The coaches that got away

IRVING, Texas -- The lack of interim coaching candidates on the Cowboys' staff might have been one reason why owner/general manager Jerry Jones waited so long to fire Wade Phillips.

Five years ago, the Cowboys had a staff loaded with promising head-coach prospects.

A look at the head coaches that Jones let get away from Valley Ranch:

New Orleans' Sean Payton (43-29, 5-3 this season, 4-1 in playoffs): It's tough to blame Jones for Payton's departure. The Saints hired Payton in 2006, when Bill Parcells was still the Cowboys' coach.

Payton, who frequently socializes with the Jones family at NFL functions, probably would have been a prime candidate to replace Parcells. But it was one year too late for the Cowboys.

The 46-year-old Payton, a quarterback guru who spent three years as Parcells' assistant head coach and played a significant role in Tony Romo's development, has earned a reputation as one of the NFL's premier coaches. He won a Super Bowl with a franchise that had a total of one playoff victory before his arrival in New Orleans.

Kansas City's Todd Haley (9-15, 5-3 this season): Haley interviewed with the Cowboys after Parcells' departure, but he had no chance to land the job. Haley made it clear that he didn't want Terrell Owens on his team.

It took Jones another couple of years to reach the same conclusion. At the time, it was an absolute deal-breaker. Not that it was a surprise, considering that Haley and Owens feuded for much of their lone season together at Valley Ranch.

Haley hasn't exactly been considered a players' coach at either of his next two stops. He had a shouting match with ex-Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin while calling the plays on the series that won the NFC Championship Game a couple of years ago. His harsh style grated on several Chiefs during a 4-12 campaign in his first season as head coach. (The Chiefs suspended and eventually released running back Larry Johnson after he ripped Haley on Twitter.)

But Haley is getting results now. The Chiefs are arguably the NFL's biggest surprise, leading the AFC West at the halfway point of the season.

Miami's Tony Sparano (22-18, 4-4 this season, 0-1 in playoffs): This is the coach the Cowboys should have promoted to replace Parcells. However, Sparano got a courtesy interview and a demotion instead.

Jones stripped Sparano of the play-calling duties when he hired Jason Garrett. After the Cowboys' 13-win season, Jones made a great effort to convince Garrett not to accept an offer to become the Baltimore Ravens' head coach but essentially shrugged when Sparano took the Dolphins job.

It's not a coincidence that Garrett has struggled since Sparano's departure. Sparano was an invaluable part of each offensive game plan, and his presence and expertise as an offensive line coach has also been sorely missed.

Sparano, who was popular with the players despite being a stern disciplinarian, had immediate success in Miami despite inheriting a team coming off a 1-15 season. The Dolphins went 11-5 in Sparano's first season, matching the best turnaround in NFL history.

The Dolphins are 11-13 since then as they've dealt with quarterback Chad Henne's growing pains, a problem Sparano wouldn't have had if Jones had hired him as the Cowboys' head coach.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.