There are those who believe we shouldn't talk about the potential firing of Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett (or any NFL coach) out of respect, but I'm clearly not one of them. NFL coaches are public figures and need to deal with criticism when they don't do their jobs well. Is Garrett a good guy? I think so, but that's not really relevant to the discussion.
The reason that Garrett needs to be replaced in Dallas is that he's proven an inability to adapt. If I were a GM hiring the head coach of my franchise, I'd care less about where that person is at the current moment and more about where they have the potential to be in the future.
At one point, Garrett appeared to possess a high ceiling as a coach. We've seen enough of him as an offensive coordinator and head coach, however, to know that's not the case. The Cowboys can win a Super Bowl under Garrett, sure. But it's highly, highly unlikely.
When you look at a coach like the Eagles' Chip Kelly, you see someone capable of truly evolving. He runs a spread offense, but adapted it in the middle of the season to accommodate a quarterback in Nick Foles who is entirely different from former starter Michael Vick. All Kelly did is turn Foles into arguably the most efficient quarterback in the NFL during his time under center.
What makes more sense to you: one coach tailoring his scheme to fit his personnel, or spending years and millions upon millions of dollars collecting the "right" fits for one man's rigid scheme? Garrett is the latter type of coach; his scheme and coaching style make for an extremely fragile team, one that needs everything to go just the right way for it to run without a hitch.
The Cowboys need to go out and find a coach with innovative ideas. One who isn't afraid to take chances. They need one who is analytics-minded and believes the correct way to build long-term success is through the scientific process.
But most of all, they need to find a coach who is capable (and also not afraid) of evolving. Here are four such candidates.
From Utah to Florida to Ohio State, head coach Urban Meyer's success in the college ranks has been unbelievable. In 13 college seasons, Meyer has lost a combined 24 games! Five of those losses came in his final season at Florida, but he's lost just a single contest in two years at Ohio State.
An Emory University study using a logistic regression showed that Meyer has had the second-best performance of any college coach relative to his teams' expected winning percentages and bowl success. The top man is former Boise State coach Chris Petersen, who would have been at the top of this list had he not moved on to coach Washington.
If he were still coaching, Chip Kelly would have checked in at No. 2 on the list during his time at Oregon.
All Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn did in 2013 was take a team that didn't win a game in the SEC in 2012 to the national championship. Described by CBS Sports as "a nerdy savant," Malzahn transformed a stagnant Auburn offense that averaged 18.7 points in 2012 into a hyper-explosive unit that amazingly scored 40.2 points per game this season.
The main concern for Malzahn is that he has just one year of experience as a head coach at a major college. He spent 2012 at Arkansas State, helping them go 9-3, before this year's 12-1 finish in his first year as the head coach at Auburn. He was also the offensive coordinator during quarterback Cam Newton's magical run.
The name of the game for Malzahn's offense is the same as that for Chip Kelly: speed. During an important 81-yard drive in their win over Alabama, the Auburn offense ran a play every 18.2 seconds. That's near the norm for Auburn in 2013. Malzahn's ability to innovate and adapt would be a refreshing change in Dallas.
In his article on which innovative college coaches could become the next big things in the NFL, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had this to say about Baylor coach Art Briles:
Briles' team plays fast, and he utilizes the entire field to beat you. It's worth remembering that Briles comes from the Houston Cougars offense, where they love to spread the field and throw the ball around. To that he's added a running quarterback element that is a perfect fit in today's NFL.
Briles is an innovative coach who turned a poor Baylor team into an 11-1 powerhouse in 2013. His spread attack is exactly what Dallas needs to go to the next level.
My only concern with Briles is his age. In his book Game Plan: A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the NFL, Frank DuPont showed that while coaches can improve with experience, most aging coaches perform worse than their younger counterparts. You're basically just looking to find the "sweet spot," combining experience with youthfulness.
Still, at age 58, Briles isn't over-the-hill just yet. More important, all signs point to him possessing a young, adaptable mind.
Stanford head coach David Shaw recently stated that he has no interest in leaving for the NFL, according to USA Today, but many coaches seem to change their position when the dollar signs start to add up. It makes sense for NFL teams to spend big bucks to get the best possible head coach, too, because there's no salary cap on coaches.
Stanford has gone 34-6 in Shaw's three seasons as head coach, winning the Rose Bowl during the 2012 season. He worked as Stanford's offensive coordinator during quarterback Andrew Luck's time in college, and he also coached wide receivers in the NFL for nine years.
Notice any similarities among those coaches? All but Briles are under 50 years old. They also all coach college football, where I believe true innovations begin. Innovation is normally a top-down process in most other fields, but it's just the opposite in football, where college coaches have real incentives to try out unconventional methods.
In the NFL, there's little incentive for coaches to steer away from the norm. If they try something outside-the-box and it doesn't work, they can lose their job. In college, where the gap between the best and worst teams is so massive, underdogs need to get creative in order to compete. That's why many of the game's greatest innovations come from small college schools or even high school.
The Cowboys' next coaching hire is a huge one. If they want to go somewhere where they haven't been in a long, long time, they need to bring in a bright young mind who will embrace both analytics and the scientific process as a whole as the path to success.