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Upgrading coach class: Reviewing the Dallas Cowboys 2018 staff

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So are things better or worse than last year with the Cowboys coaching staff?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Oakland Raiders Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Seems like a great time to take a big-picture view of the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching staff.

Why, you ask? There are two reasons. First, with free agency dormant and the draft done, we not only know what the various coaches have to work with, but we also can get some hints about who was influencing things and who wasn’t during the acquisition phase. And secondly, we have been dissecting players for weeks now, down to UDFAs that have almost no chance of making the roster. Now we can dissect the coaches, too.

Onwards!

Head coach Jason Garrett

Outside of the offensive coordinator (whom we will get to shortly), no member of the staff evokes more dissent than the head coach. Of course, that is pretty much the way it is for most teams, since the head guy gets more blame or credit for the team’s record than he really should (except on the very few teams where the head coach also has full control of the roster). Nonetheless, people continue to point to how Garrett is now entering his eighth full year as head coach, with only one measly playoff win to his credit. He is often held as the epitome of a mediocre head coach, with three 8-8 seasons to his credit, plus last year that really should have been another.

However, he possesses the one unique quality that is so important for a head coach in Dallas: Jerry Jones wants him to have the job. That has kept him in place longer than he probably would have been elsewhere with the same record.

But there are also a few mitigating facts about his tenure as well. He started his time as head coach with a staff that was largely picked for him (remember Rob Ryan). He also initially served as the offensive coordinator as well as head coach, which was probably not a great idea for a first-timer. It took some time for him to get his feet under him, and in 2014, the team finally showed what he could accomplish. It took that catch that wasn’t until the league finally admitted too late that it was, and the Cowboys’ personal nemesis, Aaron Rodgers, to keep them from getting to the NFC title game.

Sigh.

Then Tony Romo went down in 2015, and Dallas was caught without a plan at backup QB, and we saw what happened. But in 2016, Garrett would earn Coach of the Year recognition for going 13-3 with a fourth-round compensatory pick as his quarterback. And make no mistake, Dak Prescott is Garrett’s personal project, then and now. 2017 was affected by suspensions and injuries, which probably played a big part in Garrett getting another year.

There is also the unique role the owners play with the team, with Jerry and Stephen Jones working together to fill the GM role (with a lot of input from Will McClay). When the talent on the field fails, as it has frequently in the bad years of late, they rightly take some of that responsibility on themselves. In turn, that gives Garrett a bit of slack.

His leash is probably very short this year, and if he doesn’t lead the team to at least a win or two in the playoffs, the owner’s patience may be over. But for now, the Cowboys ride with Garrett. And it looks like the chips are all being laid on him being the head coach we saw in 2014 and 2016.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan

Linehan is the one coach that drew even more ire last season than Garrett. The offense was seen to be stale and predictable. But some of that was driven by the aforementioned injuries and suspensions. And Linehan was the OC during that remarkable run two years ago. Now, the personnel moves on offense, as well as the changes made in his slate of assistants, look to have been made to play to Linehan’s strengths. If there are not a lot of injuries, we will see just how wise that is. And his fate is probably tied directly to Garrett’s.

Offensive line coach Paul Alexander

Last year, something went woefully wrong with the vaunted Dallas O line. The attempt to make a guard out of Chaz Green failed miserably, and the depth was exposed when Tyron Smith was injured. That led to the departure of Frank Pollack and the addition of Alexander - which was seen as a bit odd since they essentially swapped jobs, with Pollack replacing Alexander with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Alexander’s greatest strength is believed to be his ability to coach to each player’s abilities rather than trying to force them into a team template, and that may be the real reason he landed with the Cowboys. He certainly seems to bring the right attitude.

Running backs coach Gary Brown

He’s got Ezekiel Elliott. Kinda hard to see how he could mess that up. It will be interesting to see if he can do something with Bo Scarbrough and Jamize Olawale. And he should have some input on getting Tavon Austin fitted into the offense. He is also one of the few holdovers from last year’s offensive staff, which says something.

Offensive assistant Stephen Brown

Does anyone know much about him? To be honest, this seems a bit like a training position for the future.

Assistant offensive line Marc Colombo

Colombo is another coach who the team seems to be grooming for the future, but he also brings some chops as a long-time former player with Dallas. Keeping him is a good sign for his future and what the team thinks he can contribute.

Wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal

With the departure of Dez Bryant and the Lamborghini-shaped cloud over Terrance Williams, Lal may be one of the most important coaches on the staff. More importantly, he is tasked with getting the entire WR group to be the kind of receivers Prescott needs. Early reports seem encouraging, and the team gave him a lot of new tools to work with in Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Michael Gallup, and Cedrick Wilson. Only one other assistant has a chance to make a bigger impact for the team. One thing that would be very interesting to know is how big a voice he had in the decision to release Bryant. That would tell us a lot about how much influence he will have.

Quarterbacks coach Kellen Moore

His hiring was both very predictable and widely derided. But as mentioned above, Prescott is not really his responsibility. Garrett will continue to oversee and coach the starter, leaving Moore with the task of installing game plans and working on the backups. And frankly, he seems to be well suited for those tasks.

Tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier

The surprise retirement of Jason Witten puts a lot more on his shoulders. He now has to find a new starter as well as fit the TE position into what is expected to be a different role now that Witten will not be on the field for every meaningful offensive snap. It is a much more important job than in recent years. That makes it one to watch closer than normal.

Assistant wide receivers coach Kyle Valero

Along with Lal, he’ll be charged with integrating a new set of receivers. As a holdover, he must have some trust of the front-office.

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli

Let’s be honest here. This may well be Marinelli’s last year before retirement, and it sure looks like someone else is being groomed to replace him. With the way responsibilities have been split up in the defensive staff, it looks like Marinelli is going to be more the real D line coach than anything else. But he has to be chomping at the bit to work with this bunch of rushmen, which looks to be stronger than we have seen in a long time.

Linebackers coach Ben Bloom

This is another job that has more importance than might be realized at first after the way the unit fell off when Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens were hurt last year. Bloom got a big vote of confidence in being promoted when Matt Eberflus departed, although he has a more limited area of responsibility. Still, he has a first-round pick to develop in Leighton Vander Esch, and a hopefully improved Jaylon Smith. But his biggest challenge is likely to be the depth players. One interesting note is that with Lee being given a lot of time off to protect him, Bloom will have more practice snaps to hone the skills of the rest of the group. That may be very valuable.

Safeties coach Greg Jackson

The team parted ways with his immediate boss, Joe Baker, but saw fit to keep Jackson. That is a pretty good vote of confidence, because the roster is much deeper at corner than it is at safety, especially in light of moving Byron Jones back to CB. Of course, his ace in the hole is GOAT Jeff Heath.

Defensive tackles coach Leon Lett

The “Big Cat” continues his career with the Cowboys. Like Colombo and Moore, he is an example of growing their own, and the team seems pleased with what he has done so far.

Defensive passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach Kris Richard

The man with the longest title on the staff is also the most important hire this year, and is widely suspected to be the heir apparent to Marinelli (an expectation he inherited from Eberflus). His resumé is outstanding from his time with the Seattle Seahawks. And the team is clearly molding the secondary to his vision. If the defense makes the jump that so many hope for this year, then he will get a lot of the credit. After all, the NFL is still a passing league, and stopping the pass is Richard’s main area of responsibility. If he makes it work, that could mean a very bright future for him and the Cowboys.

Defensive assistant Ken Amato

See the previous comments on Brown. One interesting tidbit: Amato played for nine years as a long snapper for the Tennessee Titans.

Special teams coordinator Kevin O’Quinn

He has some big shoes to fill in replacing Rich Bisaccia. But he is another promote from within the staff, so hopefully they saw something with him. It probably helps that he was Bisaccia’s assistant. Of course, his specialist group remains one of the best in the league.

Assistant special teams coach Doug Colman

His job is a little more understandable than with Brown and Amato. With the variety of roles to handle in the kicking game, O’Quinn just needs some help to handle all things.

That is a rundown of the coaching staff. On paper, it looks pretty strong, but there will likely be some weak points exposed at times. The key is whether the strengths outweigh those. We are getting the first glimpses of how things will go in OTAs, and the minicamp will show a little more. But the real test will be in training camp. So stay tuned.