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Dallas Cowboys: Where NFL coaching careers go to die

Why are almost no Cowboys coaches getting promoted to the next level with other NFL teams?

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

At the end of the 2013 season, the Washington franchise fired their head coach Mike Shanahan after a 24-40 four-year record. Little did anybody know at the time that Shanahan’s list of assistants in Washington would read like a Who’s Who of NFL coaches 10 year later:

Name 2013 Today
Kyle Shanahan OC HC San Francisco
Matt LaFleur QB HC Green Bay
Mike McDaniel WR HC Miami
Sean McVay TE HC LA Rams
Raheem Morris DBs HC Atlanta
Bobby Slowik Def. Asst OC Houston
Chris Foerster OL OL coach San Francisco
Aubrey Pleasant Off. Asst DB coach LA Rams
Richard Hightower Asst DBs ST Coord. Chicago

That’s five current head coaches and one more head-coach-in-waiting in Bobby Slowik. Pretty impressive, no?

“Hold my beer,” says the eager beaver Cowboys fan and proceeds to list the names of seven future NFL head coaches to emerge from Bill Parcells’ tenure in Dallas:

Name Dallas POS Head Coach position
Sean Payton 2003-05 QB/ PG Coord. New Orleans 2006-21, Denver 2023-
Anthony Lynn 2005-06 RB LA Chargers 2017-20
Todd Haley 2004-06 WR Kansas City 2009-11
Tony Sparano 2003-07 OL Miami 2008-11
Mike Zimmer 1994-2006 DC Minnesota 2014-21
Todd Bowles 2005-07 SB NY Jets 2015-18, Tampa Bay 2022-
Dan Campbell 2003-05 Player (TE) Detroit 2021-

That gives Cowboys fans bragging rights for another thing that happened 20+ years ago.

But since then, the list of future head coaches to emerge from the ranks of the Cowboys’ coaching staff is shockingly small:

  • Matt Eberflus (DAL 2011-17) is now the head coach in Chicago, but he first had to prove himself for three years in Indianapolis before he became a head coach.
  • Jason Garrett (2005-10) parlayed his familiarity with the Jones family into a nine-year head coaching gig in Dallas.
  • Joe DeCamillis (DAL 2009-11) was the interim HC in Denver for one game in 2016, Bill Callahan (DAL 2012-14) held the interim role for 11 games in Washington in 2016.

Three successive head coaches (Wade Phillips, Jason Garrett, and Mike McCarthy) over a span of 17 seasons have essentially failed to get any of their most important lieutenants promoted in the NFL.

But it’s not just the absence of future head coaches among the assistant coaching ranks that should raise all sorts of alarms. The fate of former Cowboys offensive and defensive coordinators (Dan Quinn’s potential move to a HC position notwithstanding) since 2010 is an unmitigated disaster and is a flaming indictment of the Cowboys front office.

Let’s look at the defensive coordinators the Cowboys have paraded through Dallas - with a special emphasis on what happened to them after their tenure in Dallas ended.

Wade Phillips (2007-2010). To paraphrase @dailygoonerraf, Phillips was possibly the last Cowboys DC who could finish a 60-minute game and was good for 16 games (in 2009). Fired as head coach during the 2010 season, Phillips signed up as DC in Houston (2011-2013), was completely out of the NFL for a year, and followed that up with DC stints with the Broncos (2015-16) and Rams (2017-19).

Paul Pasqualoni (2010). Pasqualoni briefly took over as DC when Phillips was fired and was out of the NFL immediately after that. After three years as a college head coach, he resurfaced in the NFL as a DL coach with various teams, and even made it back to DC briefly with the Lions (2018-19).

Rob Ryan (2011-2012). Followed up his two-year gig in Dallas with three years in New Orleans (2013-2015), and one more year in Buffalo (2016) before sitting out for three years before his next NFL job.

Monte Kiffin (2013-2014). After just one year, Kiffin was demoted as DC in favor of Rod Marinelli, but hung around as “Assistant head coach for defense” for another year. He was out of the NFL before signing on with Jacksonville in 2016.

Rod Marinelli (2013-2019). Marinelli took over as DC in 2014 and stayed until 2019 before moving on to the Raiders and taking a step down to DL coach.

Mike Nolan (2020). McCarthy’s hand-picked DC delivered the worst defensive performance in team history. He was out of the NFL after that and only resurfaced last year as a head coach in the UFL.

Dan Quinn (2021-) might be the one to break the trend: If he gets a head coaching gig somewhere, he’d be the first Dallas DC since 2007 not to take a demotion or to be out of the NFL shortly after his stay in Dallas.

When the Cowboys initially hired all these coordinators, they thought they were getting experienced veterans with institutional knowledge and demonstrated success in the past, almost all with former head-coaching experience.

What they got instead were retreads long past their prime just a step or two removed from the end of their NFL careers.

Recent reports indicate the Cowboys could have interest in Ron Rivera as defensive coordinator if Dan Quinn leaves. That would have them hiring another has-been former head coach who is 10 years past his prime. So the pattern looks to repeat at defensive coordinator, and when you ask Stephen Jones or Mike McCarthy what they think they need to change to win a playoff game next season, they’ll confidently lean back and tell you with a straight face, “nothing at all.”

Sad enough that they keep falling into the same predictable trap at DC, but the pattern repeats at offensive coordinator as well. Sure, they had two promoted-from-within guys in Jason Garrett and Kellen Moore who seem to break the mold (at least from an age perspective), but do they really?

Jason Garrett (2007-2019). We tend to forget that Garrett was a hot commodity as a young OC back in the day. After the 2007 season he was offered the head coaching jobs in Baltimore and Atlanta but stayed in Dallas. Detroit, Denver and the St. Louis Rams inquired about Garrett the next season, but he again preferred to stay in Dallas and took over as head coach in 2011. After his tenure in Dallas, Garret had lost all his lustre and signed on with the Giants as OC for two years, but has been out of the NFL since.

Bill Callahan (2012-2014), a former head coach for the Raiders, was hired in 2012 as an OL coach, took over play-calling duties from Garrett in 2013, and was himself stripped of play-calling duties in 2014. Callahan stepped back down to OL coach for Washington (2015-2019), including 11 games as interim head coach, before moving on to Cleveland as an OL coach.

Scott Linehan (2014-2018), a former head coach for the Rams, took over play-calling duties from 2015-2018, and has been out of the NFL since.

Kellen Moore (2018-2022) was promoted to OC after Linehan left, and despite “lighting up the scoreboard” in Dallas and garnering multiple HC interviews, he only managed a lateral move to be the Chargers OC for a year, and followed that up with another lateral move to OC in Philly. At least he isn’t out of the NFL yet.

What we see here, with the possible exception of Garrett and Moore, is a consistent modus operandi by the Cowboys front office that favors former head coaches and/or established veteran coaches with big names. Names that come with one important benefit for the Cowboys from office: they signal competence by association.

Look at us, we know football! We know it so well, we only hire the biggest names in the business.”

Over the last 10 or so years, Stephen Jones has taken over more and more control of the day-to-day football operations in Dallas, even if fans routinely love to crucify Jerry Jones for anything that goes wrong with the Cowboys. And while 81-year-old Jerry retains all the fancy titles in the organization, Stephen is the guy running things behind the scenes.

Stephen has been involved with the Cowboys most of his adult life (he was 24 when his father bought the Cowboys in 1989), but he did not inherit Jerry’s penchant for taking risks. In fact, Stephen is running the Cowboys about as conservatively as possible, which is evident in the way the team handles player contracts, avoids free agency like the plague, was late to the game in analytics, and in the way they go ultra-conservative with their coaching hires.

The Cowboys don’t like to sign an up-and-coming college guy as one of their coordinators - it’s too risky. They don’t want a bunch of unproven assistants with new ideas on their staff - it’s too risky. And they certainly don’t want some hotshot coach challenging the status quo in Dallas - it’s too risky.

Or as Bryan Broaddus said the other day on 105.3 The Fan: “They don’t want to change.

They don’t want Bill Belichick walking in here, they don’t want Jim Harbaugh walking in here and saying, “we need to do this differently personnel-wise. I don’t like the way we’re doing this personnel-wise. I don’t like this!” They don’t want that.

They don’t want that. It’s eeeeasy for them now. Mike [McCarthy] is not going to get in their way about personnel. Mike is not going to get in their way and say, “Hey, we need to do something different here.” He’s not! He’s not going to do it differently.

It’s totally comfortable for the way these guys operate. They don’t have anybody questioning their personnel moves. They get to draft, they get to sign players, their own players. They don’t do things the guy in Philadelphia does - or people who are fighting for their jobs.

That’s what this football team is. They handed it off from a guy who used to do crazy things (and I was part of the crazy things he did!). The crazy stuff will get you fired. But he handed it off, and that’s where we are now. They don’t want to change. Because they’re comfortable in the way they are operating.

So they settle for the easy options on their coaching staff, and hope that by sticking with big names with a big past, some of that past glory will magically rub off on them.

And in a league that thrives on risk-taking and innovation, going conservative on your coaching will get you exactly to where the Cowboys are: 28 years and counting since the last conference championship game, and without even the feeblest attempt to remedy that.

Instead, let’s keep McCarthy around for another year. Because it’s comfortable.

In the section above, I highlighted the plight of the offensive and defensive coordinators, but the issue reaches into the assistant coaching ranks as well.

Since 2010, Matt Eberflus is the only Cowboys assistant coach to move from an assistant coach position in Dallas directly into an OC and/or DC role with another NFL team. For every other assistant, moving on from Dallas meant a lateral move at best, often a demotion, and sometimes even a straight exit from the NFL.

Shanahan’s 2013 team ended the season 3-13, Parcells’ 2006 team struggled to a 9-7 record, so having future stars on your coaching staff does not necessarily guarantee you’ll win a lot of games per se. But being open to new ideas, promoting up-and-coming coaches, and getting recognized as a place where top coaching talent can develop will get you into a virtuous cycle where the top talent in the league is actively looking to become part of your team.

Or you could just bring in another retread who was a big deal 10 years ago and watch the NFL careers of your coaching staff whither away.

Up to you, Stephen Jones.

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