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The Garrett to McCarthy timeline goes back farther than you might think

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Clues and outright hints were there for quite some time.

Green Bay Packers vs. Dallas Cowboys Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

If you spend as much time tracking the information flowing about the Dallas Cowboys as I do, and then seeing how the fans and media react, you risk a certain injury. It is commonly known as whiplash. The move to replace head coach Jason Garrett with former Green Bay Packers headman Mike McCarthy was clearly one of those things. For a week, clothes were being rent and teeth gnashed over the lack of a clear resolution to the former’s status. That finally came in a totally coincidental and not at all intended to steal thunder announcement during the Philadelphia Eagles’ loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Then only about sixteen hours later, news broke that McCarthy was the new guy, and the fresh topic was questioning why the Cowboys moved so fast with so little investigation of the options.

Well, this was not nearly as sudden or precipitous a hire as it might first appear. Things were set in motion for moving on from Garrett, albeit tentatively, months ago. And some now-obvious clues were dropped along the way that McCarthy was campaigning for the job, and the Cowboys were just as interested as he was. Here is a review some key events as this went down.

Putting Garrett on notice

The first harbinger of the end of Garrett’s time in Dallas came during the offseason. It was not something that Jerry and Stephen Jones did. It was what they declined to do, namely negotiate an extension with Garrett. 2018 was actually a good year for him. He led the Cowboys on a 7-1 run to end the season, win the NFC East, and make the playoffs, then got his second postseason win in the wildcard round. It was a nice way to wrap up the season.

But there were some warning signs as well. Those seemed to loom large for ownership. Namely, the team started out 3-5, forcing the big charge in the second half of the season. The Cowboys also stalled out in the divisional round. Further, the team had a dismal 2017. The Jones family elected to make the final year of Garrett’s contract a “prove-it” proposition. It turned out to be a wise move, although there is an argument to be made that they might have undercut his authority a bit by doing so. In any case, he did not get the job done. There was also the additional aspect that no firing was required. All that had to happen to move on was just not offer him a new deal. It is likely that Garrett knew he was done as soon as the season was over. For whatever reason, it also seems clear that the plan was to not announce his departure until his replacement was lined up. We may not like that way of doing things, but we don’t own the franchise.

The turning point

Some of the points made here rely on induction and some outright speculation, and this is clearly one. But I think it is not at all unreasonable.

After the season got off to a very promising start with three pretty strong wins, the Cowboys faltered a bit against the New Orleans Saints and Packers. However, those were eventual playoff teams. Further, there were clear arguments to be made that the Cowboys did themselves in through their own mistakes. Clean those up, and the season could easily be righted.

Then came the outright debacle against the New York Jets. Suddenly the team was in real trouble. That game was likely when the attitude shifted towards Garrett, and the real doubts about his future set in with his bosses. He still had plenty of opportunities to recover, but as we now know, he fumbled things away. Blame can certainly be shared by the rest of the staff and the players, but by this time, Garrett had gotten more rope than most head coaches do when things go badly. That Jets loss was probably the point when letting Garrett go moved from possible to probable.

The McCarthy campaign

Meanwhile, the soon-to-be head coach of the Cowboys was already hard at work, doing all he could to make himself more attractive to potential employers. It was a flat-out slick and savvy operation.

There may have been a bit of targeting on McCarthy’s part. At one point in his interviews, he used a Kellen Moore play to illustrate what he likes in an offense. That seems like a deliberate attempt to get a message across, and it looks like it worked.

Defining the search

During this time, the Cowboys were not being silent. Come on, this is Jerry Jones’ team. Of course he had some things to say.

One thing that goes back even further than the last offseason was the belief that the Cowboys were enamored of Lincoln Riley at the University of Oklahoma. He has long been thought to be the most likely replacement for Garrett. That includes the “sharps” in Vegas, who put up these odds shortly after the announcement that Garrett was not coming back.

You’ll notice that Urban Meyer was seen as even odds with McCarthy. Meyer notoriously stated he would be interested in the Dallas job in an interview during the season. That seemed as much a loaded question to generate attention as anything, but it clearly inserted him in the conversation, and Matt Rhule was another name linked with the Cowboys, among other teams.

There were also several “hot” NFL assistants listed, and all had their proponents. But Jerry was telling us all something rather different.

That was one of the clearest signposts for where things were headed.

The crunch

Despite the struggles all season, the Cowboys still had a chance to make the playoffs headed into week 16. They certainly had flashed some potential, and the week 15 win over the Los Angeles Rams was the most hopeful sign of the year. Just get into the postseason, and Garrett could still earn a new deal with a deep run.

Then came the Eagles loss. It set up the elimination of Dallas in week 17, and Garrett’s fate was sealed. It probably was when the behind the scenes work at finding a new head coach kicked into high gear, because it made it clear that something was truly broken about the team, and the indications increasingly pointed right at the head coach.

The weird week that was

That brought us to the strange case of Jason Garrett’s departure, where just about everyone was convinced he was no longer the head coach, but he kept showing up for work and having end-of-the-season interviews with his staff and players. Concern started to grow that the Cowboys were going to just sit idle while the best candidates got snapped up. That just got worse when Washington moved quickly to sign Ron Rivera. Perhaps people should have kept in mind that they had fired Jay Gruden midseason and had been free to research and interview in a way that the Cowboys couldn’t.

But things got more tense when McCarthy started interviewing with other teams. Literally all the other teams with a head coach opening. Although many did not have him as the best option for Dallas, the fact all the other teams were sitting down with what was now the de facto hottest available option led to its own angst.

Then, with Garrett still not clearly having been shown the door, the Cowboys jumped into interviewing. They began by bringing in Marvin Lewis, which was generally met with groans, but... Rooney Rule? Next came the interview with McCarthy. They both happened on Saturday. For McCarthy, it didn’t stop then. As has been since reported, he remained in Dallas. As a matter of fact, he apparently slept in Jerry Jones’ house - and no doubt continued discussions that would go on into Sunday.

Then came the thunder-stealing announcement that Garrett was indeed gone. Connecting the dots, it is clear that an offer had been made to McCarthy, and accepted, by that point.

It is also pretty obvious that the owners weren’t sitting on their hands for the week between the end of the season and making Garrett’s departure official. There were probably extensive talks going on behind the scenes with McCarthy’s people. The evidence is that McCarthy was their number one target all along, and the job was his to lose when he came to interview. He clearly did the exact opposite.

His hire surprised many, but it really shouldn’t have. During that strange week, my podcast leader Micheal Sisemore and I did a three-part series of articles about the candidates the Cowboys should be looking at. And guess who we had first up? Here’s what we said about him.

Why it makes sense: The Cowboys haven’t sniffed the NFC Championship game in the last quarter of a century. Mike McCarthy had four NFC Championship appearances with the Packers and won a championship in 2010. If the Joneses believe this Cowboys roster is as strong in talent as many of the media experts believe it is, this might be the move to make. Mike McCarthy is skilled in offensive strategy and concepts but he also has the tangible success the Cowboys desperately crave.

Concerns: The way it ended in Green Bay was messy for Mike McCarthy. His relationship with future Hall-of-Fame QB Aaron Rodgers completely deteriorated. McCarthy ended two straight years with a .406 winning percentage. Is the current Mike McCarthy a major upgrade from Jason Garrett? Both guys have been criticized for lacking creativity and being rigid in their philosophies though reports suggest McCarthy has been working hard to change that narrative. Would he be able to step in and demand more of the players in the Cowboys’ locker room? Will he be able to unleash the full capability of his personnel instead of pigeon-hole their skill sets? These are all valid concerns about Mike McCarthy to consider for Jerry Jones.

Tom’s take: I am increasingly intrigued by McCarthy. If that year of prep is legit, it is a big plus, but not the biggest. First, he has that skin on his wall, so he knows how to build a winning culture. Second, he has the chops to stand up to Jerry and Stephen Jones. That could be a roadblock, of course, as I don’t think McCarthy is going to want a situation where some assistants are forced on him, and we know that has happened before in Dallas. If he were to come in with his staff (which could still include a holdover or two), I think things could go very well. He may be seen as a safe choice, but he might also be the best one at the same time. At the absolute least, he should be a due diligence interview.

I’ve had my share of misses, but this is one case where I am going to claim a hit. I have been talking up McCarthy for several weeks. Now he is the head coach, and we will find out just how good or bad the hire was.

But it was anything but a last minute thing for Dallas. It was months in the making.