The Dallas Cowboys have relieved defensive coordinator Brian Stewart of his duties after two seasons.
Stewart was let go despite the fact that Dallas improved from ninth in total defense (based on yards per game) in 2007 to eighth in 2008, finished fourth overall against the pass and led the league in sacks, including a league-high 20 from DeMarcus Ware. The Cowboys also gave up 22.8 points per game, which was 20th in the league.
The Cowboys' decision was initiated by owner Jerry Jones but was not an attempt to provoke Phillips into quitting in protest, sources told ESPN's Ed Werder. According to a team source, Jones had made the decision shortly after the season but delayed an announcement at Phillips' request to enable Stewart to seek another job in the NFL before he was terminated.
Stewart coached the San Diego Chargers' secondary for three seasons before following Phillips to the Cowboys. Midway through the season, Phillips reportedly became more involved in the defensive play calling. Later in the year, he publicly stated he was calling the defense.
"I hope Mr. Jones and Wade know how much I appreciate the opportunity to work for the Dallas Cowboys," Stewart said. "Of course, I am disappointed and frustrated about this decision. This defense has accomplished so much in two years, individually and collectively. I know that there will be many reasons to celebrate their accomplishments in the future."
More moves may come soon. Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett remained among the finalists for the St. Louis Rams' head coaching job.
If Garrett is offered the the Rams job, Jerry Jones is prepared to permit his departure without a counteroffer that would involve firing Phillips and appointing Garrett the head coach in Dallas, according to multiple team sources.
Jones personally initiated Garrett's return to the Cowboys and last year made him the highest-paid assistant coach in the NFL to convince him to turn down head-coaching jobs in Atlanta and Baltimore. Jones did so with the expectation that Garrett would eventually replace Phillips.
According to sources, Jones would do everything short of firing Phillips -- even release wide receiver Terrell Owens, with whom insiders believe Garrett could not coexist -- to retain Garrett. But those sources say Garrett would never put Jones in the position of deciding whether to fire Phillips and release Owens to keep Garrett in the organization.
Garrett's departure probably would increase the potential of Owens returning to the Cowboys in 2009.
It is not known whom Jones views as potential candidates to replace Garrett, if it becomes necessary. Two in-house candidates are receivers coach Ray Sherman, who has previously been a playcaller in the NFL, or quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, who has played a key role in the development of quarterback Tony Romo.
Dallas finished a disappointing 9-7 and out of the playoffs after going 13-3 in 2007.
During what has become an annual December decline, the Cowboys suffered a painful loss to the Baltimore Ravens in a game in which Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain ripped off long, record runs each time Dallas got close in the final minutes.
Still, all the Cowboys needed to do was beat the Eagles in the final game, and they would at least have salvaged a playoff berth. Instead, they were stomped 44-6 and finished with a 9-7 record.
The Cowboys have lost nine consecutive season finales.
Before the Eagles loss, Jones was asked about changes that might occur if Dallas failed to make the playoffs again.
"Look, can y'all not understand statements?" Jones said. "The coaching staff is in place. The coaching staff is in place. The building is here. You want to ask the question, what if it blows down?"
ESPN.com senior writer Michael Smith, NFL reporter Ed Werder and The Associated Press contributed to this report.