Jerry Jones is betting Mike McCarthy's second act will give Cowboys their own version of Bill Belichick, Andy Reid

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Late Sunday night, after the Dallas Cowboys had wrapped up head coaching interviews with Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis, the silence of Jerry Jones was delivering an answer nobody expected.

Top-level college coaches were chewing on nothing but questions when it came to the Dallas opening. Do I have a shot? What’s going on there? Who is on their list? Meanwhile, the cream of the crop in NFL coordinators — guys who would be at the top of interview agendas — had nothing to relay but a collective shrug.

For all intents and purposes, the Cowboys’ search felt like a process that was ending almost as quickly as it was beginning. And from the camps of the only two men who sat down for Jones emerged a clear message. He wanted seasoned experience and a track record of success; he wanted an open mind when it came to retaining some of the current offensive coaching staff; and he wanted someone who came in ready to teach about leading a franchise from the front, rather than learning how to do it.

This is how Mike McCarthy ended up being the choice of the Dallas Cowboys. Because he fit the mold of the experienced offensive mind Jones was looking for — and had the résumé to suggest he could be one of league’s elite “second act” coaches.

Will Jerry Jones' decision to bank on Mike McCarthy's experience and flexibility pay off? (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Jones certainly knows that group of aging-like-fine-wine retreads because he has spent his 24-year Super Bowl void pulling his hair out and watching the second-act fraternity shape the success of his league. Consider: There have been 23 Super Bowl champions since Dallas last won a title, and 15 have been led by coaches who were on their second head coaching shot. Guys like Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy and Gary Kubiak did it. Tom Coughlin and Mike Shanahan both won a pair of Super Bowls with their second teams. Pete Carroll? He finally reached the mountaintop in his third NFL head coaching stop. Dick Vermeil? He did it late in his coaching life, while Jon Gruden did it early in his.

That’s a lot of success in the second act of some considerably impressive coaching careers. So why not McCarthy?

That’s the funny thing about this coaching hire. Even with McCarthy having won a Super Bowl, he’s not the sexy hire by any means. Not in an era when everyone continues to look for the hot offensive candidates who will further propel the league’s statistical slot machine era. Instead, McCarthy is looked at more as a product of how his tenure fizzled out in Green Bay rather than for an overarching record that was very good.

That’s how it works with retreads. Even if they’re good, the initial response to them is usually lukewarm at best. Belichick? His hiring in New England was a virtual car crash of negative media. Dungy? He was the guy who couldn’t finish the job in Tampa Bay. Carroll? He was an elite college coach who had been only a solid performer in the NFL. Coughlin was an obstinate jerk. Vermeil? Wasn’t he like 100 years old? And as for Kubiak, well, that was something along the lines of, Gary Kubiak? Really?

The point here is that second-chance hires are rarely seen as answers. Instead, they are viewed through the prisms of what earned them a pink slip at their previous NFL stops. The vantage is always tinted with some kind of failure or personality clash, because those are the kinds of things that usually lead to firings in this league. And the accompanying narratives are extremely hard to shake.

Look no further than Andy Reid, who went to a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles and now has the Kansas City Chiefs primed for the opening of their championship window. Despite that reality, Reid still gets skewered as the guy who hasn’t gotten it done in his career when it has mattered most.

McCarthy will get plenty of that, too — especially after the ugly ending in Green Bay, which featured an Aaron Rodgers who had clearly become frustrated. But rather than talk about McCarthy’s respectable record (which is second behind Belichick in playoff wins among active coaches), we’ll talk about the offensive imbalance of some of his Packers teams. Or how the defense was never as consistent as it should have been. We’ll say he got only one Super Bowl out of 11 years of Rodgers’ prime and didn’t innovate enough.

There is a lot of fairness in those criticisms. But it’s hard to justify allowing those gripes to characterize McCarthy as a lackluster hire, especially when it’s pressed against the assumption that some college coach or NFL coordinator could have done things better. As much as we love new and unknown commodities in this league, the Sean McVays of the world are unicorns — and as we learned this season, even those guys can lose their horns pretty quickly.

Mike McCarthy's crowning achievement was winning a Super Bowl ⁠— at the Cowboys' AT&T Stadium ⁠— with the Packers. Can he win another ring for Jerry Jones? (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Frankly, Dallas fans should be inclined to give McCarthy a chance if only because there is some logic to what Jones is seeking. He just spent nearly 10 years with Jason Garrett talking about how his head coach was learning and banking experience and figuring out the calculus of being a Super Bowl winner. Now Jones is 77 and not willing to go through another one of those decades with a college guy, or even a coordinator. Instead, he’s staring at a roster that is primed to be steered by someone experienced right now. And given that McCarthy just spent the last year out of the game holed up in a self-created coaching laboratory — rather than on television, like most guys — speaks to how much he wanted to get back into the mix.

That latter fact sounds familiar to those who know Reid. Much like McCarthy in 2018, when Reid’s first NFL head coaching job was coming to an unmerciful end, he was told by some to relax. Take a year off, do some television, recharge the batteries. Instead, he took the Chiefs job less than a week after he’d been fired by the Eagles. Not because he needed to, but because he wasn’t anywhere near being burned out on coaching. The end in Philadelphia wasn’t his choice, so why on earth would he let someone else make his next choice, too?

McCarthy was a lot like that coming out of Green Bay. Even with family considerations, it was still clear he wanted to coach in the NFL and might have taken the right opportunity last year. But the pieces never fell into place, so he put together his coaching bunker at home and prepared for an opportunity he was sure would come along.

What nobody expected at the time was that the opportunity would be the most visible team in the NFL, with the most visible owner — and a roster that almost every candidate in the system recognized as the most ready to win in 2020. Dallas wasn’t just an opportunity. It was a gift from the heavens. Complete with enough talent fitting McCarthy’s skills that he should factor into the postseason picture in Year 1.

It didn’t come without caveats, of course. And that’s part of what started leaking out on Sunday, following the Cowboys’ interviews with McCarthy and Lewis. Clearly, Jones wanted the next coach to have an open mind about continuity where it concerned the offense and Dak Prescott. And that was going to mean very likely keeping offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, quarterbacks coach Jon Kitna, offensive line coach Marc Colombo and possibly running backs coach Gary Brown. That’s a hell of an ask by a team owner, but apparently one that McCarthy was willing to at least consider as he begins the process of shaping his staff. It doesn’t mean all of those coaches will stay, but I’d bet the balance of them do.

Maybe that’s the fair tradeoff here for Jones. He’s willing to roll the dice on McCarthy with a job that was very attractive to a wide array of candidates, in exchange for some staff concessions and a mandate to win immediately. And in the process, Jones gets the experienced candidate he wants who has the track record to demand respect from the start. Someone who can hold players accountable and instill some discipline and maybe even a sense of urgency.

Dallas could use a healthy dose of that. Time will tell if McCarthy can actually provide it. Because this is where the measurement begins — figuring out if McCarthy is what this franchise needed, even if he’s not what most of us expected.

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