Well, never a dull moment with the Dallas Cowboys. Mike McCarthy will be the ninth head coach in team history. His task will be to do what none of the previous six head coaches could: win a Super Bowl.
While most speculation the past few weeks focused on big-name college coaches such as Urban Meyer and Lincoln Riley, Jerry Jones surprised pretty much everyone by quickly tapping the former Green Bay Packer and Super Bowl champion. This isn’t a bold or sexy decision. Many claim McCarthy is simply another Jason Garrett who rode the tails of a Hall of Fame quarterback. Like all things, it’s more complicated than that.
Only time will tell us if this is the right decision, but there’s good reasons to both like - and dislike - McCarthy as the next Cowboys head coach. In this article, we’ll start with what there is to like. In another follow-up article, we’ll look at things to dislike about the hire.
Proven NFL winner
The fraternity of Super Bowl winning NFL coaches is a small group. In fact only 33 men have led teams that eventually hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy. Mike McCarthy is one of those 33. He’s also the only one of those 33 who was both available and has been involved in the game recently. In many ways, that makes him the best possible hire.
McCarthy won’t have a “learning curve” or need to adjust to the professional game, the way Meyer or Riley might have. He also isn’t taking the head coaching reins for the first time the way a hotshot coordinator would be. This means the floor should be high, which wouldn’t necessarily be true with most of the other names that were being bounced around.
Jerry Jones, the Cowboys and fans are all in win-now mode and thus hiring a proven winner such as McCarthy makes a lot of sense. It’s a conservative choice, which is why many were surprised. But it’s also in keeping with the way this team has operated for most of the last decade. Jerry the wild gambler is a thing of the past.
Now, some have claimed (ahem) that McCarthy doesn’t deserve credit for the Packers’ Super Bowl win or the run of success the team enjoyed during his 13-year tenure. They point to future first ballot Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers and say the Packers actually underachieved and should have won/accomplished more.
That’s an interesting observation. But it’s also interesting that such observations are largely absent when it comes to other Super Bowl winning coaches such as Sean Payton and Mike Tomlin. Why bring those two up in comparison to McCarthy? Because the résumés of all three are strikingly similar:
The three have each enjoyed having a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback playing in his prime. And each have virtually identical tenures and results:
- 13 seasons
- 1 Super Bowl victory each
- Identical or nearly identical win percentages in both the regular and post-season
The only real difference is McCarthy has two more playoff victories. Now, if the Cowboys had somehow brought Sean Payton to The Star the fanbase would be ecstatic; Payton is widely regarded as one of the best offensive minds in the league.
But when it comes to results, he’s been no better than McCarthy despite having Drew Brees pretty much every game of his career. So, if you’re going to dismiss McCarthy’s accomplishments, then you should do the same for Payton and Tomlin because, results-wise, they’re identical.
Say goodbye to punting from the opponent’s 45-yard line.
Jason Garrett was a hyper-conservative coach and this was most evident when it came to fourth-down decision-making. Garrett’s overall numbers rank in the bottom five of the league during his tenure. While he did go for it quite a few times in significant 4th-and-1 situations, he had no heart to go for it beyond that distance unless in desperation mode.
Jason Garrett faced 413 fourth downs beyond the Cowboys 40-yard line needing three or more yards. He went for it exactly 25 times:
That seems bad on the face of it but it gets worse. Of those 25 “go for it” decisions, every one would be called “desperation” decisions where not going for it was out of the question. These are the 25 instances when Garrett went for it and the Cowboys trailed in every instance. In all but six instances, there were less than 2:18 remaining in the game:
That means that not once in his entire 10-year run did Garrett go for it in a non-desperation situation when needing as much as three yards. In 125 instances the team needed between 3-5 yards. In 44 instances he chose to punt. Among those 44 instances were 26 times where the Cowboys were in opponent’s territory and he bypassed a 4th-and-5 or less to punt:
Not included in the list above was Garrett’s 2018 decision to punt on 4th-and-2 from the Houston Texans 42-yard-line in overtime.
The sheer consistency and robot-like decision-making by Garrett in these situations was void of logic. But it also showed a complete unwillingness to adapt or reevaluate.
Overall, McCarthy was more aggressive than Garrett but not particularly aggressive. During the same time-frame McCarthy’s team’s went four it 14 times (out of 61 opportunities). That’s not as aggressive as you’d like but it shows a willingness to actually consider the option.
Now, I expect McCarthy to be significantly more aggressive as Cowboys’head coach. Why? Point number three to like his hiring:
Much has been made of McCarthy’s one-year sabbatical where he hunkered in his 21st-century “barn” and studied football with a group of other out-of-work coaches. One of the things that came from those film sessions was an aggressive embrace of analytics. In fact, McCarthy has a very strong vision about how he’d create an analytics group:
There’s a flow chart for his proposed 14-person Football Technology Department, including a six-person video unit and an eight-person analytics team. The Chief of Football Technology tops the department, which will run both video and analytics. The top analytics lieutenants will be a Coordinator of Database Management, Coordinator of Football Analytics and Coordinator of Mathematical Innovation. Below them: Football Technology Engineer and two Football Technology Analysts. And finally, a Football Technology Intern. McCarthy spent a day last summer at Pro Football Focus offices in Cincinnati, discovering how much more data is available than he realized. PFF data will be a key component of his analytics tree, as will GPS tracking of players and Next Gen Stats.
If there’s one thing the analytics show it is Jason Garrett’s thinking in regards to fourth down is a losing strategy and teams should be much, much more aggressive. If McCarthy means what he says about analytics then we should be seeing a Cowboys team routinely going for it around midfield when needing seven yards or less and sometimes needing more yards. It also means eschewing field goals for fourth-down attempts closer to the end zone. In short, we should expect the exact opposite of what Jason Garrett has been giving us for ten years and that’s a very good thing.
But the embrace of analytics should go beyond that. It should shape game plans and in-game decision-making in myriad ways. The Cowboys supposedly already have a strong analytics group when it comes to player acquisition and roster-building. But for whatever reason they “don’t use those stats within the game”.
Understand that’s a weakness. Analytics are coming to the NFL just like they have to Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. Whether you like the results they’ve brought to those games or not, the reality is they’ve been embraced because the findings are indisputable (a three-point shot is more valuable than a two-point shot; a stolen base attempt usually isn’t worth it; punting on fourth-and-4 from your opponent’s 48 decreases your chance of winning).
The Baltimore Ravens benefited in 2019 by being on the right side of the analytics movement. More teams will benefit next year and in a few short years if you’re on the wrong side of it you’re team will be at a decided disadvantage.
McCarthy’s full-throated embrace of these ideas indicates the Cowboys could avoid that fate.
Willingness to learn
McCarthy’s year-long reset also illustrates he’s willing to look at himself and change. At least it seems that way. From the same Football Morning in America article:
Why didn’t you get more than one Super Bowl out of Aaron Rodgers? Did you get stale? So I asked it.
“I think [getting stale] is a convenient criticism,” he said, sitting in his office on a 6-degree Wisconsin afternoon. “I don’t agree with it, but like with anything when you are criticized, you need to shed a light on it and look at it. I think this time with the other coaches has given me that opportunity, and you have to be honest. We got away from motion and shifts and multiple personnel groups that we used in the past, so you look at the why . . . and quite frankly you apply it to the next opportunity.”
Taken at face value that illustrates McCarthy recognizes he had perhaps gotten stale. Now, it’s easy to say you’ve learned and you’ll get better but in this case actions will speak much louder. We’ve yet to see a Mike McCarthy offense in action and until we do these will be words only.
But if we’re to believe the McCarthy effort to convince anyone who will listen that he’s a changed man he sure better show it. The first test is likely to be deciding who his offensive coordinator will be. If he brings back Kellen Moore - who designed and called plays for the NFL’s second best offense based upon DVOA - that’s a good sign he’s willing to adapt. If he brings in an old cronie from his past gigs well, that’s not a good sign.
Soon, we’ll post our four reasons to dislike the hiring of Mike McCarthy.