How Safe is Wade Phillips?

After last season, there was widespread speculation that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would fire head coach Wade Phillips — he of the zero career playoff wins — and replace him with a "marquee coach" to coincide with the opening of the team's new stadium in Arlington.

There also were games during the season that caused many to assume — even hope — that a coaching change would be made. Naysayers were out in force after the Cowboys laid an egg in their loss to the Green Bay Packers. Some fans even claimed that they wished their team had lost to Kansas City, under the theory that such a disastrous setback would have forced Jones to make a move.

Oh, how times have changed.

The Cowboys, who many feared might stumble down the stretch and miss the playoffs, became the first team to beat the then-unbeaten New Orleans Saints, and then knocked off the Washington Redskins. All of a sudden, the Cowboys are in the playoffs and within a win Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles from winning the NFC East.

So what does this mean for Phillips?

Preseason opinions varied about how well the team would have to do in order for Phillips — who is in the last year of his contract — to be brought back in 2010. Some suggested Dallas would have to reach the Super Bowl, or at least the NFC Championship game, in order for Phillips to retain his job. Others said merely qualifying for the postseason would grant him an extension.

That last opinion gained some momentum after last week's win over Washington, when Jones said he had "no interest" in making a coaching change. But does that mean Phillips is safe?

Probably not. A division title is more than many expected, especially after the trainwreck in Green Bay. A few weeks ago, Dallas was 8-5, and Jones and Phillips faced questions about what made them think the team was made up of "winners." Local and national media analysts were wondering whether the Cowboys had what it takes to make the playoffs, and if so, if they'd ever win a postseason game with Tony Romo playing quarterback (or now, holding on placekicks).

Dallas has one game left in the regular season, Sunday's showdown with the Philadelphia Eagles, with the winner winning the division. Chances are good the teams will meet again the following weekend, at the home of whichever team wins this weekend.

When Jones said after Sunday's win over Washington that he had "no interest" in making a coaching change, chances are he was telling the truth. Phillips is an eminently likeable guy, and presumably Jones doesn't relish the idea of telling Phillips he won't be back next season.

But chances are that if Dallas loses either of the next two games, Jones' trigger finger will start to get itchy again. He looks at the spaceship that is his team's new home, and he sees Super Bowl-caliber Dallas teams. He sees NFC Championship games being hosted in Arlington. He sees the NFL's most marketable brand, and he sees an unemployment line of coaches with NFL success on their résumés — guys like Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden (yes, he signed an extension with ESPN, but those contracts can evaporate in a second for the right coaching job) and Steve Mariucci and Mike Shanahan — and he starts to look for his checkbook.

Jones has gone the route of the anonymous longtime assistant before: see Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, etc. But every time the Cowboys have won Super Bowls, there has been a name coach on the sideline. Tom Landry. Jimmy Johnson. (Barry Switzer was coaching Johnson's team, so he doesn't count.) Even when the team showed marked improvement a few years ago, it was with league heavyweight Bill Parcells steering the ship.

Sure, Jones' ego got in the way before when he had a marquee coach, and the next time he has a celebrity running things on the sideline, they might well butt heads again, in which case Jones will begin the search all over again.

But that's in the future. Phillips is the coach for now, and in recent weeks, the team has played very well for him. There is talk that the players are even "rallying around" their coach, and want to win in the postseason for him.

For the Cowboys to continue playing for Phillips next season, a division title isn't a must, although it surely would help his cause. Chances are, the team will have to get past the Wild Card game, and perhaps to the NFC title game, or Jones might be looking for a new coach this offseason.
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