The 2023 season may very well go down as the biggest disappointment in Cowboys franchise history. How could it not? The team dominated opponents at home, going 8-0 in AT&T Stadium, and then secured the NFC East title and second seed in the playoffs. They would have at least two home playoff games if they advanced, setting the stage beautifully for a return to the conference championship game.
And now it’s all over. An embarrassment at the hands of the Packers, a team that barely snuck into the playoffs with the youngest roster in the league. A quarterback making his first playoff start ever dominating a supposedly elite defense. And an offense that’s put up gaudy numbers at home all year couldn’t get going until the two-minute warning in the first half.
Understandably, there are already deafeningly loud calls for Mike McCarthy’s job. That reaction makes sense, because this really did seem like the team’s best shot through the playoffs in years. And there’s no telling what Jerry Jones might do, even as he’s become more patient in the last decade or so.
While fans can easily shout “fire everyone” as a kneejerk response to this kind of disappointment, Jones has more to consider. Namely, what comes next?
Jones had stuck with Jason Garrett for a long time in large part because he wasn’t sure there was a material upgrade out there. Sure, Jones could go hire some up-and-coming coordinator, but that was what Garrett had been when he was elevated to interim head coach. And a big part of the struggles for Garrett was a coach who was learning on the job with sky-high expectations.
When Jones did eventually make a move, he did so because of who was available: Mike McCarthy, a seasoned coach with a Lombardi on his bookshelf. He had crafted electric offenses, built and rebuilt successful coaching staffs, and navigated all the trials and tribulations that a coach has to manage. And he did all of that while living up to the expectations of a storied franchise like the Packers.
It wasn’t said out loud at the time, but McCarthy’s hire felt like a “if he can’t do it, nobody can” sentiment. And, for the most part, McCarthy has done it. Three straight 12-win seasons and three straight playoff appearances, something this franchise hasn’t seen since the 90’s, not to mention the offense taking a huge leap forward in production this year when McCarthy took over play-calling. But you can’t put any of that on a banner and hang it from the rafters.
So as the Cowboys now go through another round of exit interviews without any real playoff success, the question must be centered on what comes next. It wasn’t until McCarthy’s fifth season in Green Bay that he won the Super Bowl, and prior to that season he had just one career playoff win. Similarly, Andy Reid had just one playoff win in his first five seasons with the Chiefs, but he reached the conference championship game in the sixth season and won a ring in the seventh season. Can the Cowboys afford to be that patient with McCarthy?
More importantly, can they afford not to be?
A long list of candidates to replace McCarthy in Dallas has since popped up with just about every sports book, and the most common names are veteran coaches. Bill Belichick is the most prevalent one, and for good reason. Belichick is regarded as the greatest coach in history, with six Super Bowl wins to his name. He’s also close with both Jerry and Stephen Jones.
But Belichick is, for the first time in his career, a coaching free agent. And that’s for a reason. Those six rings all came with Tom Brady under center. Since Brady left New England, Belichick is 29-38 with just one playoff appearance and no playoff victories. Belichick, who also functioned as the de facto general manager, struggled to build an offense around the young Mac Jones and dealt a fatal blow to the quarterback when he replaced his outgoing offensive coordinator with two failed head coaches, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, neither of whom had any experience coordinating an offense.
This past season, as the Patriots won just four games and played the worst football by far of the Belichick era, it became clear that the legendary coach known for his schematic adaptability has not adapted to the latest trends in football. While Belichick remains a defensive mastermind, the Patriot Way is not a blueprint for success in 2023. So why would the Cowboys want to try it out, aside from the simple satisfaction of saying “Hey, we fired a coach with one Super Bowl to hire a coach with six Super Bowls”?
Aside from Belichick, the other two most common names are Mike Vrabel and Jim Harbaugh, two other experienced coaches. Vrabel posted winning seasons in his first four years as head coach of the Titans but, like his mentor Belichick, things fizzled out as the offense became stale and unreliable.
Harbaugh had great success in his last NFL stint, leading the 49ers, but his eccentric personality clashed with the general manager and, when push came to shove, ownership chose the general manager. Harbaugh then went to his alma mater and just led the Michigan Wolverines to a national title, though not without controversy.
All of these coaches are popular flavors of the month right now, but it seems as if their best attribute is simply not being the coach who just lost to the Packers. Of the three of them, Belichick is the only to actually accomplish more than McCarthy in the NFL. Even then, his greatest accomplishments are well behind him.
The Cowboys could always look to hire a young up-and-comer, too. Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is the hottest name in this hiring cycle, and Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik is gaining traction too. But what sense does it make to fire a coach as experienced as McCarthy for not being able to get it done and then pivot to someone with literally no experience leading a team? Johnson or Slowik might be great head coaches, but it’s impossible to deny that any team hiring them is gambling on being right in that evaluation.
That’s the underlying reason why teams rarely fire their head coach after winning seasons. In fact, the only coach to ever be fired after three straight 12+ win seasons was John Fox. And while the Broncos won the Super Bowl the very next year, they haven’t even made the playoffs since then.
Maybe that’s a trade the Cowboys are willing to make, but it shouldn’t be. Under McCarthy’s watch, this team has enjoyed unprecedented levels of consistency and success. The lack of postseason success is maddening, but Super Bowl teams aren’t built in one offseason. Firing McCarthy, as cathartic as it might feel in the moment, would drastically shift this team’s championship window, and not in a good way.