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Sunday, February 27, 2011
Experience can resonate with players

By Todd Archer
ESPNDallas.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- A little more than a minute into the January introduction of his new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, owner and general manager Jerry Jones made reference to Jason Garrett's NFL playing career.

"He's the second man to take the job of head coach of the Dallas Cowboys that has played in the NFL," Jones said then. "He's the first man to take on this responsibility that has played for the Dallas Cowboys."

Little did Jones know then, but he was part of a trend this offseason of teams turning to former players as head coaches.

Jason Garrett
The Cowboys' Jason Garrett was one of five former players hired this offseason as a head coach.
Of the eight openings this offseason, five were filled by former players, including Garrett, Minnesota's Leslie Frazier, San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh, Carolina's Ron Rivera and Tennessee's Mike Munchak.

There are nine former players currently running NFL teams, adding Houston's Gary Kubiak, Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio, Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and New Orleans' Sean Payton, who was a replacement player for Chicago in 1987.

Tom Landry had a seven-year playing career, intercepting 32 passes and earning a Pro Bowl spot in 1954.

By 1960, he was the Cowboys' first head coach, a position he would own until 1989.

"I think all of our playing experiences resonate regardless of what level you played at," Garrett said.

Yet NFL playing experience gives head coaches an advantage over those without it, although it does not guarantee success. Players will give those who have done what they are doing the benefit of the doubt.

At least to a point.

"But if I can't teach a guy offensive line play after two weeks, that may go out the window real fast," Munchak said. "Initially I think players react better to someone who has been in their shoes, but that's only going to last so long."

Munchak is the most accomplished of the players turned coaches, building a Hall of Fame career in 12 years in Houston. Frazier was a starting cornerback and Rivera was a backup linebacker when Chicago won a Super Bowl in 1985. Del Rio went to one Pro Bowl in his 11-year career. Whisenhunt played for three teams in eight years, mostly as a blocking tight end.

Like Garrett, Harbaugh, Kubiak and Payton were quarterbacks.

Harbaugh started 144 games at quarterback for Chicago, Indianapolis, Baltimore and San Diego and nearly directed the Colts to a Super Bowl appearance against the Cowboys in 1995.

Kubiak was a backup quarterback like Garrett, starting five games in his nine years as John Elway's No. 2. Payton played three games for Chicago, completing 8-of-23 passes with no touchdowns and one interception.

"Playing experience is not the critical factor," Harbaugh said. "It's the ability to teach and communicate and have a plan and have the convictions to stick with the plan and have a feel for what the changes are."

The Cowboys have six assistant coaches with NFL playing experience of varying degrees: tight ends coach/passing game coordinator John Garrett (two years), running backs coach Skip Peete (one year), secondary coach Brett Maxie (nine years), quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson (19 years), assistant head coach Jimmy Robinson (six years) and kicking coach Chris Boniol (six years).

Super Bowl champion Green Bay had nine assistant coaches with NFL experience, most in the NFL.

"Just to be a player in the National Football League, the sacrifices they have to make, the innate ability to survive and overcome, the work ethic, there are so many components those individuals have coming into your organization," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said leading up to Super Bowl XLV. "It's something you can help develop and mentor and help them be a good assistant coach."

After he was named interim coach last season, Garrett said he had to guard against being sympathetic to the players' feelings because he had walked in their shoes not too long ago and knew the grind of the preparation.

For most of his eight weeks as head coach, Garrett had the players in shoulder pads for Wednesday practices. Some players credited the 5-3 finish to the season to the more physical practices. Others grumbled privately.

Garrett stuck to his convictions.

"I think players want structure," Garrett said. "I think players want discipline. I think players want to be coached hard. In the end, that's going to allow them to be the best player they can be. Sometimes, they don't necessarily like the coach right now. The goal is for them to like and love you later, and I think there are a lot of stories about that in our league through the years where if you went day to day and asked certain players about a particular coach at a particular time during the experience, maybe their comment would be different than it would be 10 years after they were done playing.

"So what we try to do is provide structure and discipline and hopefully coach them in a way that makes them better."

Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.