So, Mike McCarthy’s back. That simple sentence carries a lot of weight, dramatically shifting how we perceive the upcoming season. And if the history of the Dallas Cowboys tells us anything, McCarthy’s return could set him up for another midseason firing.
It wouldn’t be the first time for McCarthy. He was fired by Green Bay in 2019 after starting the year 4-7-1. That came on the heels of a 7-9 season in which the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. It also involved McCarthy’s deteriorating relationship with QB Aaron Rodgers, which was getting more and more attention as the team struggled.
We have a different situation here in Dallas. McCarthy’s had three 12-win seasons in a row and appears to sing “kum ba yah” with Dak Prescott regularly. His players came out in support of him this week on social media, even celebrating the news of his return. But their reaction is far different from many fans, who wailed at the report that McCarthy would be back for the fifth and final year of his Cowboys contract.
We’re walking into a season that feels a lot like 2010, Wade Phillips’ final days in Dallas. For three years prior, the Cowboys had been generally successful under Phillips. Two NFC East titles, their first playoff win since 1996, star players all over the roster; it felt like a team with legitimate championship potential.
But in the 2009 playoffs, Dallas got eliminated in a 34-3 blowout by the Minnesota Vikings in the second round. Riding high after that win over the Eagles, the Cowboys had an all-time letdown game and wiped out whatever points Phillips had scored with the front office. The question of whether or not he’d even return in 2010 was out there, and of course he did. But clearly, it left him on the shakiest of ground.
The ground fell out from under Phillips just 10 months later. With an aged offensive line and a closed championship window, Dallas went 1-7 to start the next year. While QB Tony Romo did get injured that year, it didn’t happen until midway through the sixth game. Two weeks later, after a 45-7 blowout loss to the Packers, Phillips was fired and Jason Garrett was promoted from offensive coordinator to interim head coach.
2024 now feels a lot like that 2010 season. McCarthy, like Phillips, has had relative success compared to most NFL teams. He’s won two division titles and a lot of regular-season games. But the playoff results have been abysmal, and last Sunday’s embarrassment against Green Bay rivals what Phillips’ team did in Minnesota 14 years ago.
One key difference here, at least for the moment, is the absence of a Garrett-like successor. It was well-known back in 2010 that Garrett was going to be the Cowboys’ head coach one day. He and Phillips had a Herman Boone-Bill Yoast dynamic between offense and defense; fairly unilateral control of their side of the ball. When Jerry Jones finally decided to pull the plug on Phillips, it was partly due to having his handpicked heir ready to go.
With Kellen Moore long gone and Dan Quinn possibly on the way out, no clear succession plan currently exists in Dallas past Quinn. Brian Schottenheimer certainly isn’t it; he wasn’t even an attractive candidate to become offensive coordinator a year ago. But an option could emerge if Quinn leaves as Dallas’ next defensive coordinator might be lured by the promise of being head coach if things continue southward with McCarthy.
There are still moving parts to be decided, particularly with Quinn, that will give us a better sense of the Cowboys’ options. Whatever we end up with, though, there’s no denying that Mike McCarthy now has the same unstable footing that Wade Phillips did in 2010. And if 2024 goes anything like that season did, we probably won’t have to wait for next January to see McCarthy’s last game in Dallas.