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Overly-Analytic Reasons to move on from McCarthy and Prescott

(I wonder how many of you are going straight to the comments to talk about this?)

First off, this is not some emotionally filled rage post written right after the loss to the Packers. I originally looked up all this info back over the summer, but by the time I got around to posting it the season started, so I held off. I was holding out for hope, and this is more of an off-season type of piece. And it has already been decided than McCarthy and Dak will be back, but they both entering the final year of their respective contract.

The question I had was essentially "How long is long enough?". How much time does a quarterback need to win a Superbowl? How much time does a coach need? You eventually have a point where you need to reset or change things, even if it’s hard. We often say insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. (Fun fact: Einstein never said that. Some people think it came from a narcotics anonymous pamphlet, which really puts that idea into context)

Basically, what I did was look at each head coach and quarterback who started a Super Bowl and tracked how long it took each of them to get there from the moment they joined that team (or started for that team, for the quarterbacks). While I’m not going to suggest anything automatic be done based on historical trends, trends exist for a reason. If a number of teams that won a Superbowl were in the relatively same circumstances as the Cowboys are currently in, then that’s a good sign. If there were few teams that were in a similar situation and went on to win a Super Bowl, then things may have to change. If you’re trying to go against a trend (or trends) you better have a good reason.

I’m only looking at those head coaches and quarterbacks who won the Superbowl. I did track those who made it and lost, but limited it to keep this shorter. As far as the time frame, as I mentioned earlier, I’m considering the start of the "window" as the season the head coach joined the team or the quarterback became the starter. Time spent with a previous team (or as a backup) was not counted, unless they did go to a Superbowl with that previous team. In those cases the situation was tracked separately (for example, Andy Reid’s time with the Eagles and Chiefs are split up. Same thing with Peyton Manning playing for the Broncos and Colts). I excluded those whose time with a team overlapped the start of the Super Bowl era as they complicated making accurate comparisons, since the playoffs often only had four teams (i.e. Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr were not included).

First, for coaches:

I examined 35 head coach/team combos that won a Superbowl. Surprisingly, 14 of those (40%) won a Superbowl by the end of their 3rd year with the team. As a reference, McCarthy just finished his fourth year in Dallas.

In McCarthy’s case, he’s a classic example of "good but not great" in his time in Dallas. Since 2021, the Cowboys have the second most regular seasons wins but third worst playoff win percentage among the 16 teams that have competed in multiple playoff games. It should be noted that the only playoff win came against an 8-9 Buccaneers team.

So McCarthy is going to be around again in 2024. That means he’ll be starting his fifth year with the team. How many coaches needed at least five years to win a Superbowl? Eleven, out of 35

Coach

Team

Years to First Superbowl Win

Sean McVay

Rams

5

John Harbaugh

Ravens

5

Mike McCarthy

Packers

5

Tony Dungy*

Colts

5

Mike Holmgren

Packers

5

Weeb Ewbank*

Jets

6

Chuck Noll

Steelers

6

Andy Reid**

Chiefs

7

John Madden

Raiders

8

Tom Landry

Cowboys

13

Bill Cowher

Steelers

14

*Not first head coaching job

**Took another team to a Superbowl

68.57% of Super Bowl winning coaches did so within four years of taking the job. This next year McCarthy will be trying to join that small list of 11 coaches who needed more time. Of those 11 cases, 10 had previously gone to a Super Bowl or a conference championship. Weeb Ewbank is the one outlier, but he won two NFL titles with Baltimore in the 50s. He’s technically the only coach to have won the biggest game with two teams, but since one was before the Super Bowl era it isn’t viewed as highly.

Weeb Ewbank and Tom Landry were the only coaches I found who had little to no playoff success in their first four years with a team but still won a Super Bowl later on. I doubt you can make a fair comparison between either of those situations and McCarthy’s; Landry was taking over an expansion team and the Jets had only been around for three years when Ewbank was hired. The rest of those coaches were still doing well in the playoffs before finally winning it all.

Theoretically, it is possible everything comes together this next year or even later. But based on historical trends and the current situation of the team, how likely do you think McCarthy is to join that exclusive list?

You might also point to the fact that no head coach has won a Super Bowl with multiple teams. If we’re being fair, there aren’t exactly a lot who have tried or were given a fair chance. This article goes into it pretty well, if you’re interested. Basically, it’s rare for a coach to even attempt this (the article says 11 but it would be 14 now to include McCarthy, Sean Payton, and Doug Pederson. 15 if Belichick is hired). In most cases they inherited a bad situation or were so close to retirement it might be fair to question their motivation. When you filter out those situations, on top of coaches who honestly had a lot of luck involved in their Super bowl run, there's only a small handful who've honestly got a fair shot. But I digress.

The point I’m making is, more often than not, if a coach didn’t win a Super Bowl within four years, or even showed any sign of post-season success within four years, they hardly won it at all.

Now for quarterbacks, which I’m guessing is going to lead to a comment war.

Before I get into it, I do like Dak. I love how much he’s an overachiever for being a fourth round pick, and loved how he got into the MVP conversation this year. But unless he kicks it up a notch this next year I doubt he’ll ever win a Super Bowl.

Using the criteria I mentioned earlier, I counted 31 quarterbacks who started and won a Superbowl. For your own information, 15 of them won a Superbowl by their 5th year as a starter with that team.

Dak just finished his eighth year. How many quarterbacks needed more than eight years to take a team to a Super Bowl victory?

QB

TEAM

Years to First Super Bowl Win

John Elway

Broncos

15

Peyton Manning

Colts

9

That’s it. That’s the list.

There’s no way you can compare these two to Dak. By year eight, Elway and Manning had been named an all-pro multiple times. Both were regular MVP-level quarterbacks. Elway had been to two Super Bowls and Manning had been setting notable passing records. The only thing I think Dak beats them in is endorsements.

At this point in Dak’s career (again, eight seasons played), 29 of 31 quarterbacks already won a Super Bowl.

Maybe Dak becomes the first quarterback to need more than eight seasons to win a Super Bowl without consistently playing at an all-pro level, but how likely is that to happen?

While I hate to rain on the Prescott MVP parade, how much of that has to do with the quality of competition being down this year? Had Patrick Mahomes had a receiver to throw to, Tom Brady not retired, or Joe Burrow or Aaron Rodgers not been injured, or Jalen Hurts not imploded, would Prescott still be in the MVP race? Tua led the league with 4,624 yards this year, the fewest the league leader has had since 2017 and second fewest since 2006. It’s also just the fourth time in the past 13 years a quarterback didn’t throw for 40+ touchdowns. Statistically, Prescott didn’t play much better than in 2021, when he had zero talk of being MVP:

Year

Record

Comp %

Yds

TD

Int

1D

Rate

QBR

2021

11-5

68.80%

4449

37

10

227

104.2

54.6

2023

12-5

69.50%

4516

36

9

222

105.9

72.6

I’ll admit his QBR improved quite a bit, which I’m trying to make sense of (according to Pro Football Focus, the schedule was easier in 23). I wonder if that has to do with him running for 21 first downs in 2023 compared to 7 in 2021, his first year back from breaking his leg, or from having one more fourth quarter comeback in 2023. But I digress again.

(You’re welcome to go see the full stats here, it’s eerie how similar most of the stats are between 2021 and 2023. He even had the exact same number of completions and only six more attempts in 2021. The only differences are in the advanced stats, but if the output is roughly the same and you have to dig deep to find a difference, does that difference really matter?)

Let’s say you still believe Dak is elite but is being held back by the team or other factors. I found eight quarterbacks you can arguably say that about. If, hypothetically, Dak never wins a championship, which group of quarterbacks would he better be associated with?

QB

Team

QB

Team

Dan Marino

Dolphins

Derek Carr

Raiders

Dan Fouts

Chargers

Drew Bledsoe

Patriots

Warren Moon

Oilers

Donovan McNabb

Eagles

Fran Tarkenton

Vikings/Giants

Matt Hasselbeck

Seahawks

Jim Kelly

Bills

Jay Cutler

Da Bears

Sonny Jurgensen

Washington

Andy Dalton

Bengals

Matt Ryan

Falcons

David Krieg

Seahawks

Phillip Rivers

Chargers

Boomer Esiason

Bengals



Ken Anderson

Bengals



Archi Manning

Saints



Bernie Kosar

Browns



Dan Pastorini

Oilers

None of these guys won a Superbowl, despite starting for the same team for 8+ years. The ones on the left are in the Hall of Fame or will be in consideration. The ones on the right also started for one team for 8+ years, and while good or even great, really aren’t on the same level as those other quarterbacks.

If you think, in terms of talent, Dak will go down as one of the guys on the left, then good for you; I like your optimism! If you feel he’s closer to being one of the guys on the right, well… maybe it’s time to move on.

Now, let’s say you're on the other side that doesn’t think Dak is elite, but good enough to not hold back an elite team. How many times has that happened, where a quarterback was not elite, but won a Super Bowl with an elite team? Here’s my list (which is admittedly up for debate):

QB

TEAM

Trent Dilfer

Ravens

Brad Johnson

Buccaneers

Russell Wilson

Seahawks

Jim McMahon

Da Bears

Peyton Manning

Broncos

Phil Simms

Giants

Some teams had a quarterback that wasn’t elite but had some post-season magic en route to their Super Bowl win (like Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, or Doug Williams), but those are impossible to predict so you can’t rely on that. Peyton Manning was NOT good when he won with the Broncos. Before you comment on Russell Wilson, Seattle’s defense that playoff run never gave up more than 17 points and forced eight turnovers in three games. Combined with Marshawn Lynch, Betty White could have won with that team. Lynch scored more touchdowns in those games than Wilson anyway.

Conclusion

As much of a Cowboys fan as I am (met Emmett Smith when I was a kid; fan ever since), I’m skeptical they ever will win a Championship with McCarthy or Dak.

But, it’s not because McCarthy is trying to be the first coach to win a Super Bowl with two teams. It’s not because he’d be trying to join the minority of coaches who needed more than four years to win it all. It’s not because he’s trying to be the first coach in 60 years to go from one or fewer playoff wins in their first four years with a team to a Championship, or the first ever to do that for a team that had been around longer than three years.

It’s also not because Dak would be trying to be the third quarterback ever to need more than eight years to win a Super Bowl, or being the first to do that without consistently being one of the league's best. And it’s not because only one-third of all Super Bowl Winning teams did so without a Hall of Fame Quarterback.

It’s because the team is trying to get past all of that. I guess there’s a first time for everything, but how likely is this time going to be the first?

Bonus Round

I know a bunch of you are going to bring up Jerry Jones saying he’s the problem, and you probably have a fair point. So after typing this up I decided to look up even more history.

The Cowboys have now gone 27 years without reaching the conference championship, which is the 5th longest drought in the NFL currently. It might be worth noting the four teams with a longer drought have all gone through four or five GMs in that same time. Officially, Jerry has been the GM this entire time, despite his son Stephen getting a bigger role. But until Jerry relinquishes the title he gets the blame.

Now, I wanted to do something similar with GMs that I did with coaches and quarterbacks, but since technically Jerry Jones has won a Superbowl, I instead decided to look at General Managers that went the longest without making it to a conference championship game OR being fired since 2000. I found four GMs that went at least 10 years:

GM

Years

Team

Longest Stretch without being fired or appearing in a conference championship (in years)

Jerry Jones*

2000-2023

Cowboys

23

Mike Brown*

2000-2023

Bengals

20

Rick Smith

2006-2017

Texans

11

Tom Telesco

2013-2023

Chargers

10

*Were in their role before 2000, but that was the farthest back I looked

Mike Brown went through a very similar situation Jerry Jones is currently in: the owner, who is also the GM, had a coach who does relatively well in the regular season but horrible playoff record (Marvin Lewis) and good-but-not-elite quarterback play (Carson Palmer and later Andy Dalton). Brown was willing to make major changes and went to a Super Bowl within three years of letting go. Most general managers would have been fired four times over had they gone 20 years without a Conference Championship appearance, but that’s a perk of being your own boss: only you can fire yourself!

Through a some-what quick search, going back to the 90s I couldn’t find many GMs that lasted more than a decade (most lasted 6-8 years). Like coaches, they get fired for bad performance; it just doesn’t get as much attention since we never see their faces (outside of Al Davis and Jerry Jones). Players are held accountable by the coaches, coaches by the front office, front office by the owner, and NFL owners only go out if they’re costing the league money or congress gets involved. Even then it’s hard.

But when you are your own boss no one can tell you what to do. Through my unofficial research, Mike Brown and Jerry are the only GMs to last longer than 15 years since 1980, and coincidentally they are also the owners of their teams. The only ones who can force them out are the other owners and they have different priorities than the rest of the football world.

Real Conclusion

Basically, history is against McCarthy, Prescott, and Jerry. There's little to no precedent of a head coach, quarterback, or general manager going through a long stretch of relative failure and turning it around. History says it's hard to change the outcome with the same people. If it's hard to overcome any of those situations individually, what are the chances that all three will happen simultaneously?

I know that making risky moves opens the possibility of mediocrity, but you better be dang lucky to win a championship through a conservative process

*Edits made for clarity, since the format didn't come out the way it should have. Also have no idea why those tables are highlighted the way they are

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.