NFL The Cowboys have decisions to make about their coaches
After Sunday’s disappointing playoff loss to the 49ers, here’s an interesting question that Jerry Jones is likely asking himself internally and fielding from those in his inner circle: What are we going to do about the offensive and defensive coordinators who have interviews lined up with almost every team with a head coaching vacancy? And what are we going to do about the current head coach, who, before the installation of said defensive coordinator and the drafting of a generational defensive prospect, was a bit of a disappointment?
You might be able to call this Jerry’s Dilemma because it is not a melodrama unfamiliar to the Cowboys. At one time, Jason Garrett was a rising star within the organization. Fearful of losing Garrett, Jones installed him as the interim head coach at the expense of Wade Phillips. Garrett went on to compile an 85–67 record with two playoff victories. He was let go to hire Mike McCarthy and, more recently, was let go as the offensive coordinator of the Giants.
Now, Jones is looking at Kellen Moore, a 33-year-old coordinator who is the closest thing on the market to a coach whom owners might place into the Sean McVay category (while we’re not calling Moore Sean McVay, we are recognizing that owners typically slop coaches into groups, and Moore is a young, rising offensive coordinator). He is looking at Dan Quinn, a coach who has been to a Super Bowl and has radically transformed this Dallas defense, breaking out of his Cover 3 shell to install something truly unique and effective. This coaching cycle, people with knowledge of the process have pointed to a preference by those in hiring positions for more experienced coaches, perhaps even an appetite for successful second-chance coaches. One, or both, may not be there next year, unless Jones makes one of them the head coach now.
While the 49ers playoff game was not a beautiful performance by any coordinator, one game is not necessarily going to shape the perception of them in the eyes of a hiring manager. But what about in the eyes of Jones, who has become so desperate—and so legitimately close from a personnel standpoint—for another Super Bowl championship in his lifetime that he’s taken to head hunting for anyone who has come within sniffing distance of a Lombardi trophy? The hiring of McCarthy could not have been a clearer signal that Jones was done going the developmental route and entrusting his star-studded roster into the hands of someone who could push it forward. McCarthy’s performance on Sunday, which included signing his name on a scorecard featuring a postseason, franchise-record-tying 14 penalties, was a clear invitation for Jones to revisit that decision. Fairly or unfairly, Jones is a follower of narratives, and McCarthy spent the better part of 60 minutes on the broadcast wilting under a white-hot sun. A freewheeling, tackle-happy referee slugging the franchise quarterback as time expired may not save him from scrutiny.
While thin at some spots, the Cowboys are the first unit in NFL history to simultaneously carry a 4,000-plus yard quarterback, a 1,000-plus yard running back, a 1,000-plus yard wide receiver, a cornerback with 10-plus interceptions and a pass rusher with 10-plus sacks. Personnel head Will McClay has painted a masterpiece, one which Jones is salivating over the possibility of marketing. Another first-round playoff loss keeping his massive billion-dollar turfed spaceship vacant for the rest of the winter is a cringeworthy prospect for the owner, who was shown nervously recoiling in his private booth several times throughout the night.
This is not an advocation for McCarthy’s firing by any stretch. Sunday’s game was an absolute tornado of nonsense, some that could be directly attributed to the coach and some of it left to a set of football gods who seem steadfastly invested in preventing the Cowboys from a serious playoff run. But it is a call for common sense.
Jones’s days of pragmatism are wearing thin. He exited the Tony Romo era, a stretch of football with a borderline Hall of Fame quarterback and arguably the best offensive line of the last decade, without a trip to the conference championship game. His team stumbled, blessedly, into the Dak Prescott era and aligned the Pro Bowler with two of the best receivers in the NFL, two efficient running backs and a complementary, takeaway defense that helped the Cowboys lead the league in turnover differential this year. They have yet to make a serious run in three playoff appearances, two of which came under Garrett.
The Prescott window is not going to last forever. His agent brilliantly got him signed to a four-year deal that will allow Prescott to re-up after just a few more seasons, likely eclipsing $50 million per year if he continues on his current trajectory. Randy Gregory, Dalton Schultz, Michael Gallup, Connor Williams and Leighton Vander Esch are all free agents in 2022. No matter how talented their personnel department might be, it would be foolish to assume they could replenish a roster like this again following back-to-back eras littered with Pro Bowl talent.
After the game, Jones called the loss both “disappointing” and “surprising.” While it’s anyone’s guess what happens next, chances are he’s got a few meetings lined up for the week ahead.