In Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys Get Experience and a Proven Track Record

Also, notes on who might fill out the coaching staff in Dallas under McCarthy, what scouts have to say about Tua Tagovailoa ahead of the NFL draft, the rest of the still-spinning coaching carousel and more.
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For the Cowboys, this wasn’t the time to take chances at head coach.

They’re about to pay their quarterback. They just paid their two-time NFL rushing champion. Their offensive line is well-compensated and not getting younger. There’s a star receiver waiting on a contract, and a young defense that hit developmental bumps in 2019. There’s a messy season to move past, one in which the team’s lack of resiliency and loss of identity was stark to those making the biggest decisions.

Bottom line: Whoever walked through the door in Frisco needd to bring credibility to steady a ship that was knocked well off course in 2019. Jason Garrett, who’d been there for nine years, and made the playoffs in three of the previous five seasons, couldn’t do it. And with all due respect to the coordinators who cashed in on the play-caller craze of last January, it was going to be about more than what’s on a playsheet.

McCarthy HP

So here comes a coach with the capital of a Super Bowl ring and the experience of 13 years coaching in the pressure-cooker of another NFL flagship franchise.

Mike McCarthy is not perfect. There was truth in what was said about his relationship with Aaron Rodgers—it did go sideways, especially after lieutenants/buffers Tom Clements and Alex Van Pelt left one after the other, before his second-to-last and last seasons in Green Bay. I think he would tell you there were times when the politics and circumstances of the organization there got the best of him.

But until the end, McCarthy continued to win. The Packers made the NFC title game in his second year, took a step back in the Brett Favre/Rodgers transition year, then won it all in his fourth year, which marked the first of eight straight trips to the postseason. The wheels did come off in 2017 with a Rodgers injury, and he didn’t make it through the ’18 season.

Still, it was rare when Green Bay couldn’t weather whatever storm was in front of them—and there were a few, with McCarthy at the helm. Having a year off, like he now has, has a way of teaching coaches they don’t have all the answers.

Jerry Jones is hoping McCarthy follows in Andy Reid’s footsteps—when Reid was fired from Philadelphia and hired by Kansas City, he reevaluated his entire program, hired Nevada coach Chris Ault to teach him the college spread and took off from there.

But even if it doesn’t go exactly that way, Jones can bank on having a coach who’ll be good for his quarterback and his locker room, and help to reestablish the identity and resiliency that the Cowboys lost in 2019, which sets the floor relatively high, with the idea the ceiling could be up there too very much on the table.

Of course, no one knows how any of these hires are going to play out in the months and years to come. What we do know on this one is that it was very much about where the Cowboys are as a franchise heading into a new decade.

They are, in short, right where they have been for a while. The roster isn’t broken, nor is it far off from being at a championship level. Which made taking a risk, for a man who’s made his fortune on high-yield gambles, the wrong play this time around.

Now, some more notes on what’s going on around the NFL …

Mike Nolan

Mike Nolan (left) has been the linebackers coach in New Orleans since 2017.

• The staff in Dallas is expecting Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan to be tabbed as McCarthy’s defensive coordinator. Nolan was McCarthy’s last boss before he became a head coach—the then-49ers coach hired him to be his offensive coordinator in 2005, where McCarthy spent a year before the Packers hired him in ’06. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Jim Haslett, McCarthy’s boss in New Orleans from 2000-04, join the defensive staff. Haslett was part of McCarthy’s “shadow staff” this fall and could slide right in as Dallas’ linebackers coach. The coaches on that side of the ball will be important too, and not just because McCarthy’s expertise is on offense. It’s also because leadership was lacking on that side of the ball last year. The old staff hoped captains DeMarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith would step to the front of the room more forcefully. It didn’t happen.

• The other side of the ball raises more questions. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna and line coach Marc Colombo all remain under contract, and Jones has intimated to candidates that, ideally, he’d like to retain Moore. It would help ease Dak Prescott’s transition through the coaching change, but my sense is that the Cowboys want to keep a coach they really, really like (not totally unlike how they invested in Jason Garrett). If Moore were to leave, I would not be surprised to see a division rival—the Eagles—take an interest in him.

• Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is positioned well now, with interviews scheduled for tomorrow with the Panthers in Boston, Wednesday with the Giants in Jersey and Friday with the Browns in his native Northeast Ohio. The key word for McDaniels will be the same one you heard Browns owner Jimmy Haslam use over and over again: Alignment. I don’t think McDaniels will go to a place where the organization is splintered and set up in silos, and I don’t think that’s about it control. Moreso, it’s about what I think he believes works. That said, he’s very much ready to leave New England, having lined up key assistants like Redskins OC Kevin O’Connell and Colts DBs coach Jonathan Gannon to play major roles on his staff.

• Tua Tagovailoa’s decision to declare for the 2020 draft was met with affirmation from across the NFL that he made the obvious (and correct) call after dislocating his hip in mid-November. Another injury would have effectively ended his hopes of being a first-rounder, and cost him not only money but perhaps opportunity to have a team install him as a long-term answer at the position. As it stands now, injuries are still a concern, but he has good, recent tape, and reasonable results from his medicals at the combine should keep him in the Day 1 discussion. 

“If his hip clears, I still think first round—I’d say third quarterback off the board if healthy,” said one NFC exec. “His mobility, ability to run the RPOs, his playmaking ability, that’s all there. Very calm demeanor on the field. Command. And he’s an accurate passer with good touch and a very good deep ball thrower.” 

An NFC college scouting director added, “He’s very talented. I think the injury history is obviously going to be a major factor on where he ends up and it should be. If you are a team that needs a guy to go on day 1, turn the thing around and help you compete for 16 weeks, he may not be for you. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy for 12. If you have an aging vet, and you draft him for the future and let him get healthy, and continue to grow as a player, I think that would be best case scenario for him and the drafting team.” 

I think Tagovailoa has a shot to maybe even be the second quarterback to go— he’ll battle for position with Oregon’s Justin Herbert. To me, that’s more than enough to justify a move to the NFL, and leave all the risk he’d face otherwise behind.

• The Rams’ decision to move on from Wade Phillips didn’t come as a shock to anyone inside the team’s facility—Sean McVay had become more involved in the defense as Phillips came closer to the end of the three-year deal he signed in 2017, which was a sign to those there that he had a clear vision for where he wanted the defense to go. I’m told the Rams will look at candidates both internal (assistant head coach Joe Barry is one, and also a candidate for the USC DC job, and DBs coach Aubrey Pleasant is another) and external to replace Phillips.

• J.J. Watt played 61% of the Texans’ defensive snaps, putting him second among the team’s defensive linemen, on Saturday night. That’s a lot for a guy at Watt’s position, but it’s still not near what he was doing pre-injury. In the seven games he finished this year, Watt played 90.9, 98.5, 94.6, 92.5, 91.9, 96.4, and 89.0% of the team’s snaps on defense. Will he play more in Kansas City? Here’s how Bill O’Brien addressed that: “We’ll see how he does during the week, how he’s feeling. That’s a lot of communication between he and I and Romeo. He’s been doing this for a long time, so he’ll help us determine how he’s feeling and how much he’ll be in there.”

• According to candidates who have interviewed with the Giants, there are three primary people leading these interviews: CEO John Mara, GM Dave Gettleman and assistant GM Kevin Abrams. The leader in the clubhouse for the job, Baylor coach Matt Rhule, will get to New Jersey tomorrow to interview, and my sense is Rhule will have his own set of questions. He has a pretty developed idea of what he wants and how a football operation should be set up, and it’s only been strengthened by what he went through with the Jets last year.

• Did Vikings TE Kyle Rudolph push off on his game-winning touchdown on Sunday? “Not at all,” he said, and I could almost see the smile through the phone line. “I mean, they reviewed it. If I pushed off, they would have reviewed it and called it offensive pass interference. That's why that's rule is in.” For the record, I do believe the call was way too close to overturn. And the fact that it happened in the Superdome? An unfortunate coincidence for the league.

• With the Redskins deciding to table their search for a GM (or GM type) until after the draft, it’s not hard to see a trend developing. More teams may wait until May, the end of the scouting year, to make moves in that area. It already happens in lower levels of scouting, since that’s when contracts come up. So it’s not crazy to think that more and more teams will let their scouting departments finishing the annual cycle up before making changes. For the record, I don’t think the Redskins will be the only team looking for a GM when we get there.

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