IRVING, Texas -- Maybe Jerry Jones had it right all along when he named Chan Gailey the Dallas Cowboys' coach on Feb. 12, 1998.
In an alternate, what-if universe, maybe Gailey would be the longest-tenured NFL head coach in his 14th season and would be Jones' Tom Landry instead of opposing the Cowboys on the other sideline with the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
Even Jones has admitted that firing Gailey after two seasons was one of the biggest mistakes he has made since taking over the Cowboys.
"I think he's one of the few coaches in the league who can take less and make more with it," former Cowboys guard Nate Newton said.
That's coming from a player who was cut under Gailey's tenure.
"When he took over, we had totally different talent on the team," former safety Darren Woodson said. "I thought we were average at best. I thought he did a hell of a job just getting us to the playoffs. I know there were a lot of surprised guys when he was let go. I thought we were on the right track."
The Cowboys lied to themselves in the late 1990s. They thought the core that delivered Super Bowls in 1992, '93 and '95 had enough steam left to keep on winning. Troy Aikman wasn't the same Troy Aikman. Michael Irvin got hurt in 1999 and retired. Emmitt Smith kept churning out yards and touchdowns, but things were more of a grind.
The offensive line wasn't the same, even with Larry Allen. The defense wasn't the same, even with Woodson and Deion Sanders. The failed drafts of the mid-1990s and free-agent defections depleted a roster that once was the envy of the league.
"He was trying to change the culture of our team and the offensive philosophy from what a lot of guys on offense were accustomed to," Woodson said. "It was an uphill battle for him. ... Guys were accustomed to doing things the way they wanted to do it. When Jerry had to make a choice, he chose to stay with the guys that had been here."
With an 18-12 regular-season record and two wild-card playoff defeats, Gailey was out. He went on to coordinate Miami's offense with unheralded players, and the Dolphins won a playoff game. He turned that into a six-year stint at Georgia Tech.
The Cowboys went 5-11 three years in a row starting in 2000, doing less with less.
Gailey is not without fault. He did not want Randy Moss in the first round of the 1998 draft because of Moss's off-field baggage. He could have been a little more flexible with his offense. He could have demanded more from Jones the general manager, if not the owner.
"Well, the first time you're a head coach, you don't know what you don't know," Gailey said. "I learn every day. I really do. I learn every day something about how to handle people better, about how to handle situations better. I'd been a head coach before, but not in the NFL. I learned how to deal with situations on a daily basis there that were different than I had dealt with in any of [my] other previous stops in the NFL. We were a team in transition. We were going from an older team to a younger team. And we were trying to win in transition because we all knew that we were going from that older group to trying to get younger and trying to get better. So I learned about evaluating talent and placing talent on the field better.
"I tried to play Michael Irvin in the slot. Because he was a really good receiver, I was trying to find a different way to undercover him. That didn't work. In retrospect, that wasn't smart. It was short-lived. I learned in a hurry not to do that and left him outside where he could go be one-on-one with guys. I learned a lot. I can't even remember everything that I've learned, but what I did became a part of me. I've been able to take those experiences, and hopefully I'm better now than I was then."
After he was let go at Georgia Tech, Gailey returned to the NFL as Kansas City's coordinator, still wanting another shot at a head-coaching job.
"Everybody does," Gailey said. "What you want to do is have the opportunity to be the best of the best. And that's what you're trying to get done if you're in the business, trying to be the best of the best. And the NFL is the best, so you want an opportunity to try to be a champion in the best league."
Gailey was hardly the sexy pick when the Bills named him their head coach in 2010. Buffalo went 4-12 in Gailey's first year but lost three overtime games to three playoff teams. This season the Bills are 5-3 and in position to contend for a playoff spot with a roster that is not exactly loaded with talent.
He is doing more with less, like he did with the Cowboys, even if people did not recognize it then.
"Those coulda, woulda, shoulda things, you think about, but if you dwell on them, you're wasting brain cells," Gailey said. "There's no sense in dwelling in that kind of stuff. You go on with life. If you're spending too much time in the past, all you're doing is hurting yourself.
Todd Archer covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.