Mike McCarthy’s debut season with the Dallas Cowboys was bitterly disappointing. Of course the multiple injuries, particularly to offensive starters, was major, but second to that was the frequently putrid performance of the defense. It led to the decision to not keep Mike Nolan. He may have been a bit of a scapegoat, but there is little disagreement about him failing in multiple ways. Now Dan Quinn has been brought in as the new defensive coordinator. His success or failure will not only be a big factor in the success of the team this year, it will be the primary determinant of how long McCarthy hangs onto his own job.
While the head coach avoided becoming part of an even bigger housecleaning after 2020, he still carries the weight of hiring Nolan in the first place. Jerry and Stephen Jones have the final say on things, but they have long had a more collaborative approach to running the team than many acknowledge. The original staff was mostly based on what McCarthy wanted, and presumably Quinn’s hire is the same. If the defense once again goes through a near collapse, it may be impossible for McCarthy to convince his bosses that he can do the job.
McCarthy was less of a hands-on head coach than a manager of his assistants. The key evidence for this is Kellen Moore. While there had to be some influence from ownership about retaining Moore as the offensive coordinator, the new head coach always professed to being completely in accord about the retention. McCarthy followed through by being very hands-off about play-calling. Presumably that reflects his involvement in the meetings between games as well. It worked, despite the ten losses. Dak Prescott was tearing up the field before his injury, the wide receivers still had very strong seasons despite the backups that tried to fill in at quarterback, and by the end of the year they even put together some decent performances behind an extremely patchwork offensive line. McCarthy is an offense-minded coach, so this had to have been a deliberate decision for him. It was probably also mindful of the Jones family’s high regard of Moore, but nothing from last year’s debacle should motivate McCarthy to get more involved in Moore’s responsibilities.
When he is that kind of “walk-around” leader, the biggest decision for the head coach is finding his three coordinators. While McCarthy clearly failed with Nolan, he did have one real success. John Fassel was his choice to handle special teams, and his first season was a marked improvement over the previous few years. I have been paying particular attention to how the return game, going both ways, affected the team since 2018. Prior to Fassel’s arrival, the Cowboys were repeatedly in a hole in what has been termed “hidden yardage,” something that Bill Parcells referred to. It means how far away from the end zone teams start their possessions compared to the opponent. When I first started looking at that on a weekly basis, Dallas sucked, to be both blunt and very accurate. They were starting far too many drives with 75 yards or more to go, while their coverage allowed the other team to be closer in almost all games. Fassel really turned that around. The Cowboys were frequently in the plus last season, and that was more due to stopping returns than their own prowess running it back. This is an area where coaching is more a driver than talent, because the ST players are mostly down-roster players. Success comes from the coaches getting them trained to do their job and making sure they do so.
McCarthy deserves credit for bringing Fassel on board and supporting him. It was unfortunately neither as impactful, or observable, as what was going on with the defense. Now he has a second chance with Quinn. Having a much more typical offseason certainly will help things, as will the massive infusion of both free agent and rookie talent on that side of the ball, but it is the results in games this fall that will render the judgment.
Between the obvious talent on offense and a hoped-for regression to the mean with injuries and turnovers, Moore should provide the production to help McCarthy. Fassel should also continue to assist his head coach. Quinn has by far the biggest challenge of anyone on the staff, and the most work to do.
If our assumptions about the offense are at all correct, even just getting Dallas to around average levels of effectiveness for an NFL team should get the team to the playoffs and assure that McCarthy will be back for at least another year. Real progress in the postseason, which an appearance in the NFCCG would likely represent, would even buy McCarthy some extra leeway. The credit will rightly fall mostly on Quinn, but it would be a strong argument that the head coach was able to realize his mistakes and effectively correct them.
However, if it does not go well defensively, it will absolutely blow back on McCarthy. It doesn’t matter if the defense should undergo a harsh run of injuries as the offense did last season. That is just part of what a defensive coordinator has to prepare for. If opponents are shredding the defense and running up big scores resulting in too many losses, there will be cries to dump McCarthy as well as Quinn.
Those cries would not be wrong. McCarthy was the driver in bringing Quinn aboard. Even if there was more influence from the Jones family than it appears, they aren’t about to take that bullet for him. The team invested very, very heavily in adding new talent to work with. Generally, players don’t pay a direct price when a team fails. Coaches do. That puts McCarthy right in the crosshairs next to Quinn if bad things happen.
There is an assumption that things will go well in the other phases of the game, and that is a near-universal view. All eyes are going to be on Quinn and his defense this year if things fail to improve. It has to be more dramatic improvement than incremental, as well. But if Quinn goes down, he’s taking his head coach with him, not deliberately on his part, but just because of the situation. McCarthy has not been with the organization long enough to gain the often too-strong loyalty of the Joneses. Another year of missing the playoffs, especially in a division where no team is clearly in better shape, would almost certainly lead to the ax falling.