Payton part of Tuna's helpers in Dallas

Before Sean Payton became the most beloved NFL head coach of the past 20 years, he toiled in the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys organizations. Former Giants coach Jim Fassel was so smitten with Payton's offensive mind and laminated chart that he stripped him of play-calling duties in 2002.

After the season, the Giants provided Payton with a two-week period to search for a better job. They didn't want to fire him, but they weren't in a hurry to restore his play-calling duties. Payton landed on Bill Parcells' new staff in Dallas based on the strong recommendations from the Wellington Mara family as well as some of Bill's other Bergen County pals.

But Parcells didn't immediately yield the play-calling duties to Payton. In fact, he treated that responsibility like a state secret during his four seasons at Valley Ranch. Payton, who wasn't allowed to speak to reporters for most of his time in Dallas, went to work trying to prepare Quincy Carter and Chad Hutchinson for the season. Tony Romo arrived that same '03 season, but he was viewed as a long-term project for Payton and offensive assistant David Lee.

The Cowboys somehow went 10-6 in '03 and made the playoffs. Owners around the league noticed that the offense had somehow put up respectable numbers with Carter and running back Troy Hambrick playing prominent roles. Raiders owner Al Davis wanted Payton to replace Bill Callahan in Oakland, and it nearly happened.

I had just completed my first season on the Cowboys beat for the Dallas Morning News, so I'd gotten to know Payton and his wife, Beth, a little bit. In fact, Beth Payton pretty much walked me through her husband's entire interview process via phone and I quoted her in the newspaper on a daily basis.

When Payton arrived home from the West Coast, he discovered that his wife had become his unofficial spokesperson -- and he used some colorful language to let me know he wasn't pleased with my role in that development. (I'd say it took about a year for him to make eye contact with me.)

By that point, Jerry Jones had pretty much given up on retaining Payton. You have to remember that the Raiders hadn't yet become the absolute joke they are today. Jones invited Payton into his office and told him he'd give him a raise from $500,000 to $1 million if he'd stay with the Cowboys. Now that's not exactly Jason Garrett money, but it was a huge step for Jones, who hated the idea of paying that type of money to assistants.

What we didn't realize at the time was that Parcells had assembled one of the most talented coaching staffs in the league. Payton left to become head coach in New Orleans in 2006 and tried to take offensive line coach Tony Sparano with him. Parcells blocked the move, even though Sparano would have been offensive coordinator and doubled his salary with the Saints.

Sparano thought he'd lost any chance at becoming an NFL head coach, and that became even more likely when Jones tapped Garrett as the heir apparent to Wade Phillips in '07. Before hiring Phillips, Jones granted what amounted to courtesy interviews to Sparano and passing game coordinator Todd Haley. Looking back, maybe Jones should've taken those interviews a little more seriously.

Sparano would soon lead a remarkable turnaround as head coach of the Dolphins and Haley played a vital role in leading Kurt Warner and the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in '08 before taking over as head coach in Kansas City this past season.

Jones also interviewed Norv Turner, Jim Caldwell and Mike Singletary for his head-coaching vacancy in 2007. It may have been one of the best coaching searches in league history -- as long as you don't count the part where Jones hired Phillips.

I can already see the comments beginning to form. How can you take a shot at poor ol' Wade when he's won more games in three seasons than Bill won in four? Oh wait, that comment actually came from Wade himself during Pro Bowl week.

Honestly, you have to admire the job Wade's done with the defense. And there's reason to believe the Cowboys will be knocking on the door again in 2010. But if given the choice, would you take Phillips over any of those coaches I mentioned?

I guess you could argue that Haley's too much of a Parcells clone to deal with a pretty sensitive bunch in the Cowboys locker room. And perhaps Phillips' defensive acumen trumps Singletary's rather obvious motivational gifts. But knowing what we know now (and what I tried to tell you guys three years ago), Sparano would've been a better choice. And based on his playoff record with the Chargers, Turner would've also been a better option.

There's really not a lot Jones could've done to prevent Payton from leaving for New Orleans in 2006, but maybe he could've done a better job retaining the other members of that staff. Parcells apparently had one of the most talented coaching staffs in the league.

It's too bad Jerry didn't know it at the time.

Matt Mosley writes weekly on the Dallas-Fort Worth sports scene for ESPNDallas.com.