Neither won a playoff came as the Cowboys' head coach.
“I don’t want to be known only as a defensive coach, but that is my strength, helping defenses to get better quickly,” Phillips told reporters.
Jones considered hiring offensive wizard Norv Turner to replace Parcells, who retired in January following his second early playoff exit in four years. He instead chose the 60-year-old Phillips, whose San Diego defense led the NFL with 61 sacks last season, to help revive a defense that despite several first-round draft choices allowed more than 30 points a game over the final four weeks of the regular season.
Changes have come quickly.
While Parcells‘ 3-4 scheme emphasized big, strong players, Phillips‘ version is predicated on speed. Therefore, many Dallas defenders dropped serious weight this offseason, including linebacker Bradie James, who came to camp 20 pounds lighter, and safety Roy Williams, who is down to his rookie weight of 228 after getting as hefty as 246.
“A big guy that can run is better than just a big guy,” Phillips told reporters before Dallas’ 23-10 preseason victory over Indianapolis, which was held to 204 yards. “I want them running to the football. I want great pursuit.”
Jones has certainly been pursuing defensive excellence.
The Cowboys’ defense includes six recent first-rounders: end Marcus Spears (2005), linebackers DeMarcus Ware (2005), Bobby Carpenter (2006) and Anthony Spencer (2007), cornerback Terence Newman (2003) and Williams (2002). End Chris Canty and linebacker James were also draft picks.
All those first-rounders and a sprinkling of free agent signees add up to about $90 million in guaranteed money. And yet the Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game since 1996, when some of their starters were still in high school. Only Detroit has gone longer without a playoff victory among Dallas’ 15 NFC rivals.
“The excuse game is gone,” Canty told reporters. “We have to produce or we don’t deserve to be here, simple as that.”
All of the starters except Spencer and safety Ken Hamlin a free agent from Seattle were in Dallas last year. Those Cowboys were fearsome for the first 12 weeks, allowing just 18.2 points a game and limiting the Colts to 14 points. But over the final four weeks, New Orleans, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit averaged 33 points against Dallas, which succumbed in the first round of the playoffs at Seattle.
But first-time coordinator Brian Stewart is more than upbeat.
“Everybody has to stay healthy and has to play to their capabilities, but [if] that happens, we should be the best defense in the NFL,” Stewart told reporters.
That’s possible against a schedule that includes just four opponents who ranked in the top 10 in offense last season (St. Louis, Green Bay and Philadelphia twice).