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The Cowboys’ unique coaching pipeline

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What’s the best route to a coaching gig in Dallas? Being a former player.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
Heck, they even wore the same number.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Most of us are realistic enough to know that we never had a chance of being an NFL football player. But a lot of us think we may have some Mike Leach in us, and could be a coach. After all, we spend most games shouting the plays that should have been called at our TVs. And of course, if you are reading this, your dream job would no doubt be on the staff of the Dallas Cowboys.

Well, I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but it turns out that if you really want a job coaching for Jerry Jones, the best path is that really hard one: Be a former Dallas player.

It is something I had noticed before in looking at the Cowboys’ staff, and I’m not the only one to have taken some note of it.

Obviously, head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore are the most obvious examples, but they are joined by five other former players. Here is the full list, along with how long each has been with the staff:

Head coach Jason Garrett, twelve years (eight as head coach)

Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, second year

Offensive line coach Marc Colombo, four years

Quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, first year

Defensive tackles coach Leon Lett, eight years

Defensive assistant Andre Gurode, first year

Special teams assistant Phillip Tanner, first year

As you can see, there was a significant jump in former players on the staff this season, with three joining (although some, like Gurode, did time as an intern before).

This seems like an inordinately high number of a team’s own former players being on the coaching staff. It would take far more time than I am willing to devote to determine if this is the highest number in the NFL, but it must be one of the largest alumni contingents, and I suspect it is indeed the top. There are some potential advantages to this, such as having coaches that already have some idea of what the culture is from the start, and familiarity, with Moore, Kitna, Colombo, Gurode, and Tanner all having worked under Garrett as either HC or OC during their time in a Dallas uniform. And Lett was Garrett’s teammate.

It raises the question of just how much of a deliberate strategy this might be. The Cowboys have had an active intern program that also includes the scouting department, where Miles Austin has done some time. Dallas has a firm belief in growing their own on the field through the draft. Perhaps there is a similar philosophy for who is working on the sidelines. It has a certain Garrett feel about it. The promotion of Moore also fits in with the idea.

Many may give mixed grades to Garrett, and obviously the new faces in their current jobs still need to prove themselves. But Lett has been working with the defensive tackles for a long time, and generally gets good reviews. Colombo gets some credit for helping steady the performance of the offensive line after the team promoted him to replace Paul Alexander in mid-season last year. It is not a solidly proven approach, but so far, it looks like it is working.

That could be a good sign for this year’s staff, especially Moore. And it may be even better news for the future, because there are two very big names on the present roster that could make the move from player to coach quite soon.

The first is Jason Witten. He tried the broadcasting thing, and we’ll just say that it was not quite what he had hoped it would be. The decision to un-retire and come back to play is a pretty good sign that he wants to stay involved in the game, and that leaves coaching as the next step for him. At his age, he cannot have too many seasons left in him, and this might be the last one. It would be no surprise at all for the Cowboys to give him a job. He’s the kind of person that you make up a title if needed just to get him on the payroll - and the Jones family can certainly afford as many coaches as they want. Of course, Witten might get a better offer, with past rumors about his alma mater, Tennessee, being interested in him.

And if there is a current player in the NFL that just has “future coach” written all over him, it is Sean Lee. He has expressed a desire to move into the ranks when retirement comes for him. He serves as an on-field coach already, according to many reports. Like Witten, he might have some demand for his talents elsewhere. But in both cases, they may well feel more comfortable staying with Dallas, and being able to keep their homes for a bit longer.

Regardless of what happens involving those two vets, the Cowboys’ coaching staff is already heavily loaded with their own former players. Having a good rapport with each other and the head coach may be a secondary benefit to their actual coaching skills, but it certainly does not hurt.

If these coaches do perform their primary duties well, we could see this trend continue. Just like for players, being a part of the Dallas organization is one of the plum landing spots in the NFL. The fact so many have come back to the Cowboys further reinforces how attractive the jobs are.

Of course, if the wheels fall off this season, the entire coaching staff could be replaced, so these kinds of trends can be a bit ephemeral. But for now, this is a rather unique way to put a staff together. It will be worth watching to see just how well it works.