Analysis

Cowboys Would Be Wise to Consider Head-Coaching Options

Cowboys' Formation Fail / Why Mike McCarthy Should be Concerned

Former NFL team executive Joe Banner wrote the following column in early January. With Dan Quinn and Sean Payton still viable options, Jerry Jones will have a coaching decision to make should Dallas have an early exit from the postseason.

No one compiling a list of teams considering new head coaches for 2023 would include the Dallas Cowboys, and why should they? They’re 12-4, could win a second straight division championship and are a Super Bowl contender.

But if I were making that list, I might. In fact, I think I would. And here’s why: 

I’m not looking at what happened this season or last. I’m more interested in the immediate future – say, the next three years – and which coach can help me win the most games. So I’m not worried about who’s in that seat right now. I’m looking ahead and wondering where I go to win a Super Bowl by 2025.

That’s why Dallas would be included on my list of teams considering head-coach decisions after this season. 

Now, before we go further, remember what I just said: Considering a head-coach decision. I didn’t say making one. Mike McCarthy has done a credible job in his three seasons with Dallas, winning 61 percent of his games, reaching the playoffs twice and going 24-9 the past two seasons, including one where he won the NFC East.

But the Cowboys are in an intriguing, almost unique, position. They have two successful head coaches on their payroll – McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who took Atlanta to Super Bowl LI – and have the wherewithal, and perhaps the interest, to add another in former Dallas assistant and New Orleans head coach Sean Payton.

Three Options Worth Considering

Granted, the most likely scenario is they do nothing and considering McCarthy’s success the past two seasons, I get that. But does he give owner Jerry Jones the best chance of winning a Lombardi Trophy? I don’t know. What I do know is I’d consider what’s out there and weigh my options.

It’s what I like to call looking at something “from a blackboard perspective”, where there’s nothing written on it and where you can fill it wherever and however you choose. And with Dallas, you can fill it with three coaches who went to Super Bowls, two who won them (McCarthy in Green Bay and Payton in New Orleans), and two (Quinn and Payton) who will be hot head-coaching candidates this offseason.

So where do you turn? The most obvious answer is McCarthy. The Cowboys won 12 games in each of the past two seasons and depending on what happens to Philadelphia on Sunday, could win a second consecutive NFC East title. Then why make the change? Good question. I share the view that Mike McCarthy is a good coach – not a great one – and that much of his success stems from his ability to pick quality defensive coordinators.

Quinn is his defensive coordinator in Dallas, and because he could leave for a head-coaching job after this season, I’d want to check my hole card before that happens. So let’s do that. Here’s my blackboard:

Mike McCarthy: Strong Resume

In 16 seasons as a head coach, he’s won seven division championships and 10 or more games a season 10 times, including the past two years. He draws some criticism for his clock management, and I think that’s fair. He’s also been to – and won –  just one Super Bowl, despite having Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback for 13 seasons. Nevertheless, he’s a respected and successful leader who has the Cowboys in the mix for an NFC championship this season. 

His biggest advantage here is continuity. Players know what he wants, and there’s a working relationship that – at least from the outside – appears to work. So why consider a change? Easy. Most people will laugh at this, but the Cowboys’ offensive schemes are too conservative – where running is so prioritized that they have a more effective running game than passing attack. 

Whether that’s driven by McCarthy’s personal philosophy or the philosophy of the owner, I don’t know. What I do know is we’re in an aggressive era of football with attacking defenses and offenses, and I don’t think McCarthy has joined that effort where Quinn has.

Dan Quinn: Unique Leadership Skills

What happens if Quinn leaves for another job? McCarthy has a mixed history of hiring coordinators, and he might need to do that again if he loses Quinn and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. 

When you’re conducting a head-coaching search, the first box checked is the importance of leadership. I know Dan, and he has unique skills in that area; his teams play hard, no matter the situation. Like McCarthy, he went to one Super Bowl. Unlike McCarthy, he lost it – blowing a 28-3 second-half lead to New England. Plus, he barely won more games (43) than he lost (42) in his six seasons in Atlanta and was 14-23 in his last three. 

There is a parallel situation here with McCarthy in that, like Mike, Dan is most successful when he has really adept assistants around him. We saw what happened in Atlanta when he had Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator, and then we witnessed what happened when he didn’t. 

The advantage here is that Cowboys players know him, and you can hire him at a reasonably competitive salary. Now, do I think he would embrace a more aggressive form of game that could make the difference between Dallas getting to the Super Bowl or not? I’d have to think about that. Dan has some of the same question marks that Mike does. I think they both will do well. But the degree of “well” depends on their hiring skills.

Sean Payton: Best Super Bowl Odds, but What Cost?

Sean gives you the best chance to win a Super Bowl, and that’s critical here. Jerry Jones has everything in life from a monetary perspective, but what he doesn’t have currently is a strong chance to stand up on the podium and hold a Lombardi Trophy. Payton could give him that opportunity … but at a considerable cost. 

He’s under contract with New Orleans through 2024, so you’d have to make the Saints an offer they couldn’t refuse. When Tampa Bay paid to lure Jon Gruden away from Oakland in 2002, the Bucs paid two first-round draft picks, two seconds and $8 million. If I’m Jerry Jones, am I willing to pay a price for Payton? Yes. Am I willing to pay that price? No. 

I know, Gruden won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in his first year, but then what? Nothing. Plus, Payton’s history with New Orleans is well-documented, with him leading the Saints to their only Super Bowl victory (and appearance). But that’s the point: He got to only one in 15 seasons with a future Hall of Fame quarterback of his own, Drew Brees. 

I was part of the group in Philadelphia that brought in Sean as a quarterbacks coach when Gruden was the offensive coordinator. So I know him as a person and as a coach. And he’s an outstanding head coach, a compelling candidate who’s just a smidge below Bill Belichick and Andy Reid. He’s done a good job hiring assistants and proven that if you give him a roster with accomplished players he will win a lot of games.

 I don’t worry about him filling his staff with the right assistants. I trust he’ll find the right people. So, if I were the Cowboys, I would be willing to pay consequentially to acquire him. But what’s the difference between a guy who gets me deep into the playoffs and one that increases my chances of reaching the Super Bowl? 

And how much would I be willing to pay for that difference? The answer is: Some kind of draft compensation and some additional pay vs. existing options. But it’s not unlimited because I do have three options here, all of which are good.

The Cowboys’ Conundrum

Do the Cowboys keep Mike McCarthy, which I think is the most likely option? Or do they switch to Quinn to create a new era, or consider Payton, who might be the best available option out there right now? If nothing else, it’s a unique situation that’s worth considering.

And that’s what I’m doing here. 

I’m not trying to bash or rip McCarthy. Like most coaches, he has strengths and weaknesses. But if you want to go to the Super Bowl – and that’s the only thing I care about – you must decide if he’s good or if he’s great. And if you have a chance to be great with someone else, do you take that chance? 

To me, the Cowboys have three choices, and the possibility of losing Quinn affects my prediction of how successful I think McCarthy will be by himself. Mike would have to convince me he had a really good plan for hiring a successor if I was going to keep him.

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