It finally happened.
After 10 seasons — about eight of which were spent on the hot seat — Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones finally did the inevitable and let go of head coach Jason Garrett, whose contract was set to expire on Jan. 14. The highs and lows of his tenure were on full display to everybody in Big D and despite having only one losing season in charge, the inability of the former backup QB to get the team over the hump and back on the path to competing for a Super Bowl finally did him in.
This could be a complicated search given ownership's reputation being weighed with the biggest stage available for anybody out there. The question is, who will Jones entrust as his next head coach in one of the highest-profile openings in any sport? The Cowboys roster is still filled with talented players and there’s still a lot to like about the potential of winning it all with America’s Team.
Who could wind up replacing Garrett in Big D? Here are 11 candidates to watch that could be the next Cowboys head coach:
The college coaches
Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma head coach
Jones has long thought to be enamored with the Sooners’ young coach for some time now and even a blowout in the College Football Playoff is unlikely to dissuade him from downplaying such affection. OU has won several Big 12 titles at AT&T Stadium in recent years and the Cowboys gig is one of the very select few that are seen as having the potential of luring the West Texas native from his current cushy confines in Norman. The Cowboys were already very good on offense this past season but Riley could help take them to another level with all the weapons already in the cupboard. The bigger question is though, would he want to head down the road and work under Jones?
Matt Rhule, Baylor head coach
While Riley is a bit of a white whale, might another Big 12 coach be more open to making a move up I-35? He’s widely viewed as the top realistic college coach for NFL openings due to his background in the league and the fact that’s interviewed with the Jets and Colts before. He received a new contract recently and is quite comfortable, telling multiple people it would take a perfect opportunity to get him to leave Waco. The Cowboys are built to win right now and if Jones could allow the coach greater control over the roster and football operations, the franchise might not have to go far for the next guy.
Bob Stoops, former Oklahoma head coach
Stoops is already coaching pro football in Dallas… just in the XFL. While he’s happy with the part-time commitment and the ability to enjoy retirement life, he’s still young enough that a huge opening like this is worth listening to. The defensive background he brings would be a nice changeup from most coaches’ focus but his ability to connect with players and see the whole picture really makes him an attractive all-around candidate.
Urban Meyer, former Ohio State head coach
The current FOX Sports analyst was linked to the USC gig this past offseason but if he were to return to coaching, might it be at the next level? His legacy is obviously secure in college so taking over the big spotlight job in Dallas is just the sort of thing that could lure him back to the sidelines. His motivational tactics that were such a part of his success at Florida and Ohio State might not quite translate but his X’s and O’s are still top-notch. Plus, he’s the kind of huge name that ownership would love to land.
The NFL head coaches
Mike McCarthy, former Packers head coach
There are not many Super Bowl-winning head coaches available and this one won his at AT&T Stadium too boot. The ending in Green Bay was a bit tough but in terms of being somebody who could come in right away and make waves, McCarthy makes a lot of sense. He could develop Dak Prescott further and it doesn’t hurt that a year away from the game has allowed him to make changes to how he would approach his next gig.
Sean Payton, Saints head coach
It’s been no secret that Jones has wanted Payton to coach the Cowboys for the better part of a decade. It would have to happen via trade and would no doubt be expensive (multiple first-rounders?) but if the owner really wants the one guy to lead Dallas in the 2020s, engineering a move could pay off with the one person who you know gives you a better chance at winning a Lombardi.
The NFL assistants
Greg Roman, Ravens offensive coordinator
Roman’s name is bound to come up with every opening this cycle and the Cowboys should be no exception. His creativity with the Ravens has been on full display and pairing him with Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and others could result in the kind of dynamic attack that could be a difference-maker in going from good to great in Dallas.
Josh McDaniels, Patriots offensive coordinator
Another name that will be brought up for nearly every opening, McDaniels ticks off a lot of boxes given he has head coaching experience, an offensive background and the learning under Bill Belichick factor. Though his current Pats unit hasn’t lit the league on fire like we’re used to seeing, he’s still highly regarded and could be great with the weapons the Cowboys have. He might want a greater degree of control than ownership would like to give up but it could be worth it in landing somebody who can overhaul the franchise.
Eric Bieniemy, Chiefs offensive coordinator
The Andy Reid pipeline has proven fruitful to many recently, including one successful coach at a Dallas division rival. Bieniemy is a former player who enjoys a good rapport with the guys he coaches and would continue to make the team exciting to watch. He would be a big boon to Elliott and Prescott, among others.
Kevin Stefanski, Vikings offensive coordinator
The Vikings’ offense has been one of the better units in the NFC this year and Stefanski growing up under a number of solid head coaches has to work in his favor. A Mike Zimmer endorsement could go a long way given how respected the former Cowboys assistant is and while he isn’t the flashy name, Stefanski could come in with a plan to elevate the team in a number of areas.
Dan Campbell, Saints assistant head coach
Campbell is a Texas native who played high school, college and pro ball in the state — including for the Cowboys during the Bill Parcells years. He’s gotten experience in the big chair during an interim stint in Miami and has learned from Sean Payton the last several years. He’s been mentioned for a number of openings in recent years but the local connection could play in his favor.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.