While it hasn’t been made official, it seems likely from everything we’re hearing that Joe Philbin will replace Marc Colombo as the offensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys. ESPN’s Todd Archer reported the likely move on Wednesday just before Mike McCarthy’s introductory press conference began.
It had been suggested earlier that Jerry and Stephen Jones hoped to retain Colombo as their offensive line coach, but as they made clear in the press conference, McCarthy will get to choose his own staff. Colombo took over as the offensive line coach halfway through the 2018 season after a disastrous start on the line that led to Dak Prescott having the sixth-highest sack percentage in the league and the second most sacks taken.
In Colombo’s first full year in the role, his line improved significantly. The return of Travis Frederick helped, of course, but second-year left guard Connor Williams showed improvement and right tackle La’el Collins played like one of the best right tackles in the NFL. In the end, Dallas finished with the sixth-highest pass block win-rate percentage. Additionally, they ranked second in both run blocking and pass blocking efficiency according to Football Outsiders. Meanwhile, Prescott had the fourth-lowest sack percentage and his 23 sacks were third lowest among passers who started at least 12 games. And keep in mind that Prescott’s average time to throw in 2019 (2.88 seconds) was actually higher than last year (2.82 seconds), so it’s not like these improved stats were a byproduct of quicker passing schemes.
It’s clear that Colombo did something right and was able to get the Dallas offensive line back on track. The development of their two younger players was also an example of Colombo’s skills as a coach.
So why didn’t McCarthy want to keep him?
Well, we may never really know the full answer, and bits and pieces have been trickling out about tensions between other coaches on staff in 2019 that could possibly extend to Colombo. And while McCarthy has an extensive relationship with Philbin, it’s not a move solely predicated on bringing in “his guys,” or else Kellen Moore wouldn’t have been held onto, either.
Familiarity with Philbin did likely play a crucial role in this decision. It’s often been said that the offensive line coach is the most important non-coordinator job on a coaching staff. This is because the offensive line coach effectively operates as a coordinator already when it comes to weekly preparation: they have to get their five linemen - which accounts for nearly half of the personnel on the field at any time - on the same page and executing in sync with each other. This also frequently involves work with tight ends and running backs when they’re asked to help in blocking. Of course, there also needs to be communication with the quarterback to make sure they know the right protections and how to make adjustments at the line.
So even though an offensive line coach may not have the word “coordinator” on their business card, the work they do in a given week involves coordinating with nearly every member of the offense and therefore requires a very precise and organized individual to do the job. For proof of this, look no further than what happened to the Cowboys line when Bill Callahan left.
McCarthy knows the importance of this role, so he wanted to get himself a coach that he trusted to do the job. Enter Philbin, who has 22 years of experience coaching offensive lines, 14 years of experience as an offensive coordinator, three and a quarter years of experience as a head coach, and four games as an interim head coach in Green Bay after McCarthy’s firing during the 2018 season. When it comes to coaching, experience is Philbin’s middle name (it’s actually Anthony, but you get the point).
In fact, Philbin served four seasons as the offensive line coach at Iowa under head coach Kirk Ferentz, who has consistently turned out NFL ready linemen seemingly every year. And Philbin was either the offensive line coach or offensive coordinator in McCarthy’s first six years with the Packers. While Green Bay never boasted elite offensive lines under Philbin, it never really affected their ability to field successful offenses.
In fact, Philbin’s first two years under the McCarthy Packers saw quarterback Brett Favre with some of the lowest sack totals in his career, while Aaron Rodgers only registered more than 36 sacks in a season once during his time with Philbin present. Sure, Philbin may have had an unsuccessful tenure in Miami and Indianapolis, it can easily be argued that neither of those locations supplied him with the proper personnel to succeed.
So while Colombo might have the edge as far as more recent success, as well as a good relationship with his offensive line, Philbin trumps him in nearly every other category, most notably his experience in the role. Given the importance of the offensive line coach, it’s vital for McCarthy to have someone he trusts wholeheartedly for the job. Sadly, that was never going to be Colombo, but Philbin fit the bill to a tee.
Because of that, he’s the right man for the job.