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Cowboys retaining Mike McCarthy for 2024: Three reasons for and against Jerry Jones’ decision

After roughly 72 hours of collective handwringing by Dallas Cowboys nation over whether or not to retain head coach Mike McCarthy after the second-seeded Cowboys’ 48-32 faceplant on Sunday against the seventh-seeded Green Bay Packers, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones made a decision Wednesday night. 

He put out a statement announcing the retention of McCarthy, saying he believes his team is “very close and and capable of achieving our ultimate goals and the best step forward for us will be with Mike McCarthy as our head coach.”

Jones’ decision to keep McCarthy employed as his head coach after his latest playoff exit prior to the conference championship round is certainly a polarizing one as cases for both sides can be made. Here are three reasons for McCarthy’s retention and three reasons why Jones made the wrong decision.

The case for keeping McCarthy around in 2024

1. QB Dak Prescott’s and WR CeeDee Lamb’s growth

The number one talking point for retaining McCarthy is the development of the offense in his first year in Dallas calling the plays. The Cowboys led the league in scoring offense (29.9 points per game), and the biggest reason for that was the 180 degree reversal of quarterback Dak Prescott’s play. 

Prescott bounced back from co-leading the NFL in interceptions (15) in 2022 to becoming the the first quarterback in Cowboys history to lead the NFL outright in passing touchdowns while compiling a career-high 105.9 passer rating in 2023 with McCarthy as the offensive play-caller. That made him the first player in the Super Bowl era — since 1966 — and just the second in league history (along with Hall of Famer Bob Waterfield in 1945-1946) to jump from the NFL’s interception leader to passing touchdown leader in consecutive seasons, according to NFL Media researcher Dante Koplowitz-Fleming.   

The eighth-year Cowboys quarterback earned 2023 Second-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for his efforts. 

Dak Prescott this season

NFL QB RANK

Completion Pct

69.5%

2nd

Pass Yards/Att

7.7

6th

Pass Yards 4,516 3rd

Pass TD

36

1st

TD-INT

36-9

2nd

Passer Rating

105.9

2nd

Expected Points Added/Play 0.18 2nd

Prescott himself also pitched his own football growth as a chief reason to keep McCarthy in his postgame press conference following the season-ending defeat against Green Bay on Sunday. He even went so far as to suggest his own job security should be questioned if McCarthy’s is. 

“He’s been amazing,” Prescott said postgame. “I don’t know how they can be (calling for his job), but I understand the business. In that case, it should be about me as well. I’ve had the season that I’ve had because of him. This team has had the success that they’ve had because of him. I understand it’s about winning the Super Bowl. That’s the standard of this league and damn sure the standard of this place. I get it but add me to the list in that case.”      

Fourth-year wideout CeeDee Lamb earned Pro Bowl nods in 2021 and 2022, but he took the leap to being a 2023 First-Team All-Pro after leading the NFL in catches (135). Prescott and Lamb marked the first time in 16 years the same team has had both the NFL’s leader in touchdown passes and catches in the same season. The last squad to have both was the 2007 New England Patriots with future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady and Wes Welker. That group won their first 18 games of the year before falling just short in the Super Bowl. 

CeeDee Lamb this season

NFL WR RANKS

Targets

181*

1st

Receptions 

135*

1st

Receiving Yards

1,749

2nd

Scrimmage Yards

1,862

1st

Scrimmage TD

14

1st

Receptions of 20+ Yards

29*

T-1st

*Led NFL

2. Consistent regular season excellence

Dallas has had at least 12 wins three straight seasons under McCarthy. This stretch marks the second time in franchise history for that to occur, joining the Cowboys’ 1990s dynasty run from 1992-1995 in which they won three Super Bowls in four seasons. McCarthy is the first Cowboys head coach to accomplish this feat. Only the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (37) have more regular-season wins than Dallas since 2021. McCarthy’s regular season record as the Cowboys head coach is 42-25 (62.7% win percentage), giving him the highest career win percentage of any coach in team history.     

“It’s tough to give you that answer when I just went out there and we just did that,” Prescott said postgame Sunday when asked how the team can translate its regular season success to the postseason. “Unfortunately, that’s what the offseason is for, and it’s a long one. Yeah, I wish I could give you that answer.”

In his players’ minds, that’s a big improvement over predecessor Jason Garrett. The team went 86-67 in 10 seasons (55.9% win percentage) under Garrett with three playoff trips. McCarthy has reached the postseason three years in a row and every year of his four-year tenure in which Prescott has not suffered a season-ending injury.

“This is one of the hardest jobs in America, quarterback and the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys,” Cowboys cornerback Jourdan Lewis said Monday “I feel like he’s done a tremendous job all things in consideration. It’s hard, all things considered. A lot of media, a lot of people against you, all the outside noise and we just made sure that we stuck our arms around each other and stayed together. I think we did a really good job. He helped me a lot with my career, and I feel like I learned a lot with him. … Look what he did in comparison to what happened when he wasn’t here,” Lewis said. “We were struggling to be over .500. He had three straight 12-win seasons. So yeah, I hope so (McCarthy returns).”  

3. Poor injury luck in 2023

Prescott stayed healthy in 2023, starting all 17 regular season games and the wild card round defeat against the Packers. The same cannot be said for the Dallas defense. Pro Bowl cornerback Trevon Diggs tore his ACL prior to the team’s Week 3 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals

Pro Bowl inside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch suffered a season-ending and perhaps career-ending neck injury in Week 5 at the San Francisco 49ers. Third-round rookie linebacker DeMarvion Overshown tore his ACL in training camp. He was expected to have a contributing defensive role right away. That left Damone Clark (6’4, 240 pounds), Markquese Bell (a 6’3, 205-pound converted safety) and safety Jayron Kearse (6’4, 215 pounds) getting the bulk of the snaps at inside linebacker most of the year. There were times in practice at The Star, the team’s headquarters in Frisco, Texas, where only one or two guys were going through linebacker position drills because of the injuries. 

That made the Dallas defense susceptible on the ground, something contenders like the San Francisco 49ers (170 rushing yards), Buffalo Bills (266 rushing yards) and the Packers (143 rushing yards) all took advantage of. If the Cowboys simply regress to the mean injury-wise on the defensive side of the ball, their run defense and defense as a whole could take another critical step forward. 

Why Jerry Jones shouldn’t keep McCarthy around in 2024

1. Consistent playoff disappointment

McCarthy’s Cowboys are now the first team to win 12 games in three straight seasons and fail to make the conference championship in any of them. In each of the three postseason losses during the 2021 (23-17 wild card round loss vs. 49ers), 2022 (19-12 divisional round loss at 49ers) and 2023 (48-32 wild card round loss vs. Packers) seasons, slow offensive starts — McCarthy’s side of the ball — have been present.

In the 2021 playoff loss to the 49ers, the Cowboys feel behind by 13 points twice (13-0 and 23-10). That team had wide receiver Amari Cooper, running back Ezekiel Elliott, running back Tony Pollard, tight end Dalton Schultz and Lamb at Prescott’s disposal. Last season, Prescott forced two impulsive throws for interceptions when targeting Michael Gallup and Lamb against the 49ers as the offense mustered just one touchdown in a winnable game. This season, Prescott didn’t read the Packers defense well, throwing two first-half interceptions that resulted in 14 first-half points for the Packers. 

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. 

2. Lack of “toughness” against playoff teams whether it’s regular or postseason

This regular season, the Cowboys destroyed teams they were supposed to. They put up scores like 40-0 and 49-17 on the New York Giants. They beat the Washington Commanders twice by a combined score of 83-20. The lifeless New England Patriots were conquered 38-3. 

However, in game against the 49ers (a 42-10 loss) and the Bills (a 31-10 loss), games the team should be hyped up to play, they were steamrolled. On the final drive against the Miami Dolphins on Christmas with a chance to close out a critical, one-point victory against a playoff team, the Cowboys surrendered four first downs, allowing the Dolphins to kick a game-winning field goal in a 22-20 loss. Dallas beat the Detroit Lions the next week 20-19, but in a similar situation, up seven against a playoff team with the defense on the field with a chance to close the game, they surrendered a touchdown. The Cowboys were fortunate, to say the least, to survive that game with a victory.

3. Strong options available in current coaching carousel for offensive schematic improvement

The Cowboys were called for 115 penalties this regular season, tied for the second-most in the entire NFL with the Cleveland Browns and trailing only the New York Jets (124). McCarthy talked all year about wanting to clean up this specific area, but the Cowboys never did. 

An illegal contact penalty by 2023 First-Team All-Pro cornerback DaRon Bland helped the Packers maintain the football early in their opening drive that ended with an Aaron Jones rushing touchdown and an immediate 7-0 Green Bay lead. If the team wants more discipline and toughness, six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick is available after mutually parting ways with the New England Patriots after 24 seasons. 

However, if the team wants to provide Prescott with more “easy buttons” on passing plays, Jones should dial up a member of the Shanahan coaching tree. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn went 0-6 against Kyle Shanahan (49ers), Matt LaFleur (Packers) and Mike McDaniel (Dolphins) the last three seasons after all three were assistants under him on the 2016 NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Each of Dallas’ last three seasons were ended by either Shanahan or LaFleur. 

Houston Texans coordinator Bobby Slowik, a former Shanahan assistant with the 49ers, has C.J. Stroud looking a borderline top-five quarterback as a rookie. Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, not a Shanahan assistant, coordinated a Lions offense that saw Jared Goff break Detroit’s postseason single-game completion percentage record (22-27, 81%, for 277 yards and a touchdown) in a victory on Sunday. Either of those hires could bring schematic innovation that McCarthy is lacking at this stage of his coaching career. 

Jones has the money and talent-rich roster (seven Pro Bowlers) to lure either of them from nice situations in Houston and Detroit. Those hires could move the needle even more when it comes to Prescott’s and the offense’s growth. 

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