It is completely understandable that many fans of the Dallas Cowboys were calling for Jerry Jones to fire head coach Mike McCarthy. A lot of the more superficial media coverage went there, too. For the third season in a row, things flamed out after a 12-win campaign. McCarthy was an easy target for ire. Additionally, defensive Dan Quinn came in for his share of slings and arrows after his unit was particularly inept against good competition. The reaction was particularly heated given how spectacularly bad the ending against the Green Bay Packers was.
Now, we have learned that McCarthy will return to finish out his five year contract, and the DC seat will be held for Quinn should he fail to get a head coaching gig with one of the many teams who have requested interviews. Those decisions led to a lot of dismay. What they shouldn’t have done is surprise anyone. This is just the way Jerry Jones does business.
We are very bad at learning from history in general, so it is not at all unexpected that the lessons of Jones’ time as owner of the Cowboys would be overlooked. If you just looked at past decisions, this all was very predictable.
Start with the very beginning of things for the Jones family. When he bought the team, he fired Tom Landry, a move that was sadly overdue, but that angered much of the fan base with how callously it was handled. Then he brought in old friend Jimmy Johnson to rebuild the team. Johnson did so in spectacular fashion, winning back-to-back championships before the somewhat acrimonious divorce with Jones. Johnson had done so well, Barry Switzer was able to get a third Lombardi Trophy just on the strength of the roster he inherited.
Buying the Cowboys and hiring Johnson were big gambles by Jones. There is a real argument to be made that he gave himself too much credit, and took on the general manager role when Johnson departed. As well as winning rings, Johnson reestablished Dallas as the flagship franchise of the league, with more glitz and glamour than the reserved Landry ever saw. Jones conflated that with his own leadership. He has done an incredible job of maintaining that image through good and bad seasons, even with the decades-long postseason futility that followed that final title.
At first, Jones continued his gambling ways with splashy trades. But after the failures of 2012 when neither the trade up to get Morris Claiborne or the free agent signing of Brandon Carr worked out, he suddenly got very conservative. Part of that was feeling burned, but we have to consider his age. As we get older, most of us become more risk-averse. Another factor is that Jerry and his son Stephen often give the impression of thinking they are the smartest guys in the room. They have convinced themselves they can build a winning roster through draft picks and largely avoiding any significant spending on outside free agents. If they do hand out lucrative free agent contracts, it is to their own players, because, as they frequently say, “we like our own guys.”
That conservative nature also has bled over into the way coaches are hired and fired. Since Switzer, Jerry has stuck to known quantities, either promoting assistants from within the building like Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, or Jason Garrett, or hiring retread head coaches Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips, and Mike McCarthy. They have completely missed out on some of the dynamic, young assistants other teams have hired. Those coaches, like Kyle Shanahan and so much of his coaching tree, have brought innovation and freshness to their teams, things that are so absent with Dallas. It seems clear Jerry is only comfortable with people he knows, either from being around them in the building, or from meeting them at NFL functions, where he gets to rub elbows with head coaches but seldom sees those energetic assistants.
When he promotes from within, he is getting a company man who is much less likely to shake things up the way needed. Those former head coaches all come to the team having failed or at least quit somewhere else. Neither is a path to the kind of change the Cowboys so obviously need. The former head coach trend extends to the key assistants as well, which includes Quinn. Yes, they have track records. But Jerry focuses on the good moments and not the things that led to their departures.
Additionally, he seems loathe to actually fire a coach, at least since Gailey and Campo. It took a complete meltdown to fire Phillips, and that included clear signs the locker room had abandoned their head coach. While the playoff losses are a kind of meltdown, the regular seasons under McCarthy were successful, at least in terms of wins and losses. And all reports are that he and Quinn still have their players’ support and loyalty.
All that adds up to exactly what we see playing out. McCarthy will get to coach the last year of his contract, and if things don’t go well, then Jerry just has to not offer a new deal. Quinn is being left up to what happens with his interviews, but being willing to keep him if nothing comes about there is in the same vein.
Given the unfortunate reality of Jerry’s age, it might seem he would be willing to take another big gamble, but despite some lip service to that idea, he just has not taken any actual steps that direction. And Stephen provides a built-in continuity, not likely be much different having effectively served a decades’ long apprenticeship with his father.
I’ll say that I was rather skeptical that the immediate aftermath of the Packers debacle would lead to McCarthy’s firing. That is just not how Jerry operates, and him taking some time to reflect before announcing his decision was very in character. We will have to wait at least another season for any changes at the top. This is going to be a real make-or-break year for McCarthy, and possibly Dak Prescott as well. Next year may be very different, but for now, it is just more of the same.