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Why the Dallas Cowboys were right to retain Mike McCarthy

It wasn’t the popular move, but keeping Mike McCarthy was the correct move to some people.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

After several days of rampant online speculation following the Cowboys’ embarrassing home loss in the playoffs, the team announced that Mike McCarthy would be sticking around for the 2024 season. Naturally, this has incited quite the response from the fans, many of whom were ready to try a new direction after the tough loss.

The frustration over yet another early playoff exit is certainly valid, but the decision to actually fire a coach must be more than just a response to such frustration. Everyone wants to see the Cowboys make a deep playoff run and, ultimately, get back to the Super Bowl. There is not a single soul in the building for this franchise that doesn’t understand what the goal is.

But there is also the simple fact that winning a Super Bowl is hard. There are exactly four current head coaches to have won the big game, and the only one to do it multiple times is Andy Reid with two rings. Bill Belichick is currently unemployed, but he’s won it six times and is clearly the outlier here. Even then, Belichick has just one playoff appearance in the last four years (he went 0-1 that year), a testament to how hard this is.

Not only is winning the Super Bowl difficult, but winning in the playoffs at all is difficult. There are just five active head coaches with a winning record in the postseason, six if we include Belichick. That’s not even 20% of the league. Some notable coaches with a losing record in the postseason include Super Bowl winners Mike Tomlin and Doug Pederson, the likely Coach of the Year recipient Kevin Stefanski, and the coach that just eliminated the Cowboys, Matt LaFleur.

To put things into another perspective, there are 31 teams every season that don’t win a Super Bowl. There are usually about six teams that make a change at head coach after the season, which means there are generally about 25 teams each year that do not win the Super Bowl yet keep their head coach in place. That’s over 78% of the league that opts not to make a change in leadership every year.

That’s without even taking into consideration the success and trajectory of the teams, either. You have to go all the way back to the 2017 season to find the last time a team fired their coach after reaching the playoffs. That was the Titans, who fired Mike Mularkey after his second straight 9-7 finish and his first playoff berth. That move came as a bit of a shock, and was part of a long and winding saga that ultimately boiled down to a disconnect between Mularkey and his players.

Tennessee replaced Mularkey with Mike Vrabel, and early results seemed encouraging. Vrabel went 41-24 in his first four seasons, reaching the playoffs three straight seasons and even advancing to the conference championship game in 2019. However, things fizzled out, and Vrabel was just fired after two straight losing seasons.

The last time a team fired their coach after consecutive playoff appearances was John Fox, whom the Broncos fired after the 2014 season. Fox was 46-18 in four seasons in Denver, making the playoffs each year and even reaching the Super Bowl once. He won 12+ games in his last three seasons, but Denver opted to move on in an attempt to maximize their Super Bowl window with Peyton Manning.

The move worked, as the Broncos won the Super Bowl the very next year with Gary Kubiak as the head coach. However, Manning regressed sharply that season and was even benched for Brock Osweiler, though he reclaimed the starting job shortly before the playoffs began. Denver missed the playoffs the next year, Kubiak retired, and the team hasn’t even had a winning season (let alone a playoff berth) since then.

That’s the kind of risk Jerry Jones had to weigh this past week. McCarthy hasn’t delivered in the playoffs yet, but most coaches are guilty of the same thing. That’s hardly a reason to wipe the slate clean. The success rate of new coaching hires is also exceedingly low and the available coaches with prior head coaching experience - notably Belichick and Vrabel - are coming off several down years.

Not only has McCarthy brought a level of stability to Dallas - the first Cowboys coach since Barry Switzer to reach the playoffs three straight years - but he’s also coming off a year in which Dak Prescott had a career-best season. That came with McCarthy calling plays, and Prescott hasn’t been shy about voicing his happiness with his new play-caller.

Keeping McCarthy isn’t just about keeping a coach who consistently makes the postseason, but it’s also about continuing to support the franchise quarterback. Asking Prescott to adjust to a new offense for the third time in three years, as the longest tenured starting quarterback in the NFL, is simply not a recipe for success. It’s especially unwise to do so after Prescott - not to mention CeeDee Lamb and Jake Ferguson - just put up the best year of his career.

The Cowboys may have been able to find another head coach out there who would perform better in the playoffs, but that is a gamble with alarmingly low odds. And for the first time in literal decades, the Cowboys have a coach who consistently gets them to the playoffs. The fans understandably want more, but you can’t get to the Super Bowl without making the playoffs first.

Keeping McCarthy around for 2024 gives the Cowboys their best odds of achieving their goals. As is the case every offseason, Will McClay and this personnel department will work to shore up any roster weaknesses and give McCarthy a talented roster that should be able to compete for a championship.

Retaining the coach doesn’t mean that the Cowboys won’t try to fix what went wrong this past year. It just means they’re being realistic about their best path forward, even if it isn’t what will satisfy their fan base in the moment.

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