It’s a rare sweeping change for the Dallas Cowboys, but the team determined the best course of action in righting their ship in 2020 and beyond is to part ways with longtime head coach Jason Garrett. On track one year ago to land another extension with the club, the offer never made it to the table, derailed in January by a loss in the divisional round to the Los Angeles Rams.

Given one more chance to prove he could turn the corner in Dallas, Garrett did the polar opposite, as the Cowboys followed up a 3-0 start with a 5-8 finish en route to being dismissed from playoff contention in Week 17. With a mountain of change looming over the organization going into 2020, including tight end Jason Witten’s mulling of a possible second retirement, all eyes were on the Cowboys to finally end the drawn-out long kiss goodbye to Garrett — one that spanned several days for a variety of reasons

And so they did, with Garrett and his beloved Cowboys parting ways in January.

While Garrett is far from the only reason for the Cowboys’ failings as of late, the reality is for all of his regular-season successes, things never took off for him in the playoffs; that was regardless of who was on the field or on the sideline with him. He’ll have no issue landing a top-shelf position elsewhere in the league when he opts to, but his time in North Texas has met its end, opening the door for a new era in Dallas. 

The team hasn’t had to decide on a new head coach since 2007, but there is no shortage of candidates owner Jerry Jones is showing interest in. The search could be expansive and will include many more than are listed below — the list to possibly balloon soon — but here are the early leaders of the pack to land one of the most pressure-packed positions in all of sports:

Head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

(This list is not ranked.)

Cowboys coaching candidates

Mike McCarthy, free agent 

There’s interest in McCarthy for several justifiable reasons. As former coach of the Green Bay Packers, it was McCarthy who routinely engineered some of the most gut-wrenching Cowboys losses in the history of franchise. Having also molded Aaron Rodgers from a backup into a future first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, McCarthy did great things at Lambeau that included winning a Super Bowl before things began to fall apart of the back end of his tenure. Having now sat out a year, he’s champing at the bit to prove he’s better than his Green Bay exit, and his resume is one that would leave no one questioning if he could get the job done in Dallas — which is why he spent the weekend interviewing with the team, sources confirmed to CBS Sports.

The Joneses would have to move quickly though, because McCarthy is making his rounds, having interviewed with the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns already. An added bonus for the Cowboys is his aforementioned time in Green Bay, hinting strongly at his ability to bring inside intel to Dallas on how to finally topple the almighty Rodgers.

Urban Meyer, free agent 

Meyer has interest in coaching the Cowboys — a ton of it — and the Cowboys have a mutual affection for him. They had a preliminary talk with the former University of Florida and Ohio State University head coach as recently as December, and while it wasn’t a formal sit-down (given Garrett was still under contract), it’s clear the two sides wouldn’t mind embarking on a journey together. Meyer is playing the table though, with a new report sprouting every week regarding another team’s interest in him. Some of that is imaginative speculation, some is downright true, but still others are likely Meyer’s agent attempting to push a potential salary with the Cowboys — or any team — north.

At the end of the day, it’s doubtful Meyer comes out of retirement for any NFL job except the Cowboys, and he’ll remain a front-runner until the final decision is made on who gets the nod. Meyer’s relationship with running back Ezekiel Elliott only helps his case, the two having dominated the collegiate landscape in their time together with the Buckeyes. 

Matt Rhule, Baylor 

Another front-runner in this bunch, despite Jerry Jones having supposed reservations about collegiate coaches who’ve never held a clipboard in the NFL before, Rhule has long drawn interest from the Joneses because of his ability to turn around a Baylor football program that was in shambles prior to his arrival. Being in close proximity to Dallas doesn’t hurt either, giving the Cowboys a chance to routinely send scouts to assess both Rhule’s players and the coach himself, but wait — there’s more. The strong interest in Rhule by the rival Giants adds a sense of urgency for the Cowboys to speak (formally) with him, but while New York is a top potential NFL destination for Rhule, not having to relocate from Texas to the frosty north is something the Cowboys can offer him that the Giants cannot.

Well, that and a loaded offensive roster missing only a couple of key defensive pieces to finally turn the corner, whereas the Giants still have a lot of roster work to do. Rhule has an eye on the Cowboys, and they have an eye on him, and things could move quickly once they sit down in the same room together for an official interview. 

Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs

It’s been a foregone conclusion for a while now that Bieniemy would be in high demand for an NFL head coaching position, given what he’s been able to do as offensive coordinator for the Chiefs. The progression of league MVP Patrick Mahomes is as much on Bieniemy as it is on Andy Reid, and even Reid knows he can’t keep the talented OC around forever. Having already seen more than one club request an interview with him, the 50-year-old can expect the Cowboys to be added to that list, a team drooling at the thought of tethering him to what was the most prolific offense in the league in yardage this season.

It’s a ready-made win with Bieniemy, although it would put pressure on him to decide if he’ll retain first-year coordinator Kellen Moore or simply handle play-calling duties himself — him being no stranger to the latter. He’d bring a more polished NFL prowess to the Cowboys than would others like Rhule, Meyer or Lincoln Riley, having already established himself as a potent offensive mind at the pro level.

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma

Yes, the Cowboys are very interested in Riley. No, being dismantled by a high-powered LSU team in the college football playoff did not dissuade them from wanting to speak with him formally about potentially succeeding Garrett. Like Rhule, Riley is only an afternoon drive away from Dallas, and his proximity has led to a very strong relationship having been built between him and the Jones family. They especially like what he’s been able to do in developing young quarterbacks, and although Dak Prescott is entering Year 5 — on the heels of a much improved Year 4 — there are still some tweaks Riley could potentially help with to get him to a consistently elite level.

Riley is Rhule’s competition to the north, in what could ultimately a Game of Thrones-esque battle for the iron seat in Dallas. After all, with Garrett now gone, winter is here. 

Greg Roman, Ravens

Ever heard of a guy named Lamar Jackson? Sure you have. That is unless you’ve been asleep under a rock that also lacks Wi-Fi access. Jackson is the runaway candidate for league MVP in 2019, and only one year after being drafted — some draftniks labeling him everything but a quarterback coming out of Louisville. The historic success of Jackson in 2019 is one part his insane skill set, and one part the mad scientist ways of Roman, the Ravens coordinator who almost instantly retooled the Baltimore offense from the statue-esque playing style of an aging Joe Flacco to the dynamic ways of a dual-threat Jackson.

Roman’s offensive creativity is heralded around the league, and for a Cowboys team only one final key turn from truly seeing Prescott unleashed, it’s a no-brainer to give him a call. Prescott may not be Jackson, but if Roman can get him in the same air — at the least — the combination of him, Elliott, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup would be downright lethal. 

Kris Richard, Cowboys

Not so long ago, as in last year, Richard was one of the most highly touted free agents in the land after seeing his legendary tenure with the Seattle Seahawks end. The former Legion of Boom engineer opted to join the Cowboys as passing game coordinator, but they immediately granted him play-calling duties despite Rod Marinelli remaining the defensive coordinator. Things went swimmingly for him in Year 1, which included a breakout season by linebackers Jaylon Smith and rookie first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch, along with another double-digit sack season for DeMarcus Lawrence. Richard would interview last January for possible HC roles elsewhere, but nothing materialized.

His second year with the Cowboys wasn’t as dynamic, and in large part due to the injury to LVE, but overall the unit took a big step back. No longer under contract, he’s already interviewed with the Giants, but the Cowboys have the inside track — especially considering they entered his deal with a wink that hinted at him getting a shot a being the head coach one day. He won’t be a front-runner, but he also can’t be dismissed completely, especially when you start wondering if Marinelli’s presence hindered his ability to fully install his own system.

Chris Petersen, free agent

His abrupt decision to step down as head coach at the University of Washington sent shockwaves throughout collegiate football, but the seafoam from the tsunami also settled at the shoes of some NFL clubs, namely the Cowboys. Petersen wants to take time off to recharge, but there’s a reason the Joneses will have interest in at least giving him a call, a source tells CBS Sports, or more so several of them. Petersen was a longtime head coach at Boise State, and his tenure there included coaching Moore, Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford

Assuming Moore remains, which isn’t guaranteed, that’s a lot of firepower in the building that would pull for Petersen — a highly respected and successful coach — to be brought on by the Cowboys. Jerry Jones began polling players recently to determine the direction of his coaching search, and you can bet Petersen’s name came up in those discussions. There’s a ton of Boise State blood in Dallas, and Petersen is responsible for a lot of it.

Dan Mullen, Florida

The next head coach of the Cowboys will have to either carry an ability to marry their scheme and teachings with Prescott, or have already shown they’ve done it. No one on this list (even as it grows) will be able to boast the latter like Mullen, who currently takes up residence with the Gators in his second stint in Gainesville but, between those two stays, he spent several seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Mississippi State — molding Prescott from a fairly overlooked recruit to a record-setting starter that went on to be selected by the Cowboys in the 2016 NFL Draft.

The relationship between the two is ongoing, and if there’s anyone other than Garrett who Prescott would pound the table for, it’s Mullen. Add to that a strong collegiate record that includes two national championships as an offensive coordinator and, yes, this is one dark horse that has a solid chance at lapping the entire field. 

Longshots

Bill Belichick, Patriots

The verdict is out on if we’re all witnessing the end of the Patriots dynasty, with rumors of Tom Brady potentially being elsewhere in 2020 and Belichick mulling retirement, but if it is the end of the era in Foxborough, it would behoove the Cowboys to swoop in like a starved bird of prey to grab Belichick’s attention before he puts a single cheek on a sofa cushion. This is a marriage unlikely to happen, but it’s also not impossible, given the fact Belichick once approached Jones to put in his bid for a job prior to joining the Patriots. That’s a miss that still haunts Jones to this day, and this may be the 77-year-old’s last chance at selecting another Super Bowl-winning head coach, currently aware of his own mortality.

Belichick might say no 100 times, but ask 101 and slide him a blank check while you’re at it. You’d be surprised what persistence and a bottomless bank account can accomplish, two things Jones has in spades.

Sean Payton, Saints

Believe it or not, but this dance still isn’t over. The music might not be playing as loudly as it was a year ago, or the year before that, but Jones isn’t done pursuing Payton. Ready to possibly move on from Garrett in 2019, the Hall of Famer reached out to the Saints head coach via back channels — because doing so officially would be viewed as tampering (which is why they denied it) — in January to gauge his interest in possibly returning to Dallas to become the successor to Garrett. Instead, Payton parlayed the interest into a five-year extension in New Orleans, and it would now take a king’s ransom to convince the Saints to even consider letting him walk.

Contractually, this is a much longer shot than Belichick, but it’s a phone call that also must happen. The relationship between Jerry Jones and Payton is very strong, to say the least, from the latter’s time in Dallas as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach in the early 2000s. Heck, Payton is responsible for convincing Bill Parcells to sign Tony Romo, and that’s just one part of his legacy in Jones’ heart. 

When it comes to the who becomes the next head coach of the Cowboys, it’s likely Jones will swing for the fences, and that means Belichick and Payton have to be in play — no matter how improbable the odds of landing them might be.

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