This is the fifth installment in a seven-part series detailing every head coaching change made in the NFL this past offseason. Today’s edition focuses on the Dallas Cowboys and new head coach Wade Phillips.

When I first saw the Cowboys had hired Wade Phillips to be their next head coach, replacing Bill Parcells, I was kind of confused. This was mainly due to the effects of Norv Turneritis: I knew he’d coached elsewhere and eventually been replaced, so what were teams doing continuing to give him these chances? I continued to feel this way for a while, but eventually (after actually looking into it a bit) the hire began to grow on me. Maybe that means I’m getting sucked into the trap that makes teams keep hiring guys like Turner, but after analyzing the situation, it seems to me that Phillips has a real chance to succeed in Dallas.

The first moment to tip me off that Phillips’ hiring might have been a lot better than it initially seemed came when I checked out his career head coaching record. Turns out that it’s flat-out better than Turner’s: Phillips’ career regular-season record is 48-39; not counting two short interim stints, it’s 45-35. The troubling things are: 1) his 0-3 playoff record; even Turner has won a postseason game, and 2) he’s had two non-interim coaching jobs, not lasting longer than three years at either one. However, there are a couple things to note: first off, he coached Denver for two years back when they still didn’t have a good running back and John Elway was basically the only thing they had going for them, and in Buffalo, he had some success, making the playoffs twice, not bad considering they haven’t been back since they fired him after 2000. Also, one of his playoff losses came about on the final play, in a situation so out of the ordinary and far-fetched that the game has come to be known as the “Music City Miracle.” (The Bills were defeated by the Tennessee Titans by a successful lateral that led to a touchdown on a kickoff return – any Bills fan will likely still argue that the “lateral” was in fact a forward pass.) One could argue the real reason he accomplished anything in Buffalo was because of what Marv Levy laid the groundwork for, but Phillips had also been there prior to being the head coach, serving as defensive coordinator in Buffalo for three years prior to getting their top job. Overall, Phillips has been a pretty decently successful NFL coach, which is about the best you can hope for when hiring a guy with previous head coaching experience, as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones seemed to want to do.

What also intrigues me about Phillips’ situation is that the Cowboys have a pretty solid team in place. They’re coming off a playoff appearance, which resulted in a loss to Seattle not much less wrenching than the Music City Miracle game. They have a quarterback in Tony Romo who at times played superbly last year, as well as a good pair of running backs (Julius Jones and Marion Barber). They have a receiver in Terrell Owens whose talent level is elite, but whose propensity for malcontentedness is even more prodigious. They added Leonard Davis to help their offensive line, though they are also thought to have grossly overpaid him to make it happen. Overall, though, Phillips is in his first year, so Owens might behave himself for a while, and if Romo continues to progress, the team should be able to put points on the board. The defense should be interesting to watch, since Phillips’ expertise is on that side of the ball; as defensive coordinator in San Diego, he ran a scheme similar to what the Cowboys run. Even with these similarities in mind, word is he has ideas on how to more effectively utilize linebacker DeMarcus Ware and safety Roy Williams, Dallas’ top two defensive players. If he can do that and still manage to run a scheme the players are already comfortable with (and check out what he did with Shawne Merriman in San Diego for evidence that he’s capable), the Cowboys could really be a team to look out for in ’07.

Dallas also had a pretty interesting draft, despite only having two picks in the first three rounds, which were spent on defensive end Anthony Spencer of Purdue and offensive lineman James Marten of Boston College (Dallas: another team looking to shore up the lines with their first two picks). They also made an interesting selection in the fourth round, with quarterback Isaiah Stanback of Washington. The catch is that they’re not looking at him as a quarterback at all: they’re moving him to receiver. Obviously, that means he’s a project, but he has good size and is a good athlete, so if he develops well at the position, getting him in the middle rounds of the draft will have been a steal. Possibly the best move they made, though, was a trade. They originally had the 22nd pick of the first round, but when they were on the clock, Notre Dame QB Brady Quinn was still available. Since the Cowboys already have a young QB to develop around in Romo and didn’t feel a pressing need to select anyone else in that spot, they traded the pick to Cleveland, who DID need a quarterback and gladly picked up Quinn. As part of that deal, Dallas receives Cleveland’s first round pick in 2008. That pick is almost certain to be significantly higher than 22nd since the Browns probably won’t be any good, and it will give Dallas an excellent chance to add another very good player to what might well already be a playoff team.

When Bill Parcells retired (again), the Cowboys weren’t losing the legend, but someone who was really a shadow of the old Parcells, the guy who got results because he simply wouldn’t have it any other way. This version of Parcells was pretty burned out and just didn’t have it in him to put in the tireless work that’s the norm for NFL coaches these days. Simply put, it was time for him to step down, and from what I’ve seen, the Cowboys’ players would agree with that. This article from the time of Phillips’ hiring has a couple perspectives on the choice, including one down the page saying Phillips’ defensive schemes may be better liked than what was in place before, despite basic similarities. Just as important, Phillips represents a substantial attitude shift from Parcells; Phillips is more mellow, which is a growing trend in the NFL among head coaches these days, especially since the Super Bowl meeting of two reserved, nice guys (Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith). Coaches in the Parcells mold just don’t often do as well these days (check out Tom Coughlin with the Giants), whereas a more low-key guy like Phillips might connect better with players. In fact, a guy with that personality type might be the only kind of person even somewhat capable of keeping T.O. happy for any meaningful amount of time, though he also has to keep Owens (and Jerry Jones, for that matter) from walking all over him. One might also question whether Phillips, 60, will have the energy needed to compete with the younger guys getting hired more and more to work crazier and crazier hours, but it hasn’t been a problem for him so far in all the years he’s coached.

The bottom line is this: as an NFL head coach, Wade Phillips has had moderate success. However, Jerry Jones didn’t hire him to have moderate success. Jones thinks about winning the Super Bowl and winning it often, and if Phillips can’t do that he’ll likely just be the latest Cowboys coach thrown on the scrap heap after a few not-successful-enough years, similar to what happened to him in Denver and Buffalo. However, the man knows defense, and seems to have a plan to get the Cowboys to play it better. Jones interviewed Ron Rivera, initially one of the hottest head coaching candidates of the offseason, and still hired Phillips, so he has to see something in him (even if that’s mainly his experience). If Phillips can execute his defensive plan, keep the players happy (“the players” pretty much means you, #81), get a fighting chance to succeed from Jones, and if Romo becomes more consistent, Phillips will have more success in Dallas than Bill Parcells did. Who would have thought that?

The next installment, hopefully up tomorrow, will focus on the Oakland Raiders and new head coach Lane Kiffin.

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