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Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy deserves recognition for what he has done

Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is getting disrespected in some quarters, but he shouldn't.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys
You’d smile, too, if you were him.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

News broke earlier this week that the Jacksonville Jaguars are seeking interviews with Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn for their head coaching job. They are not likely to be the only team, since the requests are under the new rules allowing teams who have already fired their head coach to get a jump on the process. Others will undoubtedly come calling after the regular season ends and Black Monday rolls around. Understandably, many fans of the team are not happy about the thought of losing either given how well the season has gone. Moore flexed a lot in the beatdown of the Washington Football Team, allaying, at least for now, concerns about the course of the offense. All Quinn has done is engineer one of the biggest turnarounds in memory for a defense that could barely get off the field a year ago. In seeking to keep one of them around, some have proposed that Jerry Jones should move on from Mike McCarthy and promote one of the pair to head coach.

That would be a serious mistake.

Rationally, Mike McCarthy should be squarely in the coach of the year conversation for taking a team that went 6-10 last season to an 11-4 record, the NFC East crown, and contention for the number one seed. Yet many still think he is a problem.

Mostly that is because of how badly things went last season. Some things, like the ineptitude of Mike Nolan, fall on his shoulders. Nolan was his choice for defensive coordinator, and it was a disaster. Other things were not his fault, such as the loss of the entire offseason program and a limited preseason, or the season ending injuries to Dak Prescott and other key players during the course of the year. Some say all he has really done is benefit from a much healthier roster and what turned out to be a relatively weak slate of opponents, including an NFC East that the Cowboys are one win away from sweeping. Compounding this is that McCarthy has clearly taken the CEO route in his approach to the staff, letting Moore, Quinn, and John Fassel handle the duties for their units.

We discussed the idea of Mike McCarthy deserving more credit on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our podcat network so you don’t miss any of our shows. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

But those things are not really reasons to dismiss his value. A head coach is ultimately responsible for the performance of the entire team and staff. Some in the league will retain play-calling and game-planning responsibilities for one side of the ball. It is hardly a sure path to success. With Moore, McCarthy made the decision when he was hired to retain the offensive coordinator and leave play-calling to him. Given the head coach’s past history, this was a departure from how he had operated while running the show with the Green Bay Packers and a real move from his comfort zone. So far, that is paying off, despite the unease during the struggles the team had through November and even the first three games of the current winning streak. The shredding of the Washington defense on Sunday night was persuasive evidence that those issues were solvable, and Dallas appears to be hitting their stride offensively at exactly the right time. Fassel was also his hire, and given that the special teams has tied a franchise record for blocked punts and set one for scoring touchdowns on them, he has certainly paid off. He actually created a turnaround with STs last season that was similar to what Quinn has done this year. It just was overshadowed by all the other problems faced by the team.

The initial hire of Nolan was a huge error, but not all head coaches would have been so swift and decisive in taking the corrective step. Quinn’s hire created some doubts at the time, since his defense had fallen off so much in his last few seasons as head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Those doubts look ridiculous now. Part of that is how Quinn, like McCarthy, seems to have really changed his approach. He may be the best coach at any level in fitting his scheme and play-calling to the talent on hand. It certainly helps to have such a surfeit of top-tier players on his defense. DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, and Randy Gregory have all been playing superbly, and Parsons and Diggs both are worthy of consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. The Defensive Rookie of the Year award has been conceded to Parsons, who has already set franchise records and is threatening some at the league level. But Quinn also has gotten much more than most expected from players like Jayron Kearse, Leighton Vander Esch, and Anthony Brown. He does an outstanding job of putting his players in a position to thrive. It took a departure from how he had been conducting things in Atlanta, and you have to wonder about just how much input to that McCarthy had. It may have been significant, or at least influenced by how McCarthy had done the same.

Give Quinn due credit for his accomplishments, but don’t forget that McCarthy was the one who brought him on board. That ties in to the head coach embracing the role of manager of his staff while turning a lot over to his coordinators.

Part of the lack of recognition for what McCarthy does is rooted in a misperception of the main job. Like all head coaches, McCarthy makes mistakes in his game day duties, like clock management and challenges. But that is such a small part of what he is tasked to do. The real work of the head coach, and his entire staff, happens in the six days between games most weeks. Preparing the team is something that we only get glimpses of.

The one time it can really be witnessed is during the open practices of training camp. I attended three of those in Oxnard last summer, and there was absolutely no doubt who was in charge. McCarthy was directing every aspect of practice, which was something he also planned out in advance. His was the loudest voice on the field, and every ear was listening, whether it belonged to a staff member or a player. He ran the practices and the team, and it is an obvious conclusion that the practices during the season are run the same way.

NFL games are often won or lost through preparation. Many would argue with justification that is the case for almost all. True, you have to have the talent on the roster to carry through. But we suffered through multiple seasons before McCarthy came to town when very talented rosters were squandered. That was happening long before Jason Garrett, too, although 2014 and 2016 were cases under him. Some point to 2009, under Wade Phillips, as one of the most obvious examples.

But building the roster also is part of the head coach’s job. He has to lay out what kind of players he wants in partnership with his coordinators. And he has to trust his staff with finding the best value. The Cowboys have long focused on the draft, and under McCarthy, they have had a couple of outstanding ones. The last two years have seen CeeDee Lamb, Diggs, Neville Gallimore, Tyler Biadasz, Parsons, and Osa Odighizuwa earn starting roles, and Kelvin Joseph showed great promise in his first start against the Football Team. Chauncey Golston has become a nice rotational defensive end and added the punt block touchdown recovery to his resume last game. McCarthy has not made the mistake of trying to take too much control of the process. With Will McClay heading up the scouting department, that is clearly the wise choice.

Further, McCarthy seems to be expertly navigating the unique ownership/general manager situation in Dallas. Jerry Jones puts a bigger stamp on his team than any other owner in the league. Not every head coach can reel in his ego enough to make things work. McCarthy manages to get his job done without butting heads with his boss, or if he does, it is resolved with a minimum of drama and great success so far this year. That is clearly something head coaches fail at every season. It is an underappreciated aspect of the job McCarthy does.

We still have to see how far the Cowboys will go in the playoffs. If they do not make it all the way to Los Angles for the Super Bowl, the criticisms of McCarthy will rise again. There is a certain irony in that, because it will attribute the responsibility for failure to him. If someone criticizes him for that, how can you fail to attribute any success the team has to him as well? Sadly, this is an all or nothing league, and only the coach who ultimately gets to hoist the Lombardi Trophy is seen as truly accomplishing anything. There are reasons to have high hopes for this year’s edition of the team. That just makes any failure more bitter. However, just getting to the point of having such expectations is due in large part to the head coach. For that, Mike McCarthy deserves respect.