-3 5-4 5-3 3-5

Cowher has a slight lead lead over the other candidates in regular season wins. Over an 8-year span though, that lead translates to about half a win per season more than Billick and Fisher and about one win more per season than Holmgren and Gruden. Now, the NFL is a tough league, and one win can well be the difference between making the postseason or not, but overall these five coaches are all proven winners - and certainly racked up more wins than anybody the Cowboys had during that period.

All five candidates have been to the Super Bowl. Billick won in 2000 as did Cowher in 2005. Fisher was runner-up in 1999 and Gruden got his ring in 2002. Holmgren got his ring in 1996 and made the trip to the Super Bowl two more times, in 1997 and 2005.

If you look past the fact that a lot of these achievements are from quite some time ago, this does look like a strong class of candidates.

Can they draft talent?

This one is a little more tricky, for the simple reason that's it's not always clear who had the final decisions in which year about which player to draft: the owner, the GM, the coach, or somebody else. Regardless, at the end of the day, the drafting happened on the head coach's watch, and he should be measured against it.

To measure the success of the drafts for each candidate, we'll use a metric metric developed by Doug Drinen at (PFR) called "Career Approximate Value" or AV:

Approximate Value assigns a value to any player at any position for any given year, by weighting position specific metrics (i.e. yards or points scored/allowed) with an indicator for durability (total games played and seasons as their team's primary starter) and quality (Pro Bowl and All Pro nominations) and then normalizing all this at a team level. Read up on it at PFR if you need to know more.

Draft Results based on AV, 1999-2006

Billick Cowher Fisher Gruden Holmgren Cowboys
# Draft Picks 62 65 76 64 68
AV/pick 16.9 16.7 13.6 7.6 13.2

Billick and Cowher clearly have the highest Approximate Value per pick and lead this category. Now, both had a strong GM working with them in Ozzie Newsome and Kevin Colbert, but I'll repeat: it happened on their watch, so they're due some credit as well. The Cowboys fare surprisingly well thanks to some multiple Pro Bowlers in Ware, Williams (S), Newman, Gurode and Witten, as well as 'getting lucky' with some late rounders like Ratliff and Barber. Holmgren and Fisher are slightly below the Cowboys, while Gruden's numbers look terrible.

Looking at the total draft may not be quite fair, as 'getting lucky' in later rounds or an uneven distribution of draft picks may influence the results. Case in point: Gruden may have been handicapped a little because the Buccaneers traded away their '02 and '03 first round picks as well as the '02 and '04 second round picks to get him as their head coach (still scratching my head at that one, but they did get a ring for their effort).

In the next step, we'll look only at 1st and 2nd round picks. This is where getting it right is most critical, and where you would want to next Cowboys head coach to have a sure hand in identifying talent.

Draft Results based on AV, 1999-2006, round 1-2

Billick Cowher Fisher Gruden Holmgren Cowboys
Avg. draft pick 4.3 4.2 4.3 4.7 4.1
# 1st round picks
9 8 6 6 10
Avg. AV
50.4 46.9 40.5 15.0 31.4
# 2nd round picks
6 7 9 6 8
# 1st round picks
16.3 22.6 24.7 21.7 24.5

While it's true that Gruden had fewer first rounders to work with during those eight years, both Fisher and the Cowboys had just as few. They key difference here is what each coach did with his first rounders. Billick & Co had the best nose for first round talent, closely followed by Cowher & Co. Fisher and the Cowboys each had one significant first round bust that drove the average down: Bobby Carpenter for the Cowboys and DB Andre Woolfolk for the Titans. Excluding Carpenter from the Cowboys' figures and Woolfolk from the Titans' figures would result in an AV/Pick of 45.6 and 47.4 respectively - but that's just not the way the world works.

Holmgren had more of a hit-and-miss first round record with the Seahawks despite having 10 picks to play with. Gruden's record is marred by the fact that the Raiders drafted kicker Sebastian Janikowski in the first round in 2000 (and kickers don't have an AV rating), but also by the fact that of the 45 total first round picks I looked at here, all six of Gruden's picks rank in the bottom third of the list. Gruden does not have a good track record with talent. Kevin Ewoldt from Hogs Haven looked at Gruden in more detail a year ago and came to a similar conclusion, calling his draft history 'horrible' and - the ultimate insult in NFL circles - comparing him to Matt Millen.

The second round results look much more balanced. The odd man out here is Cowher. While the Steelers did pick two Pro Bowlers with their second round picks, they also picked three players who accumulated almost no AV over their short NFL careers, thus driving the average down. Which brings us to the next 'talent' category, Pro Bowlers:

Pro Bowlers drafted, 1999-2006

Billick Cowher Fisher Gruden Holmgren Cowboys
# Players 8 9 6 3 7
# PB seasons 19 20 10 7 17

Odd man out here is clearly Gruden, but Jeff Fisher has also underperformed a little relative to the other candidates.

What system would they play in Dallas?

A head coach is responsible for the overall strategy of the team. His choice of coordinators and assistant coaches helps implement that strategy. That and the quality of players he has available determines how good each unit on the team is and where the head coach decides to place the emphasis, on offense or on defense.

The type of scheme a head coach would run in Dallas would most certainly be important to Jerry Jones. "Is the guy an offensive guy or a defensive guy? Which would fit the Cowboys better? Do I even know whether my team is an offensive team or a defensive team?"

Here's a look at each coach over the eight years in terms of the average offensive and defensive ranking of his teams:

League ranking, 1999-2006

Billick Cowher Fisher Gruden Holmgren Cowboys
Offense: Points 17 13 13 18 13 20
Offense: Yards
22 14 14 17 14
Defense: Points
7 8 20 11 17 15
Defense: Yards
5 6 18 8 21

According to these rankings, Billick, Cowher and Gruden are all defense first guys, as were the Cowboys over this timespan (partly as a result of not having a quarterback, obviously). Fisher and Holmgren appear to have placed more emphasis on having a strong offfense. At the end, this is more of a personal choice: Do you believe more in a strong offense or a strong defense. The candidates each have clear profiles in this category. (And no, the fact that Fisher, Gruden and Holmgren all rank exactly the same on offense is no mistake)

What's next?

Dan Pompei from the National Football Post is reporting that Garrett may be Jerry Jones' leading candidate already, and that Jones is looking at how he can further shore up the assistant coaching staff for Garrett (Hat tip to BTB member Admiral Dallas for the fanshot):

Word on the street is that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is planning on putting together a "super staff" of assistant coaches for the Cowboys next year, and is willing to pony up to get the best. That could be an indication that he is thinking about retaining Jason Garrett.

Given what you know about Garrett so far, and looking at the 'measurables' of the candidates outlined above, who would be your choice for head coach?

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