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The philosophical connection between Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore

Despite a 24-year age-difference, McCarthy and Moore are more similar than you’d think

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Handout photo

Through his 13 seasons as the Packers head coach, Mike McCarthy called offensive plays for all but one season. That was in 2015, and McCarthy quickly took back play-calling duties after the year, claiming he’d never do that again. But McCarthy’s Packers teams never had Kellen Moore, who will be calling plays in 2020.

Moore is still in charge of what plays are called and run, and he’ll presumably have more autonomy over the offense than he did under the previous head coach. McCarthy and Moore have both commented about how they’ve spent the offseason working to synthesize Moore’s highly-efficient offense from last year with McCarthy’s offense.

At first glance, this might seem like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Moore’s motion-heavy offense operated within Jason Garrett’s Air Coryell philosophy, which places an emphasis on vertical shots in the passing game centered around a strong run game. McCarthy, on the other hand, has run a variant of the West Coast offense that features short, quick passes and not much focus on running the ball.

But the reality is that these two coaches share a very deeply-rooted philosophical link that goes back decades. Understanding where their offensive philosophies come from sheds light on how this pairing could actually be the perfect situation for Dallas.

First, let’s look at Moore’s background. The 2020 season will only be Moore’s third year as a coach, and it’ll be the first time in his coaching career that his job title hasn’t changed. But Moore primarily came up in the offensive philosophy he played in at Boise State, and that largely influenced the offense he used last year in Dallas.

At Boise State, the offense was run by head coach Chris Petersen, who helped turn the Broncos into a Group of Five powerhouse. Petersen’s own football background is fascinating. He received an introduction to the West Coast offense in his one year as quarterbacks coach for the Pitt Panthers in 1992 before later coaching receivers at Oregon for six seasons.

While at Oregon, Petersen was learning directly under head coach Mike Bellotti, whose frenetic, speedy spread offense was the foundation for what Chip Kelly later built off of to become a household name. From Oregon, Petersen was hired as the offensive coordinator at Boise State under Dan Hawkins. An offensive mind himself, Hawkins introduced Petersen to what is known as the fly offense, which was built around incorporating the jet sweep concept on nearly every play.

Petersen essentially made a hodgepodge amalgam of the West Coast offense, Bellotti’s quick spread offense, and the fly offense to create an offense that could line up in a wide variety of different formations and utilize pre-snap motion at a high frequency to effectively change formations on the fly. He incorporated the simple terminology of the Erhardt-Perkins system to make it easier for players to digest, focusing on calling plays by concepts instead of specific routes for each player.

Petersen’s multiple offense started winning lots of games for Boise State, and when Hawkins left for the head coaching gig at Colorado, Petersen ascended to head coach, where he went 92-12 before leaving for the Washington Huskies to go 55-26 in six seasons.

But let’s go back to that 1992 Pitt Panthers team, where Petersen got an introduction to the West Coast offense. The head coach was Paul Hackett, who coincidentally had been the Cowboys’ de facto offensive coordinator from 1986-1988 under Tom Landry. Prior to his stop in Dallas, Hackett had coached quarterbacks and receivers for the 49ers, serving as a top lieutenant to the innovator of the West Coast offense himself, Bill Walsh.

Naturally, Hackett brought Walsh’s West Coast to the Panthers, and although he didn’t see much success as the head coach, he did effectively create a Bill Walsh University for his brief time in Pittsburgh. It helped Petersen in his philosophical developments, and it helped others as well. One coach it helped dramatically was the wide receivers coach on that 1992 Panthers team, a man named Michael McCarthy. Yes, that Michael McCarthy.

A native of Pittsburgh, McCarthy had been a graduate assistant for the Panthers the previous three seasons, all with Hackett at the helm of the offense, before being elevated to wide receivers coach in 1992. It was only the second place McCarthy had coached at, and it’s where he formed the backbone of his offensive philosophy. The next year, 1993, McCarthy made the jump to the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs after they hired Hackett as their new offensive coordinator.

McCarthy left the Chiefs for one year as the Packers quarterbacks coach in 1999 before becoming an offensive coordinator for Jim Haslett’s Saints and, for one year, Mike Nolan’s 49ers. Then came his tenure as the Packers head coach. McCarthy spent the 90’s studying under one of Bill Walsh’s closest disciples, and then spent the entire 21st century - until the 2018 season - putting those lessons into practice on the football field.

But it all began in Pittsburgh, working alongside Petersen, whose greatest quarterback went on to become the new offensive coordinator working for McCarthy. Also worth pointing out is that the running backs coach for that 1992 Panthers team, Skip Peete, is now coaching running backs for the Cowboys. It’s fascinating how small the NFL world can be.

This all bodes very well for the 2020 Cowboys. While Moore was working within the framework of Garrett’s Air Coryell last season, he’s now able to revert back to the more pure version of Petersen’s Boise State offense, which shares a good degree of similarity with McCarthy’s own philosophical roots. The two coaches should prove to be very harmonious, which will yield very good results on Sundays.