What 15 former NFL players add to the Cowboys' coaching staff

FRISCO, Texas -- As he attempted to talk through what he expected of the rookie offensive linemen, Marc Colombo finally got into a three-point stance and fired off a few quick steps to demonstrate the drill.

Colombo, 40, last played in an NFL game in 2011, but it is sometimes hard to get the player out of the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line coach. Colombo played in 111 games in his career, starting 95 with 72 starts coming as the Cowboys' right tackle from 2006 through 2010.

"Playing experience helps me a ton, just being able to demonstrate the drills and getting the guys to do the technique exactly the way it's being taught is huge," Colombo said. "That's something the guys really respond to, that hands-on coaching."

The Cowboys hold their first organized team activities of the offseason this week at The Star, which will mark the first time coach Jason Garrett's staff will be on the field for offense-versus-defense drills in 2019, and Colombo is not the only assistant on the staff with NFL playing experience.

Of the 26 coaches on the Cowboys' staff, a league-high 15 have NFL playing experience, totaling more than 1,218 regular-season games. The New England Patriots have one former player on their 14-coach staff in Jerod Mayo, who is entering his first season as an assistant. The New York Giants have one former player on Pat Shurmur's staff, but quarterbacks coach Mike Shula did not throw a pass during his lone season in the league, for the 1987 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bruce Arians' staff in Tampa Bay has 10 former players among its 29 coaches.

Garrett is one of the league's nine head coaches who have NFL playing experience.

During training camp practices, passing game coordinator and secondary coach Kris Richard will have his players tackle him -- though not at full speed -- so he can tell if they are using the proper fundamentals. Richard and running backs coach Gary Brown will wear cleats to practice. Richard played in 39 games in four NFL seasons. Brown had two 1,000-yard seasons in his eight NFL seasons.

Defensive line assistant Leon Lett and staff assistant Andre Gurode drill the linemen on the same hand-fighting tricks that Lett tried to use in his 11-year career as a pass-rusher and Gurode tried to counter-attack in his 11-year career as an offensive lineman.

Finding the right mix

Garrett said the hiring of ex-players on his staff was not part of a grand plan.

"It's important to have a balance between young and old, former players and guys who didn't play, guys who come from different backgrounds, guys who are loud, guys who are quiet, different personalities," Garrett said.

"We think long and hard about what that chemistry is and what that collaboration is like. If you look at our defensive line, it's a great combination. Rod Marinelli, a veteran coach, was not a player in the National Football League. Very demanding of guys, very clear in what he wants his defensive linemen to be all about, the drill work he does. And then you have a guy like Leon Lett, who has a lot of practical experience as a player, a great football player in this league, and he can hopefully connect with the players in a certain way and share some things with both Rod and with the individual players."

Seven of the 24 coaches on Kyle Shanahan's San Francisco 49ers staff are former NFL players. He said he sought out Wes Welker as his new receivers coach specifically because of Welker's playing experience.

"The most important thing is you can coach and know what you're talking about," Shanahan said. "If you're one of those guys and you played, that's even better. You can relate in a bunch of areas. But if you hire a person just because they played, that might last the first week. The guy will listen to a guy because they remember what he looked like on TV, but once they realize they can't teach them anything, it becomes a very long year. So you've got to get the best of both worlds."

After his playing career ended, wide receiver Miles Austin spent a couple of years around the Cowboys in the scouting department. He interviewed for the Cowboys' receivers coaching job that went to Sanjay Lal in 2018 and there were murmurs this offseason about Austin joining the staff.

Ultimately, Austin, who played for Shanahan in Cleveland, joined the Niners as a quality control coach.

"A lot of those guys are too smart to be coaches. You made some money, your life is happy, seems like your wife likes you, you don't have to move much. Why do you want to come coach? Usually a lot say, 'I just miss it,'" Shanahan said. "Those are the guys who come and do it for a year and say, 'This isn't what I thought.' … When you could hear how much (Austin) wanted to do it and how good he wanted to be, he has every skill set possible to be as good as a coach as he wants. I wanted to see how bad he wanted to do it and he has shown that. Now he's going to put in the work and it will be a matter of time before he's a real good one."

A year ago, journeyman quarterback Jon Kitna was coaching high school football in Phoenix. He became the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Fleet in the Alliance of American Football but left for the Cowboys when Garrett called in February. The Dallas head coach called him a "true football guy."

"He's able to connect with lots of different kind of people, young and old, offense, defense," Garrett said. "He just had that way about him when he was playing, and I think that really served him well throughout his playing career. But [he] always [asks] good questions, always interested in what we're doing, always thinking about why we're doing things. Just a really fun guy to coach. It does not surprise me one bit that he went into coaching afterwards."

In 14 seasons with four teams, Kitna threw for 29,745 yards with 169 touchdown passes. He has a host of career highlights, including starting for the 1999 Seattle Seahawks (a playoff team), mentoring 2003 No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer while in Cincinnati and ending his career in 2011 as Tony Romo's backup. Kitna also led the NFL in interceptions (20) in 2007 with the Detroit Lions, so he knows about the lowlights, too.

"From the players' perspective that I'm coaching, the fact that, 'OK, I've been in your shoes,' and I'm not going to sit back here with a clicker and go, 'Come on, that's easy,'" Kitna said. "Ain't nothing easy about playing that [QB] position. Zero. Not even a handoff is easy. So you respect that position. But I also think that it's the fact that I can tell them, 'I've already paid that cost for you. You don't even need to look at that route when we've got that coverage. I've done that. I threw that pick. Go somewhere else.' I think there's some respect for that."

'They're guys who have done it'

Travis Frederick was the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2013, and Colombo is his fourth offensive line coach. Bill Callahan (2013-14) and Paul Alexander (2018) did not have NFL playing experience, but Frank Pollack (2015-17) did and Colombo does.

"Marc brings a lot of intensity, and he also brings a little bit of youth," Frederick said. "He can connect well with the guys and I think, not that you ever have to get our group to play hard, but guys want to play for him because you know he's been through it.

"I really enjoy the way that he approaches meetings and he approaches the field. He knows that he has a veteran group and he doesn't want to push too hard on it, but he knows there are certain things that need to be done. And he knows the standard that we've set in the room and strives every day to uphold that standard as a coach."

In Colombo's time with the Cowboys, he had two of the top offensive line coaches in the NFL in Tony Sparano (five seasons playing for Miami and Oakland) and Hudson Houck, who did not have NFL playing experience.

"What I learned from those guys is how to teach," Colombo said. "That's the big thing, learning how to teach these guys standing up in the front of the room and installing plays, and they're the best I've ever seen do that. That's where they helped me, being able to learn from those guys, then get on the field with a hands-on approach. It's huge."

Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott considers himself fortunate. As a rookie, he had Wade Wilson, who played 17 years in the NFL, as his position coach. Last season Prescott's former teammate, Kellen Moore, was his coach. This season, he has Kitna.

"The benefit is they're guys who have done it. They've been in the league and have done it," Prescott said. "They've been in there game by game, have been able to learn from playing experience. You have something like that, it's much better than the guy that is just speaking off of what he thinks or maybe he learned from one guy to another. But they're speaking from game experience themselves. So, being able to have that and have the different aspects of it, to have Wade Wilson who played for so long. Then, having a guy like Kellen that maybe didn't have all the tools, but had it mentally and it gave himself a great career in the league, and now to have a guy like Kitna that had a little bit of both, so assertive in what he wants to do in his footwork in everything that he's teaching. I'm thankful honestly for all three of them and, at the end of my career, I can look back and thank them all for one thing or another. I'm proud of that."

Moore entered 2016 as Romo's backup but suffered a broken ankle in the first week of training camp, which pushed Prescott up the depth chart. When Romo suffered a compression fracture in a preseason game, Prescott earned the starting job and has not missed a game since.

The Cowboys promoted Moore to the offensive coordinator role this offseason, and now he is most directly responsible for Prescott's improvement.

"For myself, it's kind of a unique situation because I'm one to two years removed," Moore said. "A lot of the things we're asking Dak to do, I was with him in the room as a player and I experienced those things. I think you can relate and understand sometimes better when you're talking the fundamentals or the technique.

"I've got firsthand experience of trying that and experiencing that. Obviously that's like a lot of our staff. It's really valuable."