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Cowboys Coaching Changes: Don’t Overrate the Departed

The change to Mike McCarthy as head coach has been mostly welcomed by Cowboys fans and analysts, as have some of his changes with coordinators and assistants. But while a few of McCarthy’s moves feel like losses now, let’s be careful not to overrate our departing coaches given how Dallas has performed in recent years.

The two changes that have stung the most, based on reaction I’ve seen, are losing Quarterbacks Coach Jon Kitna and Offensive Line Coach Marc Colombo. This is based on the perception of improved play from both positions since these men took over their respective jobs.

One move is finalized; Colombo is being replaced by longtime McCarthy underling Joe Philbin. Given the shift in offensive style and vocabulary, it would make sense that the new head coach wants someone who can translate easily for his players.

There’s no denying that the Cowboys’ offensive line improved when Colombo took over the job midway through the 2018 season. Dallas had hired Paul Alexander that offseason and the line was struggling greatly with implementing his different techniques and ideology. Switching to Colombo allowed the players to revert back to their comfort zone and the positive impact was immediate.

But also affecting the line that year was the absence of Travis Frederick, which exacerbated how bad things looked under Alexander early in the season. The switch to Colombo also occurred one week after Dallas traded for WR Amari Cooper, which allowed the offense as a whole to look much better regardless of who was coaching the offensive line.

The best thing you can say about Colombo’s work was the development of La’el Collins at right tackle, which isn’t surprising given where Marc himself played for most of his career. But Connor Williams didn’t impress much in his second year, and that also needs to be tagged to Colombo.

So yes, Marc Colombo did some good things during his time here. But some of that positive upswing was circumstantial; it’s a bit much to think we lost Bill Callahan again in this exchange. Joe Philbin has a great track record as an offensive line coach and we can be enthusiastic for his arrival in Dallas.

Can Jon Kitna Help QB Dak Prescott Reclaim his Rookie Magic? 1
Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott and former Coach Jon Kitna

The tougher sell for many, and in part because his replacement is not yet known, is losing Jon Kitna as the quarterbacks coach. Dak Prescott’s improvement in 2019 was great to see and coincided nicely with Kitna’s first year working with him.

Sure, Prescott’s passing yards and touchdowns exploded this year from previous averages. But how much of that was really thanks to Kitna over the play-calling and strategy of Kellen Moore?

Dallas booted Scott Linehan last offseason and elevated Moore to offensive coordinator, and with that came a much less conservative approach to football.  Prescott’s passing attempts went up to 596, dwarfing his average of about 492 attempts over the first three years.

Naturally, the yardage and scoring went up thanks to Moore’s philosophical approach to offense. But that isn’t to say Kitna didn’t have a hand in Dak’s successful transition.

Prescott was clearly more comfortable in the pocket this year and getting the football out quicker. His improved footwork, plus maintaining solid efficiency despite the more open passing offense, have to be credited to Kitna.

Still, we all saw the ongoing accuracy issues and numerous dropped passes. We can debate all day about how receivers need to make catches on anything thrown in their general airspace, but there’s no denying that some of those drops would’ve been catches with a different quarterback.

But really, this isn’t about performance. This is much like the Colombo move; Mike McCarthy is a quarterbacks guy and wants the message and coaching to be consistent at all levels. This is about the new head coach taking full ownership of the offense.

The Cowboys didn’t hire McCarthy to be the captain of Jason Garrett’s ship. They want him to move the crew to his own vessel and sail it back to the Super Bowl.

Did Dallas lose two good coaches in Marc Colombo and Jon Kitna? Probably, but that doesn’t mean the next guys are going to be downgrades.

As with many things that occur this offseason, we’re going to have to reserve judgment on these changes until we see the results.

What do you think?

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Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. I would get rid of all the coaches. Clearly they weren’t getting through to the players. If you are going to make a change then make a change.

  2. Jess,

    Great article and I think really illustrates this topic well. I have observed that Dallas fans (and front office at times) really gets behind their guys and sometimes overrates them. Clearly Columbo was an improvement over Alexander and you nailed the reason why. Let’s also not ignore the fact that some of Prescott’s improvement is simply him getting better due to his own hard work. It’s always hard to measure how much improvement is natural vs. coached. I’m anxious to see who McCarthy brings in as QB coach but I have high confidence that it will be the right hire. Lastly, I will add that I have seen continued improvement in your writing style over the years. As a former sports writer I appreciate the work on your craft!

  3. Well said, Jess. I really like the analogy of the HC needing his own crew to captain his ship. It’s all about team working relationship which is relationships built on trust, coaches understanding the HC vision of his team and implementing that vision down to the plays across all three phases of the game. Then of course key differences between HCs are their own background, predisposition to embrace or avoid risk, use of analytics, guys that influenced their coaching careers, perhaps also their experiences as players. Truth is, I wouldn’t automatically say don’t hire any of Garrett’s guys, but I would point out it was A decade of post-season futility and mediocrity under Garrett. Change is…GOOD! And it was needed in Dallas. I wonder how much of Green Bay’s current success can be attributed to McCarthy?

    • Thats 2 decades and 4 months and i dont recall the o-line playing great all year . At times you could have said Collins and the others .

    • I agree with you. We’ve tried cobbling together coaching staffs and hoping they would be unified and we’ve seen the issues that come from that. I think there’s something to be said for allowing your new head coach to shake things up and rebuild in his image for solidarity and unity. Hopefully it yields better results.

  4. Nice article. However, I respectfully disagree with you about the dogs would have been catches with a different quarterback. A “drop” is just that. The receiver gets both hands on the ball and cannot make the play. From what I saw, Dak’s consistency with his accuracy continues to improve. I believe that under McCarthy, he has a chance to take the next step into the “elite” category.

    • Believe me, I am not trying to put all or even half of the blame on Dak. But there’s no denying that the degree of difficulty is higher when the ball isn’t put in the “sweet spot” for receptions. On average, that’s going to lead to more drops.

      The average pass from Prescott isn’t going to be as catchable as one from Brees/Rodgers/Brady. That’s just science.

  5. We’re a proud fan base but we can’t let that cloud our perception of the leadership. We have a really talented team, so say what you want about Jerry as the GM….our team is talented. He along with the help of SJ and Will McClay (maybe not Jerry at all) have a squad of very special players who are super capable (at select times). Is it coaching? Maybe. Is it bad leadership? Probably. Was it JG? Definitely.

    We need to add depth and we need a change in strategy. I’m so glad JG is gone and I’m really looking forward to what a new regime can do.

  6. Philosophy! If I hear 1 more comment about philosophy, or 1 more praise of ANY of the 2019 staff… ____!!!

    The offensive line: poor ergonomics=holding penalties.

    Kellen Moore: piss poor playcalling, innappropriate down/ydg wastes, pass heavy offense = holding calls, redzone struggles, poor possession clocks, sacks, turnovers, low production vs quality defenses.

    QB coach: childish throwing form, piss poor reads, innaccurate throws, dropped balls, pocket/receiver hanging, knockdown balls, sacks, fumbles, missed routes…

    Defense: abandoned receivers in zone seams, turned around helmets, burned shoulder tackle atts., poor recognition of containment vs frontal coverage ydgs. excessive blind handchecking, etc…

    Are we noticing the overlapping commonalities yet… bad physical fundamentals, bad philosophy, bad result

    Everyone talks about philosophy and attitude. BUT…
    …WHO TALKS ABOUT MATH, ERGONOMIC FUNDAMENTALS, and ATTENTION TO DETAILS. These are the foundations of victory.

    NO COACH ON THE TEAM ADDRESSED ANY OF THE POOR ERGONOMICS ON OFFENSE OR DEFENSE. No coach addressed basic situational awarenesses on offense or defense.

    Def: 3rd and 11, receiver runs a 12 yd route, CB plays containment with a Safety @17 yds… defensive FAIL.
    – the CB should play frontal on the ball, stopping the 1st down, letting the Safety p/u containment.

    Off: 1st and goal @ 9yd. 1stdwn playcall, 50/50ball to left rear corner endzone- knocked down. 2nddwn play 50/50ball to right rear corner endzone- knocked down.
    3rd down play handoff left- shortgain.
    FAIL.
    – the 50/50 cornerball, regardless of highlight reels, is really an extremely low percentage option as both players tend to play hand vs hand on the ball while the endline acts as an extra defender.
    – the yardage divided to 3 yards per down is well within the abilities of a Zeke run, a Dak run, a screen pass, short curl, or even a quick turn around/comeback route threatening at the endzone but taking shorter yards to set up an easy run td.
    A qb rollout option would be lethal on first or second down, offering time, passing angle, and a run option to Dak while forcing the defense to sacrifice between runstop commitment or pass coverage.

    NEVER REFER TO SUCH PLAYCALLING OR LACK OF SITUATIONAL/MATHEMATICAL AWARENESS AS PROFESSIONAL CALIBER COACHING.
    Game fundamentals should be taught before college.

    Shall we go further into discussions concerning the mathematical principals of roster selection. Okay let’s do that as well.
    The Cowboy coaching staff routinely fields three 6ft/200lb receivers who get SQUASHED in centerfield by linebackers, resulting in dropped balls while also allowing defenses to get away with single coverages. The worst part of the monotyping mistake is allowing the defenses to use the same linebackers as runstuffers instead of forcing defensive roster mismatches, run gaps and double coverages to open the secondary for both run, pass and yac gains. Only Amari, among the 6ft/200lb protos, has the speed and surehandedness to demand extra coverage.
    As a perfect compliment with Amari, a Dez-type strongman would provide a big boxout receiver to own short centerfield, drawing linebackers out of position, or making any single coverage catches easily for moderate 5-10 yd slants & turnarounds to reduce pocket stress. Additionally, a Bease-type small quick seamhunter would force defenses to either pull more linebackers away from scrimmage or swap to smaller dbacks with less runstuff ability. This mathematical flexibility in roster assignments offers the best potentials of defeating ANY style of defense whether the opponents strength is pass rush, 3-4 pass coverage, or 4-3 runstuffing. It also offers a wider more secure playbook which is less readable to defenses mentally while placing greater burdens on linebackers physically. Again, this is NOT a PHILOSOPHY, but a MATHematical probability that linebackers struggle when called to match every physical type from small quick receivers, to stout running backs and tall tight ends.

    If math is now on your mind, compare Dave Wanstadt’s ProBowl-less defense ranked #1 vs pass and #1 against run, while anchoring a phenominal center linebacker behind a great pass rush. They had NO Deion Sanders… but they measured net coverages to the yard, making team tackles, making proper ‘baton passes’ to close seams, and playing within the reason of not allowing pocket time for long ball passes. Enough said there for both coaching and player mentality.

    COWBOY UP, Gentlemen!!

  7. Dude,since Frank went to the jets,I think the line has regressed. And the replacement for QBs coach is a sound one. You keep writing,I’ll keep reading

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