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For the Cowboys, Sean Payton would not be an upgrade over Mike McCarthy

Mike McCarthy has done everything Sean Payton has done.

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New Orleans Saints v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Imagine you’re a general manager in charge of hiring a new head coach, and your search committee has narrowed it down to two candidates. Both are obviously qualified and have been a head coach elsewhere in the NFL since 2006, but you’re having a hard time choosing between the two. Here’s a breakdown between Coach A and Coach B.

Coach A

  • Has a career 152-89 record in the regular season, or a .631 winning percentage
  • Has made the playoffs a total of nine seasons, including four consecutive division titles
  • Has a 9-8 record in the postseason, or a .529 winning percentage
  • Reached the NFC Championship game twice in his career, winning once
  • Won a Super Bowl
  • Has a reputation as a top offensive mind in the NFL
  • Coached with a future Hall of Fame quarterback for the vast majority of his head coaching career
  • Aside from his Super Bowl season, he has never won multiple playoff games in a single season
  • Has had six assistants go on to become a head coach in either college or the NFL, currently with a combined record of 143-196-1.

Coach B

  • Has a career 143-92-2 record in the regular season, or a .608 winning percentage
  • Has made the playoffs a total of ten seasons, including four consecutive division titles
  • Has a 10-9 record in the postseason, or a .526 winning percentage
  • Reached the NFC Championship game four times in his career, winning once
  • Won a Super Bowl
  • Has a reputation as a top offensive mind in the NFL
  • Coached with a future Hall of Fame quarterback for the vast majority of his head coaching career
  • Aside from his Super Bowl season, he has only one other season with multiple playoff wins
  • Has had four assistants go on to become a head coach in either college or the NFL, currently with a combined record of 61-59.

Obviously one of these coaches is current Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, current recipient of the fan base’s ire after being bounced from the playoffs far too early, and the other is Sean Payton, who recently stepped away from the Saints and is (sort of) available to coach the Cowboys should Jerry Jones dump McCarthy, something we are told won’t happen this offseason.

The fact that it’s not so obvious, and the fact that so many of these bullet points are alike, is the point. For the record, Coach A is Payton and Coach B is McCarthy. Payton has had slightly more success in the regular season, while McCarthy has fared slightly better in the playoffs. Beyond that, the differences in résumé are hard to pick out.

That hasn’t stopped public perception from holding Payton in the highest regard while McCarthy is considered an average-at-best coach who was supposedly just a beneficiary of having Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback. The thinking is that Rodgers is such a supremely gifted player (he is) that any coach could win championships with him, and McCarthy’s incompetence held him back. This line has taken a hit, though, with the Packers going 2-3 in the playoffs and failing to even reach the Super Bowl since McCarthy left.

Also, did Payton not begin his head coaching career by signing Drew Brees in free agency? Brees had played well for the Chargers on his rookie contract, but an injury in his final season there led the team to make a low-ball offer and Brees eventually landed in New Orleans, where he quickly became one of the most prolific passers in NFL history. But we never hear talk of Payton being carried by Brees or that Payton only won one Super Bowl with such a great quarterback.

In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that it looked like the game had passed Payton by. From 2014 to 2016, the Saints finished 7-9 in three consecutive seasons. It was their first time with consecutive losing records under Payton’s tenure, and it looked as if the Payton/Brees regime may be over. But an influx of young talent, highlighted by Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, helped spur an 11-5 finish in 2017 that kicked off a four-year stretch of division titles. But still, no Super Bowl berths.

McCarthy, on the other hand, went to the playoffs eight straight seasons before his Packers team finished 7-9 in a year where Rodgers only played for seven games. The very next year, with a revamped defensive staff, McCarthy was fired before the season even ended. It seems the biggest difference between Payton and McCarthy is the patience of their respective employers.

So what exactly does Payton bring to the table that McCarthy doesn’t already have? A better PR team, perhaps, but both are well-respected offensive coaches who won a Super Bowl with a legendary quarterback but failed to repeat that formula since. Is the answer as simple as Payton being the one who got away, after he left the Cowboys for the Saints job one year before Bill Parcells retired (again)? One would certainly hope that a decision like this comes down to more than just sentimentality.

The takeaway here isn’t that I think McCarthy is a better coach than Payton, but just that there’s not a meaningful enough difference between the two. And, for what it’s worth, Payton has made it clear he’s not interested in coaching anywhere for at least the 2022 season. The NFL’s own data on timeout usage from earlier this year found that Payton wastes timeouts much more often than McCarthy, and Payton’s public frustrations with officials have been immeasurable.

So how exactly is Payton different from McCarthy? What does he bring to the Cowboys that McCarthy doesn’t already? Because when you look at things from all angles, it becomes hard to find a really good answer. Payton might do really well if he were coaching the Cowboys; he might even match McCarthy’s 12 wins from 2021, something Payton has only done twice in the last nine years.

But is he a clear cut upgrade over the Cowboys’ current coach? No way.