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Mike McCarthy Must Be Doing Something Right

Mike McCarthy of the Dallas Cowboys looks on from the field prior to an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on January 14, 2024 in Arlington, Texas.
Perry Knotts/Getty Images

Mike McCarthy is staying as the head coach and chief valet of the Dallas Cowboys, and we mention that not to pass it off as news but to run a beta test on your capacity for anger and incredulity. No coach has been less popular or, in the superb phraseology of Kevin Clark, more “pre-fired” than Mike McCarthy. This is true now, and also going back to the year when Aaron Rodgers first turned on him, two years after the two won a Super Bowl with the Packers back in 2012.

That ought to be the first tipoff that McCarthy is worth more benefit than doubt. Someone on the wrong side of science for the sake of notoriety is hardly an infallible marker for another person's employment skills; more to the point, being someone Aaron Rodgers disagrees with has never seemed like a more compelling recommendation than it does today.

McCarthy makes for an interesting study in popular perception because this has been his lot for a decade now. The narrative has been unwavering—he should have been fired last week for each of the last 572 weeks, either because he can't win the big one or for that matter even get to the big one, or just because he has, or is, bad vibes. He and he alone has prevented the best team in football, whether that be in Green Bay or Dallas, from achieving its due, despite neither of them ever actually being the best team in football. And yet McCarthy has been employed for 18 straight years.

So let's ask the only truly logical question here: If he has a Marvel villain-level power to cloud people's minds despite his evident shortcomings for nearly two decades, is he really the guy you want to mess with?

As Clark suggests, McCarthy is certainly the single most baffling active coach in any sport, and perhaps ever. No other coach has lasted this long with this level of public unanimity against his tenure; no coach has ever been so roundly ripped for merely holding a job while also carrying a winning percentage of .610. That (stellar) winning percentage also includes the 22 playoff games that are most frequently used to argue for McCarthy’s criminal undercompetence. No coach has lost so many games on his own (113) and had his players win so many despite him (178). And no, we don't know what to do about the two ties; maybe that's a duality of human nature thing. Let’s not ask Aaron about it.

Underpinning the general dismissal of McCarthy as a perpetual unworthy, though, is the notion that he repeatedly took the league’s best team into the toilet with him. Going by record alone, that only happened in 2011, when the Packers went 15-1 and got beat in the divisional round by the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The rest of the time, the Packers went into the playoffs with a middling or worse defense and/or subsequently lost to a provably better team. Even in 2015, the year the Packers got hammered by Arizona in the conference final, the Cardinals finished 13-3 and the Packers were 10-6, and if the Cardinals are better than you, you deserve all the shame you get. Essentially, Green Bay lost right about the time each year it should have lost because it was a team with an exploitable defense. That’s part of a head coach’s responsibility, but it’s not entirely that coach’s fault.

In Dallas, the Cowboys under McCarthy have lost twice in the postseason to San Francisco; this was because their offensive line couldn't block San Francisco's defensive line in one season and because the 49ers were better on both sides of the ball in the other. The loss to Green Bay a week ago looks inexplicable if you compare the team’s records and roster, which is why the presumption that McCarthy would surely be fired gained such steam after it happened. We leap on the last thing we saw because our memories have been shortened to nanosecond levels; this despite (or because) greater access to data than ever, and because the common sports fan perception that every other person is a moron who deserves nothing but wall-of-sound patronizing.

But here is where the anti-McCarthy sentiment hits the wall. McCarthy was hired by an owner in Jerry Jones who kept Jason Garrett for nearly a decade, and Garrett is demonstrably a poorer coach (and an even poorer television figure than that, but let's not sidetrack ourselves). The Jones who fired Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson after a Super Bowl was long ago replaced by a patient-to-the-point-of-sclerosis owner who knew that he would not be able to coexist with either Bill Belichick or Jim Harbaugh and so didn't bother with either. Jones stuck with what he knows, for now, because that is mostly what he does. This, too, is not McCarthy's fault.

So what have we got here? McCarthy's teams in Green Bay went roughly as far as they deserved to go; successful playoff teams have better defenses than McCarthy ever had, and his relative lack of playoff success reflects that. His Dallas teams have been held in higher esteem than they deserved, perhaps because the NFL intelligentsia still buys into the Cowboy mystique even though it hasn't been worthy of such respect for three decades. Those shortcomings, in short, look more like a general manager/roster construction problem than merely a coaching problem. And in the case of the Cowboys, the general manager is only going to be fired by the coroner.

McCarthy, we suspect, is being held to two different standards—his appearance and his lack of outward personality. He is a round fellow, and some fans imagine that a coach should be as flatbellied as his players; this has been pointed out most recently by Bomani Jones, but has been a staple of McCarthy criticism for years. Fans of all shapes and BMI gleefully fat-shame anyone who isn't a defensive tackle, and McCarthy does not display the kind of incandescent fury in difficult moments that people want from their human headsets. The projection that follows isn’t limited to Mike McCarthy, but it is familiar. (The only exception to this is the equally global Andy Reid, and Reid is a better coach than nearly everybody ever, plus he caught the same grief when he was in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick and a traditionally mediocre defense.)

McCarthy is otherwise just about what he should be given the teams he coached, and so the loathing he engenders must spring from someplace other than his record in big moments. If you lose to a better team, you lost to a better team, and that's as complicated as it gets. Besides, the same people who fulminate about McCarthy are also the ones who claim quarterback Dak Prescott is inadequate in the big moments and should also be replaced. Now either the quarterback is undermining the coach, or the coach is undermining the quarterback, but one cannot win 12 games in three consecutive years with the same two people if they both stink.

So is Mike McCarthy a bad coach? No. He's better than average but nothing more, and has fewer galling failures than his reputation would suggest. Did he undermine Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay? Not as much as those defenses did. Is he preventing the Cowboys from achieving their destiny? They have been like this for 30 years—being like this is their destiny. Should he have been fired? Maybe, but to answer a question with a question: what difference do you think it would make? What ails the Cowboys is systemic, and bigger than Mike McCarthy.

What has changed, really, is the soccer-based notion that a coach should be canned at the first sign of oil leakage, because coaches are dispensable. That McCarthy is still in Dallas is more a measure of the owner, and perhaps also of how the elite coaches in the market see the parameters of the job in Dallas. Bill Parcells had a bad time getting Jerry’d and walked, and Bill Belichick is essentially Parcells at the same point in both life and career; Harbaugh's chaotic fight-the-power rep while in San Francisco doesn’t align with an owner-centric franchise like Dallas. And if you can't get them, and you're not sure about the rest of the coaching market, why not keep Mike McCarthy? His failure is in being Just A Guy, which is something he has in common with most coaches who don't have roster control. They are all beholden to their superiors, and only laziness and the lure of the old narratives prevents us from evaluating them the same way.

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