If Thursday night’s ominous press conference following a lopsided loss to the Bears signaled anything, it’s that this may be the end of Jerry Jones’s pragmatic period.
Considering the history of the modern Cowboys, Jones grooming Jason Garrett as a head-coach successor, drafting the bones of a generationally great offensive line (and not Johnny Manziel) and wisely extending some of his foundational pieces through a sensible point in the not-so-distant future was one of the least turbulent stages in Jones’s tenure as owner. It was also about as successful, playoffs-wise, as the 10-year stretch between 2000-09 when the team cycled through Dave Campo, Bill Parcells and Wade Phillips as head coaches.
To be clear, there are probably a handful of fanbases that would sign up for eight playoff appearances in 20 seasons, no matter how soon they ended. But the Cowboys aren’t most fanbases, and Jones, a legacy-focused billionaire staring down a future where his best chance to win another Super Bowl right now, is probably not the kind of owner who’s content with middling like most of his peers. Dallas has not made it to the conference championship round of the playoffs since winning their last Super Bowl in 1995—and that’s not good enough for the Joneses.
That’s why the Vegas odds on a potential coaching search are outrageous. That’s why some of the leaked names we’ve heard are also outrageous. There’s a chance that this new head coach hire, should it happen, is legitimately outrageous because the last time Dallas and Jones did something like this, it worked.
So here we are, with the 6-7 Cowboys still at this moment playoff-bound and sitting in first place in the NFC East, talking about another person prowling the sidelines next year. Some might feel that’s outrageous in of itself, but that’s life with the Dallas Cowboys.
TIER 1: The Names We’ll Hear the Most
Jason Garrett, Urban Meyer, Matt Rhule, Dan Mullen, Lincoln Riley
Jason Garrett still has a job on Friday, which means he has a good chance of holding that same position on opening day 2020 if he shows a whiff of progress over the next three games and limps into the playoffs. Jones’s admiration for Garrett is obvious and has been dissected a million different ways—and in his ideal world, Garrett is the man who hands him the next Lombardi Trophy.
But the rest of the names we’ve seen reported and speculated early on have been based in the college game. Meyer makes sense because Jones is likely looking for someone who wants the job, who is used to a kind of subservience (is having Jones as an owner analogous to a university president or cadre of boosters?), who wins wherever they go, who has had a history of innovative ideas offensively and who can make the team into something Jones can sell.
Riley makes sense because the hire would make waves. It would represent an immediate boost to a young franchise. It would certainly aid the rapid development of Dak Prescott and, at least for one season, it would pose a challenge to opposing defensive coordinators who would have to figure out what version of his offense Riley might bring with him to the pros. He has ties to a pool of young offensive minds that can keep the central tenants of his scheme fresh. While the move would not bring him any closer to home (Riley is a Lubbock, TX, native) the prestige of the franchise might be hard to ignore for someone who was raised in the Texas football culture.
I included Rhule and Mullen here because, if you follow the line of thinking, it doesn’t seem difficult for Jones to land on two excellent college coaches either with ties to the area or the team itself. Mullen coached Prescott at Mississippi State before heading to Florida. He is a member of Meyer’s coaching tree. He has a career winning record and is 6-2 in bowl games as a head coach.
Rhule, who nearly got the Jets job a year ago, took over a Baylor program in emotional shambles and elevated it to the top 10 again. He made Temple football relevant. His offensive staff has NFL experience and he checks boxes both as a young, energetic program builder and a coach who would immediately freshen up an offense loaded with talent.
TIER 2: The Available, Experienced Veterans
Mike McCarthy, Ron Rivera, Jim Harbaugh, Mike Shanahan
I think Jones might value a coach who has either won or reached a Super Bowl recently. There is a cache that comes with telling an owner desperate to win a trophy that you know what the process looks, smells and feels like.
Shanahan might get renewed credit for his ability to identify and develop young coaches. He once had a staff with Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan and Matt LaFleur (in case you haven’t heard that 1,000 times). Rivera could appeal as an old-school disciplinarian who could work wonders with arguably the best linebacking corps in football. McCarthy would stand out as a coach with a pattern of success in the conference, who has beaten up on the Cowboys in the past and has had the benefit of taking a year off to reevaluate. Harbaugh, while notoriously averse to meddling ownership, satisfies desires for a track record of winning in the NFL, an ability to coach quarterbacks and a foot in the collegiate game.
TIER 3: The Popular Assistant Du Jour
This one I just have a hard time wrapping my head around. I’ve seen Cowboys fans clamoring over Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman, and while I think Roman will get a head-coaching job this offseason, I would find it harder to believe that Jones hires a second straight coordinator without prior head-coaching experience. This hire has to be both splashy and somewhat risk-averse, and a rising coordinator doesn’t give you the same type of up-front guarantees.
That said, there are a lot of good coaches available should Jones want to go that route. We’ve made lists. Other, smarter people have made coaching lists. Dallas’ roster and place in a mediocre division makes them unquestionably the most attractive job from a competitive standpoint, meaning that they could have their pick of the litter here. The question is whether or not they’ll want it. To me—and this is just a thought—it would signal a continuation of the pragmatist who is running out of time to sit atop the NFL world once again.
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