IRVING, Texas -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had a tough choice to make three years ago. And unless the Cowboys experience their first playoff success in more than a decade, it's a choice that will continue to haunt Jones.
After Bill Parcells walked away following the 2006 season, Jones worked through a list of replacements that included future NFL head coaches Tony Sparano, Todd Haley and Mike Singletary. But Jones wanted someone who had experience as a head coach and that's why Wade Phillips and Norv Turner were the finalists.
Of course, Jones had a close relationship with Turner because the coach had helped guide the Cowboys to two Super Bowls as the offensive coordinator in the '90s. The eventual Hall of Fame quarterback on those teams, Troy Aikman, attributes much of his success to Turner and he lobbied Jones on behalf of his close friend.
I remember seeing Turner, Aikman, Jason Garrett and Jones together at the Super Bowl in Miami three years ago and thinking that it would be difficult for Phillips to prevail. We all know what happened next. Jones had invested heavily on the defensive side of the ball while converting to Parcells' favored 3-4 scheme and he thought Phillips would be the better fit.
Jones already had hired Garrett from the Dolphins to be his offensive coordinator and that's the decision that ultimately doomed Turner's candidacy. Jones gambled that the cerebral Garrett eventually would be able to do for Tony Romo what Turner once did for Aikman. With Garrett in place, hiring Turner seemed like overkill to Jones.
Plus, Jones realized how valuable offensive line coach/playcaller Sparano was to his staff and knew that he could mentor the Ivy Leaguer. And you have to admit that the decision seemed pretty sound when Phillips led the Cowboys to a 13-3 regular-season record in his first season. Then came Romo's infamous Cabo trip and the subsequent playoff loss to the Giants. Sparano left to become the coach of the Dolphins and Jones committed $3 million per year to Garrett to keep him from taking offers from Baltimore and Atlanta.
Turner, who has been reluctant to talk about Jones' decision this week, replaced Marty Schottenheimer as the coach of the Chargers in '07 and he has gone 10-0 in December and 3-2 in the playoffs. If you don't think he wants to stick it to his former boss at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday, you haven't spent much time around the man. Turner comes across as mild-mannered in public, but he has a fiery side that many of his players have seen over the years. Turner has been able to rewrite his legacy as a head coach over the past three seasons. Every year, the Chargers stumble out of the gates, but they're at their best when the stakes are highest.
Could Turner have had the same playoff success in Dallas that he has had in San Diego? It's difficult to say. Coaches face more scrutiny in Dallas because it's a larger media market and there are more expectations from the organization's national fan base. Turner has faced plenty of criticism in San Diego, but I don't think it rises to the level of what Phillips has encountered in Dallas.
But I think the biggest difference is that Turner would've been the perfect choice for Romo. Parcells always said that Romo was the type of quarterback you needed to coach "all the way through a game." What he meant is that Romo's penchant for going rogue needed to be monitored closely. It always bothered Parcells that Romo liked to give advice to the officials, coaches and anyone else within earshot.
Turner had admired Romo's immense talent from afar and I think he would've known how to help the quarterback strike a balance between protecting the football and using his rare improvisational skills to make big plays. It now looks like Romo's finding that balance, but it has been a painful process to watch at times.
Turner was diplomatic when asked how disappointed he was not to land the Cowboys job three years ago. I know for a fact that he wanted to back out of the process at one point because he didn't like how things were going, but a family member convinced him to see it through.
"Again, when you're in the middle of one of those things, I think you get a sense, a feel, for what's happening," Turner said on a conference call Wednesday. "I wasn't surprised. When you're not surprised, I think the disappointment is different."
I realize that Turner coaches in a weaker division than the NFC East, but it's hard to argue with what he's accomplished. He attributes his late-season success to tweaking the Chargers' practice schedule and changing up drills. He thinks it breaks up the monotony of a long season and keeps his players fresh. It also helps to have a quarterback who seems to flourish late in the season.
Both Phillips and Turner inherited talented, young quarterbacks and excellent defenses. It's ironic that Phillips basically built the defense in San Diego.
Phillips still has a chance to change his legacy, one that he defends vehemently when challenged. But deep down he must know that coaches' reputations are forged by how their teams perform in the playoffs.
And by that measure, it's pretty obvious the Cowboys made the wrong decision.