For the past decade the only thing that’s felt more certain than death and taxes has been Jason Garrett serving as the Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys. That all ended (officially at least) earlier this week on January 5, 2020. After a decade marked with frustration and consistent underachieving the Cowboys finally decided to move on from Garrett. In his place they’ve hired Mike McCarthy, the former Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers. Few things are certain right now in Dallas, but one thing is pretty self-evident, we are entering a new era for the Dallas Cowboys.
Let’s start with Garrett. Jerry has shown a loyalty to Garrett with patience unlike anything we’ve seen before with the Cowboys. Keep in mind, this is the same Jerry Jones who once made his first act as owner of the franchise to fire the great Tom Landry. Which is why it is so paradoxical that he has happily held onto Garrett for almost a decade. Jones is an owner who is notorious for being impatient and overly involved, but was shockingly devoted to Jason Garrett even after it was clearly past time for a change. It was obvious why the Cowboys needed to move on from him and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at Garrett’s career and see that improvement was sorely needed, especially from one of the NFL’s marquee franchises.
The Cowboys faced four late season win and in games against NFC East rivals during the Jason Garrett era. They won zero of them. Garrett’s 2-3 playoff record is well known and long debated, but his failures extend far past that. In 2011 there was the 31-14 loss to the Giants at home. Next season in 2012 it was 28-18 to the Redskins. In 2013 it was the Kyle Orton led Cowboys who dropped a 24-22 loss to the Eagles and again missed the playoffs. All three of those years saw the Cowboys finish 8-8 after losing their final game of the season to a hated divison rival. And then of course there is 2019, this past season. The Cowboys finished 8-8 and again missed the playoffs after losing a win and in game to the Eagles, this time a 17-9 loss in Week 16. For most teams losing one game like this is enough to turn the hot seat on the fire, two is more than enough cause to be fired, but three is unheard of, especially in consecutive years.
Dallas has been unnaturally slow to move on from Garrett. A lot of that has to do with his close relationship with the Jones family. They love him, and it’s understandable why. He was the backup Quarterback to Aikman during two of the three 90s Super Bowls, he’s a through line back to Jimmy Johnson, is good friends with both Jason Witten and Tony Romo, and has become extremely close with Jerry Jones. Garrett has in many ways devoted himself to the Cowboys and seems like an all-around nice guy. He also was more than happy to accommodate Jerry however he needed him to.
People love to rail against Jerry, and while he is far from without blame when it comes to the Cowboys inability to get over the hump the past quarter century, he (along with Executive Vice President Stephen Jones and VP of Player Personnel Will McClay) has actually done a pretty good job at making sure the Cowboys have had talented rosters. Which is part of what made his decision to hold onto Garrett for so long so frustrating for most Cowboys fans. There are a lot of things you can say about the Cowboys, one thing you can’t is that they’ve had bad or untalented rosters.
Two things were painfully obvious through the duration of Garrett’s tenure as head coach. The first is that this team could never overcome adversity (notably, the one year this wasn’t the case was 2016 when Dak Prescott took over for an injured Romo and the team finished 13-3). One injury, bad call, or change in momentum and the Cowboys often times would fold in on themselves. Garrett’s motto for the past few years has been “fight”, and while his teams haven’t really quit on him, the traditionally haven’t responded well to being challenged. The second is a total lack of accountability. This was especially evident this past season when Garrett was more than happy to throw other people under the bus during post game conferences, something he did a few times as the season dragged on.
Against all odds, Garrett leaves Dallas as the second longest tenured coach in team history after Hall of Famer (and hat icon) Tom Landry. And his tenure certainly wasn’t all bad. Garrett was a solid talent evaluator (even if he couldn’t maximize it), for the most part he built a solid culture for the team where his players trusted him, and at the end the day his two playoff victories are still more than that of the previous four Head Coaches combined. I would also be lying if I didn’t say that the 2014 and 2016 seasons were both the two most thrilling seasons of Cowboys football since 1995 when Barry Switzer guided the franchise to their last Super Bowl. But in the end, the bad outweighed the good by a sizable margin and it was definitely far past time to move on.
Enter Mike McCarthy. Cowboys fans are already plenty familiar with McCarthy from his time with the Packers (I don’t think anyone in Dallas needs to be reminded of the 2014 or 2016 Divisional playoff games). He’s won a Super Bowl, has a 10-8 record in the playoffs, boasts a career 20-12 record in the NFC East, and coached two of the greatest Quarterbacks to ever play the game. His resume and record speaks for itself.
In his twelve and a half years as Head Coach of the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy made the playoffs nine times and won at least one game in seven of them. Towards the end of his tenure though he came under fire for what was perceived as a rapidly disintegrating relationship with his star Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. Rumors had been circulating for a while that the marriage between McCarthy and Rodgers had been on the rocks, but by 2017 it was apparent that a change was going to need to come sooner rather than later. Fast forward to 2018 and the Packers fired McCarthy late in the season.
Prior to serving as Head Coach in Green Bay McCarthy spent time as the Offensive Quality Control coach for the Joe Montana led Chiefs teams before becoming Kansas City’s QB coach. After that he had his first stint in Green Bay as the Packers QB coach, then after just one year he went on to be Offensive Coordinator for the 49ers and the New Orleans Saints all before coming back to Green Bay in 2006 where he stayed until he was fired in 2018. Over his career he had the incredibly rare opportunity to coach Hall of Fame players like Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers, and Frank Gore.
McCarthy is an offensive wizard who knows how to support his players and when to get out of the way so they can do what they need to do. That latter point is something Garrett was never able to do, often coaching to mask the weakness of his players rather than playing to their strength.
It’s not unfair to say to say McCarthy should have achieved more during his time in Green Bay. He coached two Hall of Fame Quarterbacks one after the other, but he left the job with only one Super Bowl ring in just two appearances. A lot of people would easily argue that when you have Aaron Rodgers in his prime it’s a failure to only hoist the Lombardi trophy once. There are also some concerns about how might perform without Rodgers at the helm of his offense, a valid fear to be sure.
McCarthy it seems though, has been doing everything he can to recertify any deficiencies in his coaching record. This past season he operated as if he was coaching in the NFL and assembled a staff of fellow out of work NFL coaches. They watched game footage, broke down trends and prepared as if they were playing each week. It’s some pretty cool stuff and at a bare minimum demonstrates a nice commitment to modernizing his offensive scheme that only a year removed, already feels pretty dated in the ever changing NFL offensive landscape. Along the way McCarthy has also said he’s embraced analytics, something Garrett never did.
In a weird way, it’s almost perfect poetry that McCarthy be the guy who takes over for Garrett. He was after all, inadvertently the reason Garrett became Head Coach in the first place. Flash it back to November 7, 2010, Sunday Night Football at Lambeau Field. Wade Phillips’ Cowboys featuring Jon Kitna in at Quarterback for the injured Tony Romo were absolutely steamrolled by a young Mike McCarthy led Packers team 45-7 in the game that solidified Aaron Rodgers arrival as one of the most dynamic Quarterbacks in football. This Cowboys flat out quit on Phillips and it ended up costing him his job. Jerry turned then turned the keys over to Garrett and the Cowboys haven’t looked back since.
But what about the future? McCarthy is walking into what is by all accounts a phenomenal situation. Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are both expected back, and assuming that McCarthy is going to be taking the reins of a team that on offense alone has a Top 5 QB, a Top 3 RB, one of the three best receiving duos in the NFL with Cooper and Michael Gallup (don’t forget Randall Cobb too if he chooses to re-sign), and had easily one of the best offensives lines in football. Tight End could stand be dramatically improved though in the off-season.
Defensively things are a little more difficult. Demarcus Lawrence played far better than his 5 sacks would indicate, especially in regards to his run defense. Roman Quinn likewise did a pretty good job, notching 11.5 sacks in 14 games, but the rest of the defensive line was inconsistent at best. Linebacker Jaylon Smith took a step back while Leighton Vander Esche battled injuries, but the immense potential is clearly there for both. The secondary is a big area of concern as Cornerback Byron Jones will likely leave in free agency which has to worry the Cowboys as now Corner and Safety become big areas of need heading into the draft. McCarthy is a great offensive mind, but he needs some help defensively.
Sure, he’s never had to deal with an owner quite like Jerry Jones before, and Green Bay couldn’t be run more different from Dallas. But in Dallas he’s going to have the complete talent around him that he rarely had in Green Bay.
But was he the best choice for the job? Well, neither Ravens Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman nor Chiefs Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy have any Head Coaching experience, so there is a small amount of risk there, even if both have proven they can design the two best offenses in the modern NFL. Both University of Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley and Baylor Head Coach Matt Rhule are known for their dazzling work at the college level, have serious question marks around them considering they’ve never coached at the NFL level before. The only other candidate who seemed to have Head Coaching experience was Marvin Lewis, who is a great defensive coach but in 16 years as Head Coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, only made the playoffs seven times and never once made it out of the Wild Card round. So while people like Riley or Bieniemy may have been sexier picks, McCarthy was by far the safest choice available. That doesn’t immediately make McCarthy a bad hire, but it is pause for concern if five years from now Rile or Bieniemy are lightening up the league with another franchise and the Cowboys once again picked a far too conservative coach.
So can McCarthy fix the Dallas Cowboys? Obviously that’s still TBD. In regards to talent alone the Cowboys were always going to be most attractive job on the market to any prospective Head Coach, but they don’t come without with baggage. Waking in on day one, assuming Dallas takes care of business and both Prescott and Cooper return, this offense is an absolute dream to work with. Defensively they need help, but have ample talent to do it without needing to blow up the defense. Jerry Jones can still be a bit of a wild card as he’s far more involved than your typical owner, something McCarthy certainly didn’t deal with during his time in Green Bay.
All of the pieces are lined up for McCarthy to turn the Cowboys back into perennial contenders, but only time is going to tell if he actually can. One thing is for sure though, and that is that the Cowboys are far better positioned for success today than they were yesterday.