When the Dallas Cowboys surveyed the woes of the team’s tumultuous 2017 season that saw them finish 9-7 after heading into the season with hopes of making a Super Bowl, they decided continuity was best at the top of the coaching ranks, but change and freshness were needed among the staff.
While coach Jason Garrett and his top assistants in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli remained, fresh faces and new ideas were added with six new hirings among 10 changes in the team’s ongoing effort to evolve and get better.
“It’s been a really good process for us because when you pull back afterward and you look at it, I think there’s a lot of continuity to what we’re doing, and then there’s a lot of freshness to it as well,” Garrett said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “And it was a very thorough process that we went through with some of the moves we made.
"You're going to grow every year. You pull back every year and you look at what you've done in all three phases of your team - from a system standpoint, from a coaching technique standpoint. And so much of it will stay the same, but a lot of it has to change."
The team expects the biggest impacts to come from defensive passing game coordinator/secondary coach Kris Richard, offensive line coach Paul Alexander and wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal.
Richard comes to Dallas after serving as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator, but is known as the architect of the famed Legion of Boom secondary featuring safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor and cornerback Richard Sherman.
"If you look back at the last several years and do a statistical analysis of who the best defense in the National Football League is, it all points to that team out in the Northwest," Garrett said. "Seattle has played great defense over the course of that time. Pete Carroll has done an amazing job there with that defensive team. But a lot of other guys have been there. Kris has been there right from the start.
"So we have great admiration for how they played defense. How he coaches. I have had great admiration for him from afar for a long time. When he was available to us, we wanted to bring him in and have a visit with him."
Garrett said the philosophy and the DNA of the defense they had in Seattle is very similar to the origins of the defense the Cowboys play. He said that continuity “will help us, but then the freshness that he brings, the interpretation of that system that they run in Seattle I think is going to be really good for us.”
Richard is important for a young secondary in transition. The Cowboys are likely moving away from veteran cornerback Orlando Scandrick and will feature second-year players Chido Awuize and Jourdan Lewis at cornerback along with Byron Jones, who will make the transition from safety.
"He has coached young guys," Garrett said. "He has coached older guys there. He always seems to get the best out of the individual player. He always seems to get the best out of the secondary there. They have some marquee guys up there. But they always weren't marquee right from the start. If you think of guys like (Richard) Sherman and (Kam) Chancellor, where those guys started and where they were drafted. He was with those guys right from the start and helped their development. And not just individually, if you think about that secondary and the impact that secondary had on the defense, he was a big part of that. If you ask the coaches who were there, if you ask the players who were there they would echo those ideas."
Alexander comes to Dallas after 23 years of directing the offensive line in Cincinnati. He is replacing Frank Pollack, who has been part of the development of tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin, all perennial Pro Bowlers.
“We just felt like it was the right thing for our team,” Garrett said. “Frank did so many good things for us, developing the offensive line. We just felt like the direction we wanted to take on offense, Paul gave us the best chance to go that way. Again, Frank made a very significant impact on the development of individual players; some really good players, and he helped them grow and play at the next level, and certainly, that unit is among the best units in the National Football League.”
Although the Cowboys have had one of the top running offenses in the league, how they run might change under Alexander, which is the point for Garrett.
This was a perfect example of the Cowboys looking for fresh ideas.
“Again, I think you always need to evolve," Garrett said. “You need to evolve every year. If you’re a football team and your players are exactly the same and your coaches are exactly the same, you need to evolve. And so when you bring new guys in, you certainly want to do that. You want to grow.
"How have you done other things? How have you taught this? How have you run this? Did you run that? We’ve never run that. The things that we did well last year, you’ll probably see us continue to do those things. Maybe they’re implemented a different way. Again, to grow and evolve, and there’s certainly some things that we haven’t done. When you bring a new coach in, he can give some expertise to that and hopefully he can add that if it fits.”
Lal is an 11-year coaching veteran with stints with the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis. He expected to bring some technical expertise to a position that is suddenly influx with the uncertain status of top receiver Dez Bryant.
“Sanjay is just a really good football coach,” Garrett said. “Again, the players that I know who have been around him, the development that they’ve made under his tutelage has been significant. The other coaches, the contributions he makes to the staff — he’s just a football guy. He loves it. I’ve heard people describe that they don’t know anybody who loves football more than Sanjay does, and it reflects in the work that he does every day and how he goes about his job. I’m excited to have him on board.”
The staff also includes the additions of tight ends coach Doug Nussmeier, assistant special-teams coach Doug Colman and strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul and the shuffling of defensive assistant Ben Bloom to linebackers coach, the promotions of Keith O’Quinn the special teams coach in place of the departed Rich Bisaccia and former special-team intern Ken Amato to defensive assistant and the hiring for newly retired former backup quarterback Kellen Moore to quarterbacks coach.