It Is Time to Give up on The "Coach-in-Waiting" Idea

Tobi WritesAnalyst IJanuary 22, 2010

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 7:  Head Coach Wade Phillips and Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys look on from the sideline during their NFL game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 7, 2008 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Cowboys 20-13. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Jerry Jones recently gave Wade Phillips a well-deserved two-year extension. Jerry has in essence said, "Wade, you've earned the head coaching job."

Wade should have also earned the power that comes with being a head coach.

Now it is time to give Wade Phillips the freedom to evaluate Jason Garrett and dismiss him or any member of the Cowboys’ staff if Wade feels it is necessary.

Let the sun set on the coach-in-waiting concept

If Jerry is serious about winning a title, it is time to put a fork in this whole "coach-in-waiting" thing.

Under Wade Phillips this team grew a pair.  It's pretty clear that Wade is the man this team needs as its head coach for the foreseeable future.

Clearly, Jerry did not believe that when he hired Wade.  Wade was hired because Jerry had committed a vast amount of picks to build a 3-4 defense and he needed a great 3-4 coordinator who could develop those picks into players while keeping the team in the playoff hunt.

Wade was an easy guy for Jerry to like.  He is folksy, pleasant and has an ego a 10th the size of Bill Parcells.

Wade was hired as a Band-Aid to cover an open wound until Jerry's handpicked coach, Jason Garrett, was ready to assume a team ready to make a deep playoff run.  There was no real secret about it.

Phillips' resume suggested he was an instant fix-it guy who was good for two years and then his teams started to crumble.  Perhaps his teams tuned him out. Perhaps he was very good at assembling a plan when he wasn't in charge and not so good at self criticism and staff critique when he was in charge.

Wade was hired to be a temporary cog.  In no way was this more evident in than in the fact that Jason Garrett was trumpeted everywhere as the coach-in-waiting.  What self respecting new coach allows himself to be saddled with an offensive coordinator who is not his choice and who everyone sees as his replacement in short order?  The desperate kind.

Wade clearly was desperate for another shot at being a head coach.  To take a job in Texas, his home state, with such a storied franchise made the position irresistible.

Phillips predictably (based on his history) did pretty well in his first year in Dallas winning the NFC East and took a step back in his second as the team looked disorganized, immature, undisciplined, and unfocused.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Garrett coronation...

In theory, last off-season would have been the year to promote Jason Garrett.  The problem was the offense was a disappointment in 2008. 

Terrell Owens declined. The team was forced to run plays to Owens to keep him in line. Roy Williams sulked and sucked all year long.  Opponents appeared to have figured Garrett and the Cowboys' offense out. 

Most disturbingly, Garrett could not adjust. Garrett seemed to be over his head as an offensive coordinator.

Compounding the issue was the TO situation.

Wave after wave of Cowboy insiders told Jerry T.O. had become toxic.  Jerry came to realize he would probably have to let T.O. go to prevent the entire franchise personnel (and not just the team) from splintering.

With that in mind, Jerry realized he couldn't give the head coaching job to Jason Garrett.  Garrett, son of a long-time Jerry confidant, was probably not ready to be a head coach in general, and this team was dysfunctional - filled with prima donnas ready to eat a head coach alive.

Jerry grudgingly allowed Wade Phillips to return. Jerry then set about dumping his collection of bad actors likely in preparation for a future coaching change.  

On the surface it was all about making the team "Tony Romo-friendly," but that doesn't explain the defensive changes.  It seems far more likely that Jerry was dumping the talkers, in spite of their talent, to make the team more coachable and to lower fan and media expectations for when he made the switch to Jason Garrett.

Jerry likely thought that the team would struggle in the transition from a TO-based offense, dropping down to a slightly above average offense. Wade would thus be unable to overcome that, and fans would embrace the future with Jason Garrett.

The team had a fast start fueled by a weak schedule, but then the wheels came off.  It looked like the team under Wade was again collapsing, as the offense again failed to deliver.

Then the Cowboys defense turned the corner.  Suddenly the team developed the spine it lacked for years.

The defense was Wade's baby.

It would be inaccurate to say the offense had no role in the team's resurgence. Tony Romo clearly focused on and improved at eliminating his ill-advised risky throws—what the Parcells' staff referred to as " in-discriminant throws."  Although the offense was not dominant down the stretch, they were solid, limiting mistakes. Still, there was no question the defense brought the attitude of a champion to the field down the stretch run.

In 2008, Phillips and Garrett both underwhelmed equally.  In 2009, Phillips clearly outperformed Garrett by a country mile.

The contest is over.  The winner has been recognized, but now it is time to crown the winner

It may not have been intended as such, but when you have a coach and a coach-in-waiting on the same staff, you have two coaches battling for the head coach job and the authority that comes with it.

The coach-in-waiting usually wins.  He usually does a fairly good job and the head coach in whom the decision maker wants to replace usually plays himself out of a job.

The Jimbo Fisher/Bobby Bowden situation is a great example of a coach-in-waiting situation "working."

The coach-in-waiting system is not a system that generally breeds on-the-field success.  By its nature, it splits the authority and in doing so has the team serving two masters.  It usually ends with either the coach-in-waiting (who the authority wanted to hire in the first place and probably should have) assuming the job if he does well in his on-the-job training role or the entire staff getting fired if they both struggle. 

In some situations, the team might have some success, but in those instances the coach-in-waiting generally either incites a rebellion to get the job or leaves.

I have not seen anything to suggest this system works in the pros.

Arguably Mike Martz was a coach-in-waiting in St. Louis.  That might be an example to be pointed to of a coach-in-waiting scenario working in the pros, but how well did it really work?  As a head coach, he proved to merely be an average offensive coordinator.

The Martz situation is an excellent illustration of the problem with promoting a head coach from within.  When you hire a head coach from outside, every player understands they have to work to earn their spot. 

When you promote a guy from within, half the team have expectations of being able to retain their roles and half expect to have to overcome their history or be forced out.  It lends itself to charges of favoritism.

Compounding that issue, while the new head coach may be familiar with the internal culture, internal promotions are generally made on fairly successful staffs.  You really haven't seen how a coach responds to adversity.

On a curious side note, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was once the Cowboys' coach-in-waiting.  Despite being an excellent defensive coordinator, he failed in that coach-in-waiting role due to an inability to coach the 3-4 his head coach, Bill Parcells, demanded. Parcells, for his part bucked the lame duck head coach role that is usually part of the equation.

Phillips, as goofy as he may appear, has developed a championship caliber spine in his half of the team.  His defense has the swagger you need to win the Super Bowl. Garrett, with slightly more high-end talent that should have that swagger (Romo, Roy Williams, Marion Barber), has not been able to do that on offense.

The contest is over and you have a winner.  Wade Phillips has beaten the odds as a lame duck head coach and won the head coaching position in Dallas.

It is time to do right by the man.

Where good theory becomes effective policy

It may or may not be time for Garrett to go. 

What is clear is that it is time for him to lose the coach-in-waiting title and Jerry's rubber stamp backing.

Wade should be able to evaluate Garrett and if he feels Garrett cannot eliminate Tony Romo's in-discriminant throws while coordinating an effective offense, Wade should be able to fire Jason Garrett.

Tony Romo should be a Roger Staubach-type magical playmaker.  Instead when when Romo is under pressure, his discipline vanishes and he makes boneheaded throws rather than throwing the ball away.

That has been the status quo with Romo since Parcells left and Garrett took over.  Parcells demanded discipline from Romo.  Parcells liked Romo, but Romo knew Parcells would bench him in a heartbeat if Romo didn't comply.  Garrett on the other hand is Romo's golf buddy.

Simply put, Garrett is not improving Tony Romo. 

The trouble with Tony

Under Garrett, Romo has been given free reign to be a gunslinger.  It usually works for a few games and then Romo gets cocky with his play.  Then a good defense comes in and turns two to three Romo mistakes into touchdowns. 

In simple terms, Romo has a hard time handling success.  He plays three to four good games, convinces himself he isn't just good, but rather is the second coming and then he loses all discipline to his game.

This has been the status quo with Romo for most of the last three seasons.

Romo himself at least finally appeared to see the problem this year after giving away the Giants' game in early December, Romo clearly focused on reducing those risky, ill- advised passes.

That helped down the stretch, but against Minnesota Garrett called a bad game and put Romo in a situation where everything was riding on the passing game.  As the Cowboys couldn't stop the Vikings' pass rush, Romo was roughed up and his self taught discipline went out the window. A battered Romo reverted to his bad habits.

You need these habits replaced with disciplined play to ever think about winning a Super Bowl.

For this team to get to the next level, they need an authority figure with Troy Aikman's stick up his butt about precision to whip Tony Romo's ass daily. 

They need someone to challenge Tony Romo to develop the mindset to be a better player, not play golf with him. 

They need someone to insist Romo improve his professionalism and learn to go the last mile to be a great player rather than taking shortcuts and foolish vacations in-season.

Is that guy Garrett?  Probably not. Garrett is not only a Romo enabler, he also has Jerry's ear and Jerry has always been the worst enabler for his QBs.

Could that guy be Wade if Garrett was not there?  It is very possible.  Looking at Wade's head coaching history, QBs generally become more efficient under Wade.

Additionally there is a fairly strong case that Garrett has underperformed and should not be back.

The running game that wasn't

With a fairly big and strong offensive line that has some decorated players on it opening holes for three potential 1000 yard rushers, there is no reason Dallas should not be an elite rushing team that could grind out wins on the ground whenever needed.

It wasn't the case for a good chunk of this year and wasn't the case in several high profile losses over the last two years. Tough yards have been hard to come by.

Marion Barber is like the running back version of Romo, struggling with the freedom and respect given him by the Garrett administration. He can't deal with success either.  He has steadily declined as a player since moving up from the role as short yardage back.

As a short yardage specialist, Barber ran with an attitude and a desire to prove he was more than that.   As a sometimes starter, the relentless fire just isn't there.

Barber running with a chip on his shoulder is a difference maker for Dallas.  Marion the Barbarian was a legitimate Pro Bowler whose relentless attitude once was the fuel behind the offense's toughness in much the way former Redskins running back John Riggins gave that Super Bowl winning offense a spine. 

The content Marion the Librarian we have seen for the last two years, a running back who is content to file away his carries whether they be gains or losses, simply is nowhere near the same caliber of player.  He is a marginal NFL starter who doesn't attack defenses enough to use his skill set.

Garrett isn't providing the tough love Barber needs.

The other running backs were better outright better players (even if they were not the kinds of players who potentially could give the offense an attitude), but were often relegated to the bench or forgotten by Garrett and his staff.

Too many times Garrett, who is still a relatively young and inexperienced offensive coordinator, gave up on the run entirely and hung Romo out to sink or swim.

This was just far too little production from the talent in place in big games.

Receivers and the Roy Williams problem

Without a doubt the Roy Williams situation was a huge anchor for the staff.  With Jerry having invested so heavily in Roy Williams, the staff felt a big obligation to use him. In itself that is understandable, but the way the rotation was utilized is quite debatable.

It was fairly clear about a month into the season that Roy Williams was at best a #2 receiver.  By mid-season it was clear that he had the worst hands in the receiving corps and it looked like he might not even be the third best receiver on the roster.

Roy Williams is a TO-level drop machine without TO's big play ability. Like TO, he whines about his opportunities and is unrepentant about his drops. 

He is a guy who desperately needs to grow up and take some pride in becoming a professional.  Practicing tough love with Roy Williams would have been what I wanted to see from a coach in waiting.  Garrett didn't do that.

Now I can certainly understand that Jerry wanted Roy Williams given a shot to become a solid starter, but a smart coordinator with a lot of rope from Jerry should have handled the Williams situation better.  By mid-season even Jerry's expectations for Williams were dramatically reduced, so Garrett could have done more, he just didn't stay a step ahead of his problem players.

If Williams had to be used to please Jerry, it would have made far more sense to turn Williams into a primary option on first downs.  Send him down the field.  Stretch the field with Williams.  Get him his three to four catches, but put reliable receivers on the field on second and third downs or in the red zone. Force the ball to Williams, not the playing time.  That has to be earned.

Which brings us to Kevin Ogletree.  By forcing playing time to Williams, Ogletree was never given a shot to have extended playing time.  That's a shame, because he might be what we were hoping Roy Williams would be.

Ogletree has better speed and reliable hands.  He seems to have the feel about him that polished receivers have.

Sam Hurd may lacks Ogletree or Williams's raw talent, but he is still a nice talent and has always impressed me as being quite a good receiver off the bench.  He likely could have outperformed Williams as well given playing time.

Martellus Bennett is another talent that didn't get much of a shot.

In a related note, it was recently reported that Jerry Jones weighed in on the hotly contested (among Dallas fans) Ogletree vs. Williams debate, stating that specifically in reference to the receivers, Jones would not allow someone's salary to dictate the rotation next year.)

New offensive coordinator or not, Wade has beaten Garrett for the head coaching job and the authority.

Even if Jerry Jones doesn't authorize the freedom for Wade to consider firing Jason Garrett out of friendship and loyalty to the Garretts, Jerry would be wise to put the coach-in-waiting status to bed and straighten up the chain of command. Jerry has said several warm and fuzzy things about Wade in the last few days, including implying that Wade may be the longest tenured Cowboys head coach under Jerry when it is all said and done.

It would be wise for Jerry to take it a step further and strip the coach-in-waiting idea by giving more love to Wade and downplaying Jerry's relationship with Garrett. Expressing that Wade is proving to be exactly the kind of player motivator and developer with a team attitude that Jerry has needed for years would do a lot to clear up the fact that the battle to be the next Cowboy's head coach is over. 

As far as allowing Wade more control, I think Wade should be allowed to hire his own offensive coordinator if he feels that has been a problem area.  That said, I can understand loyalty that Jerry might have to Jason Garrett.

Perhaps an alternate path might be allowing Wade to replace some coaches under Garrett (if Wade deems that necessary) with Wade's guys.  Jerry needs to allow Wade to send the message to the players that Jerry has vested all coaching authority in Wade.


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