When Mike McCarthy was rounding out his coaching staff for the Dallas Cowboys last January, a question began to cling to the man who had spent the previous year in his football bunker reinventing himself.
If Kellen Moore was going to run the offense and Mike Nolan was going to have control over the defense — what exactly was McCarthy’s overarching role?
The answer from inside the organization was often vague and oddly labored, trying to posit that McCarthy’s wealth of NFL coaching experience would lend to him having his fingers on a little bit of everything. He wouldn’t be deeply involved with the defensive planning, but that was the point of hiring a coordinator who McCarthy trusted to implement the necessary scheme. And though McCarthy wouldn’t be calling the offensive plays on Sunday, he’d work hand-in-hand with Moore on the preparation and weekly installation.
All of this was a roundabout way of saying that McCarthy’s biggest role under this Jerry Jones-inspired setup is really just one overriding thing on gameday: to lead. This is what’s arguably most troubling about the Cowboys now — only six games into a frustrating season, at least some players are not following along with their new head coach.
If they were, you wouldn’t be hearing players sniping at the coaching staff, which the NFL Network’s Jane Slater appeared to lay bare this week with damning accusations from the roster that coaches are “totally unprepared,” “don’t teach,” “don’t have any sense of adjusting on the fly” and “just aren’t good at their jobs.”
Given that Dallas is only six games into this new regime, those aren’t a handful of frustrated shots. That’s a full-fledged carpet-bombing, which might as well have been dialed onto the top of McCarthy’s head, because let’s be real here: If you’re not calling any of the schemes on gameday, then the preparation during the week and overriding confidence of the players in the staff is your primary responsibility. And if the coaches aren’t prepared — or the players simply think the coaches aren’t prepared — McCarthy already has a legitimate problem on his hands.
In fairness to McCarthy, a litany of things have gone wrong in Dallas that he couldn’t control. Injuries have hammered the roster beyond repair, and they happened in the wonkiest kind of season when there was no hands-on program before August, no preseason games and very little time for players to get comfortable with the staff. McCarthy also can’t be held directly responsible for some of the things that are happening with players on the field. He didn’t cause a spate of Ezekiel Elliott fumbles. He isn’t making Jaylon Smith take poor angles in the fifth year of his career. He didn’t throw a dubious offensive pass interference flag late in the season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
The reality is you can’t hit McCarthy with a taser every single time something goes wrong. In terms of the brain trust, there is a shared responsibility of why Dallas is bad right now. Some of it has been personnel mismanagement that goes back a few years. Some of it is how ownership wanted this current coaching staff to function. Some of it is on a handful of players who (regardless of scheme) are not performing well. And you could even argue that the gathering cloud is also a function of the distorted expectations that always exist around this franchise. Despite it being a very average team for the better part of the past 25 years, there is rarely a season that begins without bloated Super Bowl talk.
All of that said, there is no escaping that this is the job McCarthy signed on for. He knew what the roster looked like. He knew who the team owners were. He knew the immense pressure that accompanies a vast fan base and nitpicking media. There’s also no getting around Nolan being McCarthy’s guy — which means if that defense is never going to work, the responsibility for making a tough call has to be on McCarthy and not just ownership.
This brings us back to the question of leadership, and whether McCarthy can keep this locker room together. This is what his chief job has to be right now because this is very likely going to get worse as the season goes on, particularly as losses and additional injuries pile up. In the face of that, reporters are going to ask anyone and everyone in the organization for an explanation of every failure. That anonymous sniping about “coaches” not being prepared is going to get specific. Names are going to start getting attached to the accusations. Conversely, individual players are going to end up getting called out.
The only thing that can stop this is McCarthy. It’s not going to be Jerry Jones calling some special meeting where he urges everyone to close ranks. It’s not going to be Stephen Jones convincing the leadership council to take control. And it certainly can’t be Moore, Nolan or any of McCarthy’s coaching subordinates who draw the line.
In the end, all of that is going to have to be pulled off by McCarthy. And it very well could come to fruition, given that he has a penchant for direct honesty with his players that is supposed to be one of his wheelhouse assets. If the defensive coordinator or his scheme aren’t going to change anytime soon (they aren’t) and the offensive coordinator isn’t going to yield play-calling duties in the near future (he isn’t), we’re left with the same question we’ve had since January.
What is Mike McCarthy’s job?
Jerry Jones hired him to lead this team and hold it together. This week will be the first significant showcase of whether he can do it. And from the looks of things, a long examination of a vague job description is just getting underway.
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