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Can Mike McCarthy really follow in Andy Reid’s footsteps?

Both are highly accomplished offensive coaches, but can McCarthy reach the mountaintop Reid just did?

NFL: Preseason-Green Bay Packers at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Coaches like Mike McCarthy don’t become available very often. When you pile up 125 regular season wins, eight consecutive postseason appearances, ten playoff wins, and a Lombardi Trophy, you’re usually guaranteed lifetime job security.

But McCarthy found himself unemployed sooner than most thought. After spending 2019 away from the sidelines while growing as a coach, McCarthy landed with America’s Team. It’s not often that someone like McCarthy ends up coaching for a new team, so people naturally began to compare him to the most recent high-profile coach to get fired and find a new team: Andy Reid.

Cowboys fans know firsthand just how good Reid had been. With 130 regular season wins, nine different postseason berths (including the last time any team has won the NFC East in consecutive seasons), ten playoff wins, and a heartbreaking, close Super Bowl loss, Reid had become a legend in Philadelphia. But like McCarthy, Reid’s good will evaporated in a short amount of time.

After some head-scratching decisions, including the move to make his offensive line coach the new defensive coordinator, Reid’s Eagles finished 8-8 in 2011 before tumbling to 4-12 the following year. It was the first time in seven seasons Reid had finished with a losing record, and was also the first time in Reid’s tenure in Philadelphia that the team missed the playoffs in consecutive years.

That was enough for Philadelphia; while they didn’t fire Reid, who had an expiring contract, they didn’t bring him back either. Reid, one of the most successful head coaches in the NFL at the time, was suddenly a free agent. He eventually chose the Kansas City Chiefs, who had just moved on from Romeo Crennel, a former interim head coach that ownership had decided to hold onto at one point. Seven years later and Reid is the reigning Super Bowl champion and he has yet to post a losing record in Kansas City.

Those are the expectations for McCarthy in Dallas, except without having to wait a full seven years to reach that peak. Part of that is because of the standard Reid has set, and part of it is because Cowboys fans (and ownership) expect a ring every year. But it’s also due to the fact that McCarthy inherits a much better roster than Reid did back in 2013.

The first question facing Reid when he arrived in Kansas City was the quarterback position. Reid had fielded some impressive offenses with Donovan McNabb in Philly, but the Chiefs team he was taking over had just spent a year waffling between Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn under center. Quinn left in free agency and the team released Cassel after trading for veteran Alex Smith from the 49ers.

Reid also had to find a worthy defensive coordinator after how things had gone down his final two years in Philly. Reid selected Bob Sutton, the linebackers coach from the New York Jets. Sutton had been with the Jets for 13 seasons - coincidentally, his first season came under then-defensive coordinator Mike Nolan - after spending nine seasons as the head coach for Army. He offered Reid an experienced football lifer who could manage the defense while Reid focused on Smith and the offense.

Smith was a really good fit for Reid’s West Coast offense. His high football IQ and quick passing skills lent themselves well to the offensive philosophy, and while his mobility was never a calling card for Smith, it was an additional weapon to be used when necessary. Smith averaged around 3,500 passing yards a year with around 20 touchdowns and never more than eight picks. Smith was an effective starter who never cost them games but rarely gave the impression of being the guy keeping everything moving either.

But Reid wanted more. That’s why Reid and the Chiefs made the aggressive move to trade up in the 2017 NFL Draft and take Patrick Mahomes tenth overall. Mahomes sat behind Smith for a year, and the production he’s put up since then is beyond words. Over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns his first year rightly earned him the MVP award, and while his numbers “regressed” in 2019, he still earned the Super Bowl MVP trophy, and was a big part of getting Reid’s Chiefs over the hump.

In Dallas, McCarthy is already close to where Reid was in 2018. He has Nolan - an experienced football lifer - as his defensive coordinator; more than that, McCarthy has Kellen Moore, an offensive coordinator so good that he trusts him to call plays himself. And McCarthy won’t have to go through the Alex Smith period either. Although, ironically enough, McCarthy was Smith’s first NFL offensive coordinator back when Nolan was the 49ers’ head coach.

Dak Prescott may not be as good as Mahomes, but that says more about the Chiefs quarterback than it does McCarthy’s new signal-caller. Prescott was on his way towards a Mahomes-esque MVP season last year before a hand injury slowed him down. Still, Prescott broke records for passing yards and touchdowns, showcasing his ability to be more than just an Alex Smith-caliber player. And while everyone raves about Mahomes’ jaw-dropping throws, Prescott has shown he’s capable of some highlight dimes as well. Not to mention that Prescott is apparently one of Mahomes’ inspirations.

Few will argue that McCarthy isn’t inheriting a better team than Reid got when he arrived in Kansas City. After all, he’s getting the second-most efficient offense from last year and a middle of the pack defense that was better than you remember in terms of points allowed.

Reid took over a team that finished dead last in the NFL with just two wins, while finishing last or close to last in every statistical category. ESPN later labeled that season as the worst in franchise history.

The 2019 Cowboys, on the other hand, were talented but ultimately stumbled. They went 1-6 in games decided by one score, led the league in dropped passes, and had the worst special teams unit until new kicker Kai Forbath “improved” the group to only third worst.

McCarthy has less ground to make up than Reid did, although starting his first year in the midst of a global pandemic that’s severely shortened the offseason is enough of a curveball for anyone. Still, the pieces are very much in place for the seasoned coaching veteran to follow in Reid’s footsteps and bring America’s Team back to the promised land.

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