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Cowboys’ coaching homebrew may become a toxic mix

Growing your own coaches can be a good thing - or a recipe for repeating your mistakes.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Is he really in line to become the Cowboys’ QB coach?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

While there are still a lot of terms like “likely” and “expected” involved, the churn of the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching staff is clearly underway. After several years with one of the most stable groups of assistant coaches in the NFL, the team is going to have multiple vacancies to fill. At this time, the all-but-done openings include tight ends coach (retiring Steve Loney), special teams coordinator (Rich Bisaccia, lured away to join Jon Gruden’s presumed new staff for the Oakland Raiders), quarterback coach (Wade Wilson, not retained by the team), and secondary coach (Joe Baker, also not retained). You can also pencil in Matt Eberflus, who is believed to be in line for a defensive coordinator position along with a big pay raise, possibly with the New England Patriots or wherever their offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might land as a head coach. (Interestingly, one job that may not be as likely to be vacant is wide receivers coach. Derek Dooley was widely thought to be looking to move on to get more responsibility and input in game planning and play calling, but now that appears to have been largely a negotiating ploy that has gotten him what he wants without having to pull up stakes and move out of Dallas.)

But there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that there are a lot of younger or less experienced assistant coaches and other possibilities who are either under contract or were just with the team last season.

The bad news? There are a lot of younger or less experienced assistant coaches and other possibilities who are either under contract or were just with the team last season.

Yeah, it’s a double-edged sword. There are benefits and risks when you grow your own coaches, much like with players. You get people you already know and who are very familiar with the system, but if you need to make some corrections, you are also dealing with people who are already invested in the status quo and who may lack the broader view of things necessary to recognize where change is needed. It’s sort of like home-brewed whiskey, or moonshine as many people in the rural South like to call it (so I have heard). A good batch of the stuff is pretty good drinkin’, but if the moonshiner makes a mistake or the still is defective, it can flat out kill you.

There are a lot of names being bandied about for the 2018 Dallas staff, and Mike Fisher has a very good summary at his Cowboys HQ site (this one is fortunately not behind the paywall). It addresses the basic idea that young coaches promoted within may just reinforce the overall groupthink of the staff. However, I wanted to take a look at the internal candidates being mentioned in more detail, with some analysis of whether each would be likely to help or hurt. And, in what seems a rather unique situation in Dallas, there are a lot of names of former Cowboys players involved, which will be grouped together.

But first, what we can term “staff only experience” names.

Greg Jackson. The current safeties coach may be the most likely one to get a promotion, taking Baker’s job as the overall secondary coach. In essence, by moving on from Baker despite the rather impressive job done by the very young group of defensive backs in 2017, the team has said that they feel Jackson was more important. Of course, he has an almost unfair advantage in getting to coach the GOAT, Jeff Heath.

Kyle Valero. You may not be familiar with the name of the assistant wide receivers coach. But Fisher speculates that he may be in line to become the running backs coach, with current RB coach Gary Brown another one whose contract is expiring. Valero’s main asset is that the senior staff really likes him. The concern there is whether they like him because he has good ideas, or because he just agrees with his bosses a lot.

Keith O’Quinn. Again, unless you read extensively about the Cowboys or study the coaches listed on the mothership, he may not ring any bells. Fisher mentioned him as a possible Loney replacement. He is also similar to Valero in being very popular with the guys he works for, but he has one other thing that may make him a good option for trying to find some new ideas: He has several years working in the quality control role, which may give him a good eye for figuring out what does and doesn’t work.

Those are the “pure coaches” in the mix. Now on to those former players, starting with the one that will likely spark the most debate.

Kellen Moore. Moore has long been a thorn in the sides of the fanbase as the team has insisted for years on keeping him on the quarterback depth chart, for reasons known mostly to Scott Linehan, who brought Moore to the team after coaching him while both were with the Detroit Lions. With Wilson’s departure, the speculation is rife that Moore will become the new QB coach.

And that could easily be a fiasco. Although at one time there was a belief that Moore was a big help to Dak Prescott his rookie season, some subsequent reporting, including comments from Prescott himself, indicate that Mark Sanchez was a true mentor for Prescott, while Moore wasn’t really helpful.

It seems a sketchy idea to put someone in as the primary coach for Prescott when he turned his back on him during that rookie season (when, admittedly, they were competing for the backup QB spot before injuries rewrote the script). For that matter, just how much faith would Prescott be expected to have in a player who couldn’t even stay on the 53-man roster this year? It is true that you don’t have to be a great player to be a great coach, but there is a unique and probably uncomfortable history here. Although the Coach Moore idea has been very popular, it is also probably very bad.

Marc Colombo. He is currently the assistant line coach, and that makes him worth looking at as the team decides whether they are going to put a lot of the blame for the offensive line situation on Frank Pollack or not. That may be mostly dependent on just where the insistence on forcing Chaz Green as first the left guard and then the swing tackle came from. If it was handed down to Pollack, he may not get the brunt of the blame and be able to keep his job. But if that gets hung on him, then Colombo would certainly get a look. And given the level the O line was playing at in 2014 and 2016, this is not a place on the roster where “new ideas” look to be all that necessary.

Andre Gurode and Miles Austin. Both have been working in something of an intern capacity. Austin has been with the receivers, and Gurode crossed the line of scrimmage from his own playing days to work with the defensive linemen. Neither would look to be a candidate for a significant job, but more likely to be “backfill” if other changes happen above them. They were brought in to hone their skills with an eye to careers in coaching, so there is a certain logic in them getting promotions.

One other name that has not been a factor in all this speculation is Leon Lett. With Rod Marinelli apparently staying, there is no real place for him to move up on the staff, and I have not been able to find anything stating he is on an expiring contract (apologies if I missed it). Unless someone swoops in to try and hire him away, he should stay where he is.

Will there be more promotions from within than hires from outside to fill the voids in the Dallas staff? Maybe we should hope not. All the people mentioned have years in the Cowboys’ system - which may be the exact opposite of what is really needed. One or two of these candidates might be a good idea, but not all of them. And in the case of Moore, it is probably something that should be put aside entirely.

Yet there is the fact that Jerry Jones likes familiar faces and people with whom he has already established a relationship. It leads to a lot of loyalty and what seems to be largely a drama-free staff and locker room. It also can lead to just continuing problems rather than identifying and solving them. There needs to be a great deal of care taken with the new hires. Of course, the team also has to find people it wants and get them signed before someone else does. It is a tricky balancing act, and another reason why the changes to the Dallas staff this offseason could wind up being more internal retreads than anything else.

That would likely be a bad thing.