Which Former Running Back and Favorite Is Working with the Coaching Staff?

by | Aug 16, 2018 | Articles, Dallas Cowboys History, The League, The Team, Training Camp

“All three aspects of a team – offense, defense, and special teams – are needed to build a championship team. That’s our goal here: build a championship team by practicing like a championship team, eating like a championship team, speaking to the media like a championship team. Everything we do, we do it in a championship way.”

– Phillip Tanner

James D. Smith via AP

It’s a heartwarming story: the local kid who beat the odds to make the Cowboys’ 53-man roster and play for his hometown team! That’s the tale of Phillip Tanner, the former Dallas Kimball High School running back who made the Cowboys roster as a rookie free agent in 2011. This summer, Tanner is back where his NFL career started: grinding-it-out at Cowboys’ Training Camp. But this time around, it’s as an assistant coach through the league’s minority coaching fellowship.

“I’m working as an assistant to K.O. (special teams coordinator Keith O’Quinn) and Doug (Colman, assistant special teams coach) and doing anything they need, whether it’s running off paperwork or getting out here on the practice between-the-lines and coaching,” says Tanner. “I was fortunate to play in this same system that K.O. has coached in, so I’m speaking his language. I understand exactly what he wants to see, so he and Doug and I are having fun and coaching these guys for the betterment of the team.”

The league established Bill Walsh NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship in 1987 to provide training camp positions to minority coaches every year. It’s named for Hall of Fame head coach Bill Walsh who conceived the idea. NFL head coaches that are graduates of the program include the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis, and former Bears and Bucs head coach Lovie Smith.

Tanner is one of two former Cowboys players, including defensive end George Selvie, taking part in this year’s program

Over 1,800 minority coaches have participated in the program including current Cowboys’ full-time staff members Leon Lett (assistant defensive line coach), Gary Brown (running backs coach), and Ken Amato (defensive assistant).

Tanner hopes to follow in their footsteps as former players, current coaches.  Tanner played four NFL seasons for the Cowboys (2011-13) and Bills/49ers (2014).  His rookie season in Dallas was Jason Garrett’s first full season as Cowboys’ head coach.

“I have great respect for Coach Garrett, I am a big fan of his, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to help the team,” notes Tanner. “Anything I can do to help him and the staff, I’m all for it.

“And I certainly have a new appreciation for NFL coaches. As a player, you’d see the coaches and think, ‘Oh, they’re just standing around’, but you don’t see the behind-the-scenes grind that the coaches go through to put the players in good position to succeed.

“I’m definitely seeing the game through a different light as a coach because, as players, we’d get up to go to meetings, but players don’t understand that the coach was already up three hours earlier than the start of the meeting. And when players are leaving meetings to go back to our hotel rooms at training camp, the coaches are in another meeting. All the time in meetings, all the extra work, that’s something I didn’t understand as a player. As a coach, I’m watching extra film, more than I did as a player.

“That’s the grind of coaching. You have to be there before the players. You have to be there after the players leave. We, as coaches, have to know what the players are going to see and be able to communicate it to them.”

Tanner was a longshot to make the roster in 2011 as an undrafted player from Middle Tennessee State. The Cowboys’ running back depth chart that summer included veterans Felix Jones, DeMarco Murray, and Tashard Choice. Tanner’s route to the 53-man roster was special teams, including coverage units.

Now that he’s a coach, he’s preaching the importance of special teams to this summer’s roster long shots.

“K.O. actually let me have a meeting with the special teams players on the kickoff team last Monday morning. I spent the first two minutes explaining to the guys that it’s a mind set and their ticket onto this roster is through special teams. I wanted the guys to understand that they have to get out here every day and dog it on every snap of every practice.

LM Otero via AP

They have to pay attention during meetings so they know what they’re doing so they can earn their opportunities for practice reps.

“For young players, it’s the mental part that is very important because you have to earn the respect of your teammates so they trust you. You’re also earning the trust and respect of your coaches. It’s a grind, whatever position you play, and you have to have the mentality to dog it every snap. The special teams is working for the offense, the offense is working for the defense.

“All three aspects of a team – offense, defense, and special teams – are needed to build a championship team. That’s our goal here: build a championship team by practicing like a championship team, eating like a championship team, speaking to the media like a championship team. Everything we do, we do it in a championship way.”

At the midpoint of his first NFL training camp as a coach, Tanner has already decided upon a career path.

“My long-term goal is to be a full-time coach at the NFL level. That’s why I’m making these strides and learning as much as I can, just being a sponge. I’m learning from everyone on the staff, not just special teams. I’m watching Kris Richard and the others. During lunch, I’m listening to the coaches and soaking up all the information I can to put in my toolbox so that I can be a better coach.

“When I finished my playing career in San Francisco in 2015, I was ready to begin a coaching career. I was a graduate assistant at Middle Tennessee State in the spring and worked with running backs. If I had a choice, I would want to be a position coach and start with running backs since it’s more personal. When you’re a coordinator, you work with a whole unit. When you’re a position coach, like a running backs coach, you just grab your guys and really have fun with those guys. That’s my goal, to be a position coach.”

And for the Cowboys fans who remember Tanner as the scrappy hometown kid who overcame long odds to grow up and play for his childhood team, he has a message.

“I want them to know that I still have that same mentality as the utility guy who will do whatever I can do to better the team. When I was a player, I was the same way. Now working with the coaching staff, I’ll be the same way to do whatever needs to be done to get the players ready to play championship football. I’m all for it. I’m all in.”