It’s a foregone conclusion anything short of a deep run into the NFL playoffs (read: NFC Championship Game appearance) will have Jason Garrett without a new contract to coach the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 and beyond. The only question then, should it happen, would be who gets the nod as his successor — the team not lacking for potential candidates to take a crack at.

There’s already heavy interest in Urban Meyer and Lincoln Riley, with the front office having already had a preliminary talk with the former, a source confirmed to me — first reported by Jane Slater of NFL Network. Their love for Riley is well-known and owner Jerry Jones regularly praises the Oklahoma head coach, but a separate source also tells me they’ll give a call to Chris Petersen, who abruptly opted to step down from his post with the University of Washington so that he could “recharge.” That’s three big names from the collegiate ranks, and I’ve been told several more will be thrown into the hat over the next few weeks and months, with Dan Mullen (Florida) and Matt Rhule (Baylor) likely also garnering consideration from the Cowboys. 

So when Riley and Rhule locked horns on Dec. 7 in the Big 12 Championship Game at AT&T Stadium, the timing and location couldn’t be more fortuitous for Jones, who had a front seat to watch two potential candidates attempt to outsmart each other on his own front porch. Riley came out the victor with a thrilling 30-23 win over Baylor, but both teams put on a show, and subsequently so did their coaches.

Six days later, Jones was still beaming about both, helped by the fact both are in close proximity to Dallas (especially Rhule).

“Well, I am impressed with [Riley],” he told 105.3FM the Fan before heaping praise on Rhule. “But, boy, I am impressed with Baylor’s [Matt] Rhule, too. Those are two outstanding coaches at the stadium this weekend. That’s just that. They’ve done great jobs. 

“They’ve positioned their teams. They’re sound in the way they’re approaching their games. So, that was a great chance to see a couple of great coaches out there.”

As great as they’ve been for their respective programs, Riley and Rhule would have stiff competition to land the gig, assuming they’d be interested. Meyer is a contender and Petersen has deep connections to offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and several players on the roster, such as Tyrone Crawford and All-Pro pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, from their time together at Boise State. Although Jones is playing the semantics game by stating the team hasn’t “met” with Meyer, he never addressed if they “spoke” with him, and then doubled back and made it clear he’s not saying he’s disinterested.

Tea leaves. Read them. 

Before you grab that Bic and go penciling in any collegiate coach as a lock for the Cowboys gig, though, Jones would like to make clear his reservations about hiring an NCAA mind with no NFL experience to run the most visible team in the league, and the sports world altogether. 

“College coaches have the lowest percentage rate of success  — as head coach coming directly into head coach — as opposed to coming from coordinator [in the NFL], or as opposed to coming from a head coaching job in the NFL,” he said. “College football has the lowest rate of success. It’s pretty obvious they have to get acquainted with personnel. College coaches spend Sunday working. 

“It’s one of their biggest work days of the week. And, so, in many cases they’re not familiar with the personnel. Now, that’s a big deal because there are coaches that understand almost the practice habit of opposing teams. And then it’s particularly understanding of any input that you want from them regarding personnel.”

In essence, Jones would prefer someone who already has experience with the inner workings of an NFL team and how the other 31 clubs work as well. This doesn’t mean he’s ruling out anyone simply because they’re green when it comes to coaching a professional football team, because he isn’t and won’t, but he believes it would be a move that comes attached to a tolerance for a slow start.

After all, legendary Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson did go 1-15 in his first season with the organization, and in the league.

“You pay a price for somebody to get up to date that hasn’t spent the prior months or years in the NFL,” Jones said. “And then just the nature of the game and, again, college coaches don’t spend a lot of time watching this game. They work on Sunday hard and, so, getting up to snuff. I’m reminded that we won one football game the first year that we came and brought Jimmy [Johnson] in.”

All valid points by Jones, but Johnson also went on to recover with a 7-9 sophomore NFL campaign, followed by two Super Bowl wins in his next three seasons. 

So to Jones point(s), it may be a slow start should he pluck a coach from the ranks of the NCAA, but it might also be a glorious finish. For an owner who is very aware of his own mortality of as late, however, the latter part might escape him. Time will tell which variables outweigh the others in Jones’ mind, but he’s also working to erase the asterisk attached to his NFL legacy — being his inability to construct a Super Bowl caliber roster following his toxic split from Johnson. One thing collegiate coaches do well is scout and recruit talent, and it’s an attribute that can’t (and won’t) be ignored.

As for Garrett, the Cowboys never considered firing him in 2019, despite the inconsistencies that led them to a 6-7 record, and for a couple of reasons.

The first being obvious, because the Cowboys are still atop the lowly NFC East going into their Week 15 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams — much to the chagrin of All-Pro running back Todd Gurley — and even a loss to Los Angeles won’t eliminate them from playoff contention. The other reason is more veiled, however, with the club not being sold on the belief any of the existing coaches on their staff could/would do any better to finish out the year than Garrett can/will. A condemnation of sorts, yes, but it also frees up the Cowboys to start their search with a clean slate, unfettered by any potential success an interim would have that could be viewed as fool’s gold — complicating the process. 

There will be a wide net cast by Jones and Co. in their search for a new head coach, assuming they part ways with Garrett as is expected, and each of the aforementioned collegiate minds will get a look by the Cowboys. That much is as certain as the team also eyeing top NFL talent, with the club having already secretly begun compiling an NFL list of possible valentines to send chocolates to. 

The aging Jones knows his next move has to be his best move. This is why coaches like Meyer, Riley, Petersen and Rhule — along with others — would need to convince him that should they get the keys to the Ferrari, there either won’t be a slow start, or that it won’t take long for them to find top gear.