These Cowboys coaches can relate

IRVING, Texas -- Jerome Henderson played eight years in the NFL for four teams. At 42, he looks a lot like he did as a player, especially during practices.

Henderson, the Dallas Cowboys' new secondary coach, wears cleats to the practice field.

"Just because sometimes when I'm trying to show something in a drill and I'm trying to move and you have tennis shoes on, I just can't move or can't react like I want to help them," Henderson said.

"As I get going, hopefully I'll move around a lot more, and I'll work one-on-one with guys because I know what an NFL corner feels like when he jams you. I know how strong he is and I know his punch, so I want to feel that, so I can correct it one-on-one and I'm not looking at it saying, 'Well, OK, that looked like a good punch.' It's a good punch because my chest hurts. I know what it feels like."

Henderson is one of eight coaches on the Dallas staff with pro playing experience. At the top of the list is head coach Jason Garrett, who spent 12 years in the NFL as a backup quarterback, including seven with the Cowboys.

In addition to Henderson, assistants John Garrett (tight ends), Skip Peete (running backs), Jimmy Robinson (wide receivers), Wade Wilson (quarterbacks), Leon Lett (defensive line) and Chris Boniol (kickers) spent time playing in the NFL before moving into coaching.

"First of all, I think there is a significant benefit for having played," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "Everybody can't be Lou Holtz, and I think Lou played, but I say that because he's a great friend of mine. Just because you played now doesn't mean you can effectively translate that to coaching and to really helping a player out ... but I think it's good. These guys have got a lot of credibility."

Maybe it wasn't for long and maybe it was a long time ago, but the current coaches once sat in the same seats those players sit in today. They know what the life is like -- good and bad -- and can relate, which the players appreciate. To an extent. When Jason Garrett took over as interim head coach in 2010, he said, he had to guard against having "too much sympathy for the players."

"It's hard and it's going to be hard," he said. "It's a long season, and we know that. The best players know that. You've got to fight through some things. Practices are supposed to be hard. The seasons are supposed to be hard."

There is no exact formula for how many players-turned-coaches make a quality staff, nor is it a requirement for the job.

The only coach on the Cowboys' three-Super Bowl run in the 1990s with pro playing experience was special teams coach Joe Avezzano, who spent one year with the AFL's Boston Patriots. Five of the eight coaches on Tom Landry's final Super Bowl team in 1977 had pro playing experience: Landry, Mike Ditka, Dan Reeves, Ernie Stautner and Jerry Tubbs.

The NFL's best current coach, New England's Bill Belichick, did not play in the NFL. Neither did Tom Coughlin, who has directed the New York Giants to two Super Bowl wins in the past five seasons. Their staffs are sprinkled with only a handful of coaches with pro playing experience.

When Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium following the 2010 season, head coach Mike McCarthy had nine former players on his coaching staff.

Wilson spent 19 years in the NFL with five teams.

"You can see it on a blackboard, see it on film and sometimes you can relate real-life stories as to how it is on the field," Wilson said. "I think there's more parts to it, especially at the quarterback position. You can talk about people being on you, cheering for you or chewing you out, so you know the stuff it takes to play the position."

Henderson was a second-round pick by New England in 1991 and was cut in 1993. He knows how it feels to have high expectations placed on you and what it's like to fight for one of the final roster spots.

"It's hard when you come in and guys don't know you," said Henderson, who coached the Cleveland secondary before coming to Dallas. "They're getting to know you, I'm getting to know them and it's a learning process. It's them learning and trusting me that I know what I'm talking about: 'Does this guy really know what he's talking about, and can he really help me play?' At the end of the day, that's all the player wants. They want coaches that can help them play the game. That's why I'm here. I hope to help them play the game."