We are still waiting for the entire Dallas Cowboys coaching staff to be finished, but the known and expected hires so far make it clear: the Cowboys are serious about hiring experienced coaches this time. Mike McCarthy has been gathering a group that has a lot of time doing their jobs. We won’t know how well it all works for quite some time, but it certainly looks like a new way of doing things, even if it involves some well-traveled people.
This is a real contrast to the staff that the team had last season. It was filled with a lot of inexperienced people and quite a few former players. At the moment, only Kellen Moore fits those two categories on the expected staff. He is the exception to the rule, but McCarthy was apparently impressed by what he saw him do in his first year as offensive coordinator.
Former players from last year that no longer have jobs with the Cowboys (at least at the moment) include Jon Kitna, Marc Colombo, Leon Lett, Andre Gurode, and Phillip Tanner. Keith O’Quinn was the most glaring example of an inexperienced coach, and the dismal performance of the special teams under him was the price the team paid. Others, like Ben Bloom, had almost all of their previous time coaching in other positions on the Dallas staff. This was all part of a clear preference for homegrown coaches under Jason Garrett. McCarthy is taking a very different approach, even in his keeping Doug Nussmeier but switching him to quarterbacks coach. Nussmeier has previous experience coaching quarterbacks on his résumé, and also provides some continuity for Dak Prescott with the departure of Kitna.
Here are some of the major names McCarthy has added that we know of so far and some pertinent highlights from their careers to provide a taste of what they bring. (We are still awaiting official announcements, but this is based on the most reliable reports so far.)
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan
He was head coach of the San Francisco 49ers for over three years before being replaced after things did not go so well with Alex Smith as his quarterback, famously taken instead of Aaron Rodgers. That was a bad decision that probably was the biggest factor in his failure. But he has a much better and very extensive résumé as defensive coordinator, including stints with the New York Giants, Washington, the New York Jets, the Baltimore Ravens, the Denver Broncos, the Miami Dolphins, and the Atlanta Falcons. His last two jobs before McCarthy chose him for DC were as linebackers coach with the San Diego Chargers and New Orleans Saints - which will have a bearing on another hire down this list.
One note should be made here that many times a coordinator or assistant coach will lose their job not because they did a bad job, but because the head coach is fired and all or most of the staff is replaced as well. Nolan certainly brings tons of experience. He is expected to incorporate elements of a 3-4 defense, but the difference between that and a 4-3 defense in today’s NFL is not as significant as it used to be.
What may be most significant here is that Nolan should be a true defensive coordinator for the Cowboys, as opposed to the sometimes uncertain roles that Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard had. Time will tell, but with the reports that emerged about not everyone on the staff being on the same page at times last year, fixing that may be the best thing Nolan can do for the team.
Special teams coordinator John Fassel
I spent much of last season detailing how bad special teams play doomed the Cowboys in many games. In my mind, Fassel is the most important hire outside of McCarthy himself. He has 12 years experience as an ST coordinator, first with the Oakland Raiders and then a long stint with the St Louis/Los Angeles Rams. (He also served as an interim head coach with the Rams during 2016.)
There can be no greater contrast than the one between Fassel and O’Quinn. The latter was mostly in scouting before being promoted to the ST job by the Cowboys. It was an odd decision in many ways, and the experiment clearly failed. Now McCarthy has a very experienced coordinator. His units were very good at times, and never as dismal as we saw Dallas being in 2019. Don’t be surprised if we see a couple of games turn on field position or big returns this year.
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula
He spent several years in the now defunct NFL Europe, including winning a league championship as head coach of the Rhein Fire. Much more pertinently, he was the defensvie line coach for eight years with the 49ers before an unsuccessful season as their head coach, and then had three years back as defensive line coach in Washington before their coaching staff was overhauled this offseason.
One thing to watch for is a change from the Marinelli philosophy of playing the run on the way to the quarterback. We saw that result in the Cowboys getting gashed at times, often by running backs that didn’t seem to have nearly as much success against teams that took a more traditional approach to stopping the run. Tomsula seems much more inclined to bulk up the middle of the defensive line. It will be interesting to see how the need for a true space-eating 1-tech in his scheme is reconciled with the clear disinclination of the ownership to expend many resources either in free agency or the draft to acquire one.
Offensive line coach Joe Philbin
He probably is the most disappointing hire so far, not because of his history, but because he replaces the very popular Colombo. He has experience as a head coach, offensive coordinator, and offensive line coach, which fits the pattern here. But the thing that really jumps out is that he was on the Packers staff for much of McCarthy’s tenure, including the Super Bowl win. He even served a interim head coach when McCarthy was dismissed in 2018, but his hiring shows that didn’t create any bad feelings.
This, however, is one case where some apprehension is understandable. Just a couple of years ago the Cowboys brought in Paul Alexander, only to have to fire him midway through the season as the offensive line struggled. Colombo was promoted to fix things, and he certainly did. Now the line has to adjust to a new coach.
It does make some sense, though, since McCarthy is going to be heavily involved in how the offense operates, even with Moore being retained as offensive coordinator. Having someone he got to the pinnacle with is probably a good move. Philbin also might be able to help with meshing Moore’s offensive designs with McCarthy’s desires. Add in all those All Pro and Pro Bowl nods that the line already has, and they should be able to adjust if the coaching is good. Philbin should provide that.
Those are the experienced NFL coaches that McCarthy has tabbed. But not all his hires fit that mold.
Secondary coach Maurice Linguist
McCarthy went a different direction here, reaching into the college ranks to hire Linguist off the Texas A&M staff. He has previous experience coaching at Minnesota, Mississippi State, and Iowa State. One thing that may have been attractive is his focus on tackling and taking the correct angles, which were areas that showed a need for improvement in Dallas.
If nothing else, he will add a different perspective from the NFL graybeards.
Linebackers coach Scott McCurley
Here is the real exception to the experience factor. He only has been in the league since 2006, and his last job was as defensive quality control coach. That really stands out with this group.
What is intriguing is that he was with Green Bay, which means that all but his last year was working under McCarthy, who became head coach of the Packers the same year McCurley joined the staff. It seems apparent that McCarthy saw something in him that he wants to develop.
Nolan is also likely to be most involved with the linebackers, given his most recent job. While the head coach undoubtedly believes McCurley has something to contribute, he is not going to have to figure it all out on his own. It looks like a very forward looking hire where a young and promising coach will get a chance to grow as well as contribute.
Those are the names we have heard, but at this point, none have been officially announced. The Cowboys have also reportedly interviewed Stan Drayton from the University of Texas as the running back coaching job, but the Rams are also reported to be interested in him. Still, all reports coming out of the Star are that this is the bones of the new staff. There is still fleshing out coming. But so far, the experience of the majority of expected coaches is a great place to start if you believe in building on past success.