GM of The Year
The Dallas Cowboys head into Week 17 looking for a different result than the last two season-ending disappointments. Will they get it done? Well, add the Tony Romo injury onto the heaping pile of pressure that rests on this franchise, along with the prospects of facing a high-powered opponent, and you have the makings of classic Cowboys theater.
Well, now for the cherry on the sundae: What happens to Jason Garrett should the Cowboys complete the trifecta of NFC East championship game disappointments? There are arguments for and against his ouster, but rest assured, Jerry Jones has one tough decision ahead.
As the Cowboys are at a minimum guaranteed a third straight 8-8 season, missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season could bring an epic backlash from the fans. Jones has gone on record and has also sent some mixed signals regarding Garrett's future, but being the joke of the NFL has to weigh on Jones.
So let's proceed on the assumption that the Cowboys do go in another direction and move on from Garrett. Which direction will Jones go in? He basically has four options. He also has to factor in philosophy.
Jones could try to make a splash with Jon Gruden, he can dip into the college ranks for Art Briles, he can hire a coordinator and hopefully turn that into a Bruce Arians-type or he can ultimately hire an experienced coach looking for a fresh start.
With Jones, you just never know what he's going to do, but it's hard to shake the image and disappointment with losses to Kansas City, Denver, Detroit and most recently Green Bay. They are simply season-changing losses, and for this franchise, enough is enough.
So without any further delay, let's look at five coaches who could not only revere the fortunes for this franchise, but could actually flourish under Jones.
Think about this scenario for a minute because it makes sense on many levels. The Cowboys fire Rob Ryan a year ago to take the fall for going 8-8, Ryan flourishes in New Orleans, Dallas' current defense is dismal and Rex Ryan comes to Dallas to right the ship.
The New York Jets are 11th in total defense in the NFL and Ryan's unit has performed solidly all season. New York is third overall in rushing yards allowed with 88, and that is an area the Cowboys desperately need to improve in.
Ryan was never a control guy in New York. He proved this season that he could perform well at his job with a rookie quarterback and a new GM, and he guided the Jets to exceeded expectations. Ryan is a solid coach, the players would gravitate to him and he would instantly retool this defense.
As far as Ryan's ability to work with Jones, it would be a nice fit for both parties. Ryan would not turn down an opportunity to be on the big stage in Dallas. He would bring some much-needed swagger to this franchise and would be the ideal candidate to rebuild this defense.
The only downside to this type of hire is that Ryan would have to bring a plan with him as far as the offense, since he is a defensive-minded coach. Maybe it's Marty Mornhinweg or maybe it's someone picked by Jones, but the offense would need to be addressed.
Schemewise, Ryan would run his 3-4 alignment, but with his brother Rob not far removed, the concepts would not be hard to grasp.
This would be a nice homecoming for Zimmer, who formerly was a defensive coordinator for the Cowboys. Zimmer and the Bengals boast the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL. This would be a classic example of a deserving coordinator getting the right opportunity.
There is no doubt he would be a fit in Dallas, as he's had prior exposure to Jones' structure, and Zimmer would bring instant credibility to this defense. It's a shame that Monte Kiffin is enduring the same injuries that Rob Ryan faced this season, but too many times his unit simply is too ineffective.
Watching too many defensive debacles to count this season, Jones may be very inclined to hire a coach with defense as the priority. That's where Ryan and Zimmer enter the picture. Zimmer's group in Cincinnati is known for bringing pressure and it shows in their 41 sacks to the opponents' 29.
Zimmer, like Ryan, would have to have a plan offensively, but finding the right fit for head coach is more important at this point. Zimmer also adds the flexibility of staying in a 4-3 or switching to a 3-4 since he has exposure to both alignments.
Smith is sort of in the same category as Ryan in that he's a head coach looking for a fresh start. Smith is a Texas native, he had a lot of success in Chicago and he went to a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as his starting quarterback.
He has familiarity with both Kiffin and Rod Marinelli and he can run the defense himself. Like Ryan and Zimmer, he too would need an offensive plan in Dallas, but this would be a great fit for Jones' organization. It would also mean a commitment to defense, which would be significant.
It would be hard to imagine Kiffin staying on should Smith get hired, but keeping Marinelli would actually be a smart move. Smith has been labeled a player's coach, but in this day and age of the NFL, the days of motivation by fear appear to be gone.
Coaches like Bill Belichick aren't going anywhere, and coaches with the mentality of a Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson have come and gone in this organization. So that tells you something about where Jones is mentally in his approach to hiring coaches.
Smith would be neither a threat nor a distraction to Jones in how the Cowboys operate, and he may even enhance their evaluations of defensive talent. Hiring Smith would also make sense considering his ties to the Tampa 2 scheme and the 4-3 defense.
That would make the most sense for Smith as fit in Dallas.
The consensus in reality says a coach like Gruden would never work for an owner like Jones. But I beg to differ. Gruden's last years in Tampa weren't too memorable and he basically won a Super Bowl with Tony Dungy's roster.
But this would be the classic case of Jones making a splash after firing Garrett, and it would send the fans into a frenzy. Hiring Gruden would pacify Jones on numerous levels and would spark instantaneous optimism for 2014.
Heck, Jones may even announce his hiring on Super Bowl Sunday in Parcells fashion since he can't resist the attention. But getting back to Gruden, he could work with an owner like Jones, and he already had a training ground when he worked for Al Davis.
Gruden could and should want significant input into how things are done, otherwise why would he give up his gig with ESPN? Gruden does have leverage no matter where he goes, but wouldn't Dallas represent the ultimate challenge for him?
He would be hard-pressed to turn down the opportunity, and rightfully so. For Jones, it would mean paying top dollar for zero guarantees, and it's anyone's guess if he would invite another potential Parcells type of hire.
As far as coexisting with Jones, I believe Gruden would come to Dallas if Jones outlined parameters that met his needs. It would have to work for both parties. Gruden was never a personnel prodigy. Remember, this is the man who drafted Appalachian State quarterback-turned-receiver Dexter Jackson in the second round.
Gruden was also the coach who ended his career with Jeff Garcia as his quarterback and lost to the Giants in the playoffs. In the sense of football, hiring Gruden could be the best news of all for Tony Romo and the fact that he brings a fiery and passionate demeanor to the sideline.
That's what this franchise could use the most.
This is a dark-horse candidate, but don't rule out Jones' interest in a college coach like O'Brien or even David Shaw from Stanford. O'Brien may be best suited for the pro game, and he did work for the Patriots with a quarterback named Tom Brady.
O'Brien is connected to various rumors, and if he is serious about leaving Penn State, he would be smart to increase his leverage and value. He does have a buyout, and an NFL owner would be on the hook for the money, but this is a solid, young coach with a huge upside.
Some might present the argument of what would be the difference between hiring O'Brien versus continuing to allow Garrett to grow into his role, but it's hard to ignore the job O'Brien has done in some very adverse conditions.
O'Brien would be able to thrive in Dallas as long as he knew his place in Jones' pecking order, but maybe he can provide Jones with a little insight into how the Patriots do things. O'Brien also has a little edge to him if you watch his demeanor on the sidelines. It's refreshing.
O'Brien has been instrumental in the development of freshman Christian Hackenberg and maybe a fresh approach to this offense is what Dallas needs. But like defensive coaches in need of an offensive plan, O'Brien would need to address his plan for the defense.
It wouldn't be a huge obstacle for him, but keep an eye out for O'Brien and his landing spot. He is intriguing. What's more intriguing is ultimately what Jones plans to do. The good news is that there are options.