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Challenge awaits Cowboys as they look to replace Matt Eberflus

FRISCO, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys continue to piece together a coaching staff, their biggest challenge will be replacing a coach who has not technically even left yet.

Matt Eberflus, the Cowboys’ linebackers coach since 2011 and who had passing game coordinator added to his title in 2017, is expected to follow Josh McDaniels as his defensive coordinator wherever the New England Patriots offensive coordinator lands as a head coach, most likely with the Indianapolis Colts.

Eberflus’ contract expired after the season. The Cowboys wanted to keep him, but his desire to become a coordinator and his respect for Rod Marinelli was too much for the Cowboys to overcome.

According to sources, the Cowboys were willing to make Eberflus the coordinator and promote Marinelli to an assistant head coach role, but Eberflus did not want step on the toes of Marinelli, who helped teach him the finer points of the 4-3 scheme in 2014.

Sean Lee will miss Eberflus the most. He was entering his second season when Eberflus came on board as Rob Ryan’s linebackers coach, and Lee found a coach willing to be every bit the football junkie he was. The two formed a close bond and Lee became a Pro Bowl and All-Pro linebacker.

Along the way, Eberflus also helped in the development of Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson and Jaylon Smith. He coaxed a top season out of the mercurial Rolando McClain in 2014. He was able to work with veterans like Bradie James, Keith Brooking and get productivity out of Justin Durant and Ernie Sims.

In his time with Ryan, Eberflus was viewed as the more controlled coach, the one who kept close attention to the details, while Ryan was scheming up varied -- sometimes too varied -- ways to stop opposing offenses. With Marinelli, his role kept growing to where he would offer up strong suggestions during the week and in the game. The Cowboys’ dime package came mostly from Eberflus.

The passing game coordinator title was not some insignificant thing.

Eberflus was responsible for the back end of the Cowboys defense, mixing coverages between the linebackers and secondary. By the end of the 2017 season, he was working with three rookie defensive backs in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods, while mixing in second-year safety Kavon Frazier some at safety. He had a big say in the defensive game plans each week and relayed Marinelli’s calls during the game.

But he wasn’t the coordinator. Like many of us, Eberflus had career goals and one was to be a coordinator. If he succeeds, then that could lead to being a head coach candidate one day.

The Cowboys did not want to lose Eberflus, but they could only offer so much.