The Cowboys’ offseason work building a team that can compete for a Super Bowl kicked into high gear with a visit to the Scouting Combine this week, and it will continue with a decision on the franchise tag on March 6 and the start of free agency come March 14.
Before all that, however, first and foremost came the rebuilding of Jason Garrett’s coaching staff.
And in this regard, the Cowboys are entering unchartered territory. Dallas will head into the 2018 campaign with six new position coaches as well as a new special teams coordinator, a total of seven key changes to a staff that had seen very little turnover in the previous two years.
This type of change isn’t just rare, the Cowboys’ unique situation is basically unheard of. Why? Because over the last 30 years, no team has ever brought on seven new coaches without also changing the head coach or an offensive or defensive coordinator.
Normally when a head coach is hired, he will bring in his own people to serve under him, which can, of course, result in a high number of new assistant coaches as well. But Garrett is obviously returning, back for his eighth full season as Dallas’ sideline leader.
That’s not to say head coaches can’t or won’t then make changes. Most teams see some kind of tweaks to their coaching staffs every year. Prior to Jerry Jones buying the Cowboys in 1989, Tom Landry was the team’s head coach for 29 years with the turnover among his assistants, which were part of a smaller staff overall, minimal at best. But since Jones’ arrival, only twice has a returning Cowboys head coach not seen any change to his coordinators or position coaches: Jimmy Johnson in 1992 and Chan Gailey in 1999.
But we’re not talking about just a couple of assistant moves here or there. This is seven new coaches, a significant difference.
Gone is quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, tight ends coach Steve Loney, offensive line coach Frank Pollack, linebackers coach and passing game coordinator Matt Eberflus, secondary coach Joe Baker and special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia. Dooley, Eberflus and Bisaccia chose to leave for other jobs while Wilson, Pollack and Baker were simply not brought back after their contracts expired. After a coaching career that lasted more than 40 years, Loney made the decision to retire.
Views of the 2018 Dallas Cowboys coaching staff.
No matter the reason, to have this much turnover is unusual. In reviewing every NFL team’s coaching staff since 1989, only 19 times in that nearly three-decade span has a team switched out at least seven key coaches without changing the head coach himself. In some cases, a coach moved from one position to another or a position assistant was promoted, so the faces were not necessarily new, but the message – what was taught and, more importantly, how it was taught – was still different.
So how did the changeover affect those previous 19 teams? Eight would see their record improve in the ensuing season, eight more would basically see no change, their record remaining within a game, win or lose, from what they did the year before, and three of those 19 actually saw their records get worse.
However, the difference between those previous 19 clubs and the Cowboys in 2018 is that the coaching changes those teams made included either a new offensive coordinator or defensive coordinator, and in some cases both.
Similar to when a team brings in a new head coach, usually once a new offensive or defensive coordinator is added, he will bring in position assistants who he knows and trusts. Among those 19 squads, seven changed their offensive coordinator and seven the defensive coordinator with five making changes at each.
That’s not the case for the Cowboys. Not only is Garret returning for this season, so too is offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
Which, if the leadership seems satisfactory, why all the change beneath those three? The hope is this may give Dallas the best of both worlds. The overall direction of the team will remain the same, but delivering that message in the classroom, in the position drills or on the sidelines during the games will be a fresh set of voices.
Maybe a 29-year-old Kellen Moore can better understand the pressure 24-year-old Dak Prescott faces at quarterback in today’s game rather than the 59-year-old Wilson. Perhaps Sanjay Lal can connect with Dez Bryant and a wide receiver corps that may have tuned out Dooley after five years. Or could the respect Kris Richard earned while developing Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary help in guiding this current crop of young Cowboys cornerbacks and safeties.
In addition to Moore, Lal and Richard, Dallas has also brought in Paul Alexander to man the offensive line and most recently Doug Nussmeier to oversee the tight ends. Keith O’Quinn and Ben Bloom, current members of the staff, were promoted to special teams coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively.
With all the comings and goings, though, there could now be concern that Garrett is more or less being set up to fail. While that may be extreme, he undoubtedly needs these moves to work … and fast.
Whatever cohesion or trust that has to be built has to be done relatively quickly. If all of these new coaches aren’t on the same page, pulling the rope together, how can the players be expected to?
Of the previously mentioned 19 teams, only six would go on to make the playoffs in the ensuing season after their changes, and all of those, such as the 1992 San Francisco 49ers and 2012 New England Patriots, were likely good teams no matter who was manning the helm.
And unfortunately, while six may have made the playoffs, four of the head coaches actually lost their jobs the next year. And seven more were gone just two seasons after overhauling their coaching staffs.
Meaning, it may be make or break time for Garrett.
That’s not to say it can’t be done. For a game plan on how this might work, the Cowboys need look no further than last year’s Jaguars. Technically, Jacksonville announced a new full-time head coach for 2017, which left them off of this list. But it was actually Doug Marrone, who served as the interim coach for the final two games of 2016. He retained offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and defensive coordinator Todd Wash before then adding eight new assistants: seven position coaches and a special teams coordinator.
As is well known, the Jaguars had a complete turnaround, going from a 3-13 record in 2016 to a 10-6 mark this past season before losing a heartbreaker to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. And they look poised to be a contender for the next few years to come.
That is the type of success Garrett and the Cowboys now hope to see by making these coaching moves. But if the players don’t respond to the new staff, if Dallas doesn’t improve on the disappointing 9-7 effort of 2017 and reach the playoffs, there will surely be more changes coming.
And it won’t be seven more assistants taking the fall.