When Mike McCarthy was hired to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he knew he had challenges facing him. There were standard ones like establishing his own culture with the team. Some things, like the state of the roster, were probably a bit less daunting than they would have been at some other destinations. But he, and everyone else, had no idea of the unprecedented and daunting issues that were about to be imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hopefully, the NFL will remain on schedule to open training camps and finally give the staffs a chance to work with their players. But so much of the normal offseason work has been lost. While the change at head coach became a necessity after the disappointing results of last year, coupled with the long-term lack of success under Jason Garrett, it became the worst time to have to bring in a new coaching staff. They were immediately hamstrung as the current climate left them with only virtual work to try and accomplish the establishment of a new approach while integrating this year’s group of new faces.
That would seem to put the Cowboys and the four other teams with new head coaches at a competitive disadvantage. Continuity may have some added benefits this year for the rest of the league. However, that may not be a totally unambiguous advantage. It is logical that not all teams that have the same head coach and a more or less intact staff from last season are actually headed in the right direction. For instance, there are teams that continue to emphasize “balanced” offenses or even a run-first approach, despite a plethora of data indicating that is not a good path to success. All indications are that McCarthy’s brand is to rely on the passing game, which is what data and analytics tell us is the correct approach. That includes his retention of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and the much-celebrated selection of CeeDee Lamb with the 17th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. That would definitely be a major change from Garrett, who loved him some first down handoffs.
Where McCarthy has a possible very real advantage is his experience. He has the sixth best career winning percentage among current head coaches with a minimum of 50 wins, plus that Super Bowl ring and three other NFCC appearances in nine trips to the playoffs. It is that level of success that Jerry Jones was likely going after with the hire.
More importantly, that success should translate to a high degree of confidence among his players. When he tells them he knows how to get to the top, they know he isn’t blowing smoke. Further, his twelve years as head coach in his time with the Green Bay Packers means he will have a plan for when camp opens. Given that all teams are in uncharted territory this year, that may make things a bit more even.
It is certainly going to be a very different camp for every team than any they have known. That is where McCarthy’s unique year off to self scout and study might pay some unexpected dividends. All the evidence points to him having some new insights and ideas as a result to add to his body of experience. That should make him more nimble in the necessary adjustments and on-the-fly corrections that all coaches are going to have to make. If nothing else, he should be a bit less wedded to old ways and more open to innovation and new solutions.
That is not to paint too rosy a picture. McCarthy still faces all the difficulties of a first-year head coach with a mostly new staff. He has reduced the issues on offense with Moore, but Mike Nolan and his defensive staff still have a lot of work to do as they incorporate more significant changes, and John Fassel may have an even bigger task trying to forge an effective special teams unit. What is certain is that the weight of all this is going to be a heavy one.
The point is that McCarthy is better suited to carry the load than most. While the effects of the pandemic were completely unforeseen when he was hired, the reasons he got the nod also make him about as good an option to make things work as can be imagined. Many were wanting the Cowboys to dip into the college ranks for their new head man, but this would seem to be a worst case scenario to have to rely on a coach that has no NFL experience. Even a former NFL assistant coach would have been less well equipped, having never had to oversee the entire process of camp.
Those other new head coaches may have good success, and of course Ron Rivera brings some of the same depth of experience to his new job in Washington. All things considered, though, McCarthy seems to be a nearly ideal choice to lead Dallas through these uncertain times.
We just have to hope it all works out.