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Spagnola: Staff Unrest Precipitated By More Than Record

Posted Jan 18, 2013

IRVING, Texas – You know how we always talk about that fine line existing between winning and losing in the NFL? How a play here, a bounce there, a penalty call on this or not called on that decides the outcome?

         Well, does the same hold true for coaches holding their jobs? For things being either comfortable or uncomfortable these days out here at The Ranch?

         Tell me this: Had the Cowboys finished 9-7, won the NFC East and let’s say lost a first-round playoff game to Seattle, much like Washington did, would the same coaching staff unrest out here still be taking place?

         Or let’s say in that second New York Giants game, Dez Bryant’s fingertips landed in bounds instead of out of the back of the end zone and the Cowboys had won, again finishing 9-7, would Rob Ryan still be the Cowboys defensive coordinator?

         Or how about this: What if Dan Bailey had connected on all four field-goal attempts that windy day in Baltimore instead of barely missing on the game-winner as time expired from 51 yards to beat a Ravens team good enough to advance to Sunday’s AFC title game and the Cowboys finished 9-7, would Skip Peete still be out as running backs coach?

         And this: Had someone – anyone – picked up blitzing linebacker Perry Riley so Tony Romo could set his feet while lofting a pass outside to DeMarco Murray over Rob Jackson’s head and the Cowboys proceeded to score the touchdown most thought they would to beat the Redskins in that final game of the season for the NFC East title, would we still be wondering if Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones still is mulling a change at offensive coordinator/play-caller?

         See what I mean?

         A mighty slim difference between, let’s say linebackers coach Matt Eberflus definitely preparing for next week’s Senior Bowl activities in Mobile, Ala., and basically hanging around on pins and needles, not knowing if he’s going to be uprooting his family after being here just two years?

         Now, had the Cowboys finished 4-12, and this team cratered the way it did while going 1-7 in the first half of the 2010 season, getting Wade Phillips fired, then yeah, sure, all bets would be off on hanging with the status quo. Go for change, just as eight other owners around the league have done so, not only firing head coaches, but some general managers to boot, too.

         But that’s not what happened here, and I’ll say it again, in terms of developing young players, team chemistry and a true sense of team, this group of Cowboys made great strides in 2012, actually overcoming some reasonably incomprehensible hurdles along the way. And yet, this coaching staff still is undergoing renovations out here.

         Now let’s pause for a sec to document as of early 5 p.m. Friday the ins and outs of this Cowboys coaching staff – so far – assuming head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan will be here.

         First the outs:

         Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

         Running backs coach Skip Peete.

         Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis.

         Assistant strength and conditioning coach Walt Williams.

         Apparently tight ends coach John Garrett, moving on to Tampa Bay.

         Defensive line coach Brian Baker.

         Now the ins:

         Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

         Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, a right-hand man to Kiffin all those years with Tampa Bay who spent the day here at The Ranch for his official interview.

         Not official, but also soon to be announced secondary coach Jerome Henderson stays and maybe even assistant secondary coach Joe Baker, who did spent two years in Tampa with Kiffin.

         Quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson expected to be re-signed.

         And among those still twisting somewhat in the wind would seem to be Eberflus, assistant head coach/receivers Jimmy Robinson, kicking coach Chris Boniol, offensive assistant Wes Phillips and assistant defensive line coach Leon Lett.

         Plus, this doesn’t even account for the trail of coaches coming through on interviews, recognizable guys such as former Arkansas and Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt, and with more interviews likely to be conducted this coming week in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, also known as the coaching industry’s annual job fair.

         Now then, maybe some of these changes would have taken place anyway, no matter if the Cowboys had finished 9-7 or 8-8. In fact, not qualifying for the playoffs – this was the fourth time in five years the Cowboys have missed postseason play – bothered Jones the most.

         Plus, I’m sure by now everyone is well versed on Jones’ answer to my question on his TV show, Special Edition, this past weekend when asked:

         Me: Do you have to be careful not factoring in when you’re thinking about whatever you’ve got to do in the offseason, the fact that you had so many injuries, especially defensively, to maybe cloud your thinking or maybe pacify you that said, ‘Well, if we wouldn’t have had all those injuries …’”

         Jones: I didn’t like the way we were playing in a lot of cases or thought we could play better before the injuries. And so I factor that in. It wasn’t like that we had a lot of injuries out here when we played Chicago. It wasn’t like that we had a lot of injuries when we played Seattle. I didn’t like the way we played there. So it’s not hard for me to go to those games and say, ‘What can we do to improve when we played in Seattle and played Chicago?’ …”

         So, factoring this into the equation, sure sounds as if some of these changes might have occurred regardless if the Cowboys had finished 8-8 or 9-7. Maybe 9-7 without a playoff berth still would not have appeased the owner, just as Chicago wasn’t happy with Lovie Smith missing the playoffs with a 10-6 record.

         Evidently, Jones is not a fan of horseshoes. Close around here doesn’t count.

         If you think about it, the idea of moving on from Ryan must have sprouted earlier in the season, right? No way with the amount of injuries the Cowboys suffered down the stretch on the defensive side of the ball could you hold these defensive coaches totally responsible for giving up the 29.3 points a game in the final six, could you?

          Something must have triggered these thoughts of change sooner, along with factoring in the defensive performance of last season.

         Plus, remember we learned the Cowboys had scouts attending some Southern Cal practice sessions toward the end of the season, keeping an eye on the Trojans assistant head coach (basically defensive coordinator), judging his energy level on the field at nearly 73 once the 26-year-old veteran of the NFL let it be known he wanted back in the pros.

         Now I’m just supposin’ here, but could the big picture on defense over two seasons plus the impending availability of Kiffin have led to the firing of Ryan? Think about it, because it wasn’t as if the Cowboys performed some exhaustive search for a defensive coordinator after they did so.

         They relieved the vacationing Ryan of his job by phone on Tuesday and had Kiffin here at The Ranch by Thursday. By Friday Kiffin had been “officially” hired. Come on, to me the Cowboys knew exactly where they were going before they even went. This wasn’t reactionary to the final result. This move in my books was premeditated.

         Then once you change defensive coordinators, everyone else on that side of the staff basically is at the mercy of the new guy.

         As for the offensive side of the ball, we have to withhold judgment here since more changes could be on the way, but remember Jerry mentioned the Seattle game, right? The Cowboys scored seven points up there. He mentioned Chicago. Dallas turned the ball over five times that game at Cowboys Stadium, two of those interceptions returned for touchdowns.

         And he certainly could have documented the painfully slow first-half starts, trailing the Giants 23-0, Cleveland 13-0, Washington 28-3, Philadelphia 17-10, Cincinnati 13-10 and New Orleans 17-14 – those 14 the most points the Cowboys scored in a first half all season long. In fact, the Cowboys only led four games at halftime.

         To this team’s overall credit, and you have to give coaches some love for this, only two of the eight losses did not come down to a last possession or overtime – Seattle and Chicago.

         So then, is this major staff upheaval some volcanic eruption at season’s end stemming from long-term, built-up underlying frustration? Or merely an impulsive response to a non-playoff worthy 8-8 record.

         Me still thinks more the former than the latter.

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