MOBILE, Ala. – A gut-wrenching sense of doom overtook many members of the Dallas Cowboys football operations on Monday after coach Bill Parcells made it known that he's retiring yet again.
The fear wasn't of the unknown, about who would be the next coach. It was of the known. Rather, the fear was of history, that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might again flex his muscles in football matters.
During Parcells' four years in Dallas, he managed to rebuild the team to a playoff contender. No, the Cowboys aren't quite a title contender, but they seem to be only a few breaks and some Tony Romo progress away from getting there.
Now, some people in the organization worry that Jones will turn the situation into yet another poorly executed circus, like he had in the final days of Barry Switzer and then with Chan Gailey and finally with Dave Campo.
"I don't know what Jerry is going to do and, frankly, I'm worried," a Cowboys staffer said Monday. "There's not a lot of guys out there [in the coaching ranks] who have the reputation where they can come in and take on Jerry the way Bill did."
Parcells was able to build that foundation for contention because he kept Jones at bay. Parcells' contract explicitly gave him control over football matters, such as the makeup of the coaching staff. Jones has still interfered from time to time, including signing wide receiver Terrell Owens in the last offseason.
But for the most part, Parcells ruled. Earlier this season, when Jones said assistant coach Todd Haley was going to be fined after getting into an argument with Owens, Parcells said Haley wouldn't be fined. In short, Owens wasn't going to be given preferential treatment over a coach.
Of course, part of the reason that Parcells is walking away is that he grew tired of dealing with Owens. But it's not the biggest reason. Truth is, as one Parcells associate said throughout the season, Parcells wasn't sure a year ago at this time if he wanted to keep coaching.
"He changes his mind all the time," the associate said. "There are things he still loves about it, but he's not sure he wants to commit all the time and energy to it."
What the Cowboys will miss most is the sane direction Parcells provided on the soap opera stage that the Cowboys live on. By contrast, Jones has often been in the middle of the soap opera, not above it.
That dates to the days when Jones feuded with Jimmy Johnson. Jones and Johnson made it through five years and two championships before they tired of one another. Jones eventually insulted Johnson by saying Dallas could win a title with Switzer.
Then, when Johnson left angrily, Jones hired Switzer and won a title. However, Jones and Switzer were living on borrowed players. When the team Johnson built started to fade, Jones was incapable of rebuilding it, running one terrible draft after another. Parcells righted that ship by building a solid nucleus, particularly on defense.
Is there someone who now can finish the building that Parcells began?
Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has the expertise to work that side of the ball and likely will get an interview after the Super Bowl. There are some other candidates with roughly the same resume as Rivera, but not one of them fills the shoes of Parcells when it comes to the relationship with Jones.
"Jerry is going to want to run everything if you hire a coordinator or some other young, inexperienced guy," the Cowboys staffer said, with a tone of disgust as obvious as a power chord.
Jones had considered other options during the season when it wasn't clear if Parcells was going to return. He toyed with the idea of hiring Jeff Fisher from Tennessee, but the Titans picked up the option on Fisher's contract.
Jones could make a run at Bill Cowher, but it's becoming apparent with each passing day of quiet on the Cowher front that the former Steelers coach really means to stay out for a year. Beyond that, Jones probably won't want to pay both the cash that Cowher wants and the trade price the Steelers will request.
Jones could wait, but that's problematic. The Cowboys are in a position to win now and he needs to take advantage of it. They will be opening a new stadium in two years and there are luxury boxes and sponsorships to sell. Selling those amid chaos won't be easy.
But if Jones returns to his form of old, chaos may be the only result.
Or as the Cowboys staffer said, ominously, "Yeah, I'm concerned, really concerned."