Dallas Cowboys Start New Era with Mike McCarthy, but Jerry Jones Problem Remains

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones got exactly what he wants in a new head coach by hiring Mike McCarthy.

Or, more accurately, he got exactly what he thinks he wants in a new head coach.

Jones made it clear over the last few weeks what sort of coach he wanted to replace Jason Garrett, even though he waited until Sunday night to make it clear that he planned to replace Garrett.

College coaches were out of the question. “College coaches coming directly into head coach have the lowest percentage rate of success as opposed to coming from coordinators,” he told Dallas radio station 105.3 in December (via the Dallas Morning News). “You pay a price for somebody to get up to date.” So no Lincoln Riley or Matt Rhule for the Cowboys.

Jones also appeared to have little interest in starting over with some hotshot coordinator. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported hours after the announcement of Garrett’s dismissal that the Cowboys were “intensely focused on head coach candidates who have extensive NFL experience in the role and a track record of success.”

That left a mighty shallow applicant pool. But McCarthy, hired by the Cowboys on Monday (as first reported by Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer), fits the job qualifications perfectly: 13 years of head coaching experience, 125-77-2 regular-season record, 10-8 playoff record, Super Bowl ring.

Chuckle at McCarthy’s late-career stumbles in Green Bay if you like—years of Aaron Rodgers passive-aggression, the mid-afternoon massage rumors, the playbook that shrunk down in his final seasons to the kiddie menu at a burger joint—but McCarthy coached Packers teams that led the NFL in points twice and finished in the top 10 nine times. His game plans eventually grew stale, his management got a little lax and his relationship with his quarterback curdled, but that happens to most coaches who stay in one organization for years: see Ron Rivera, Andy Reid in Philly, Mike Tomlin last year and many others. When he’s dialed in, McCarthy knows what to do with talent.

Heaven knows that the Cowboys have talent, assuming Jones opens up the check book and takes care of Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. McCarthy’s vintage Packers offense featured Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and other receivers flying all over the field with defenders on their contrails. Cooper, Michael Gallup and others should excel running a new version of that old passing game. Rugged interior running also had its place in the classic McCarthy offense, so Ezekiel Elliott will have more to do than run pass routes into the flat, and the star-studded Cowboys line will have plenty of chances to drive-block the defense into the parking lot.

McCarthy can help the Cowboys become contenders right away. So he is precisely what Jones wants, except for one little detail: Jones also wants to be the one in control.

If the Garrett decade taught us anything, it’s that the ideal Cowboys coach is a company man, a glorified Waylon Smithers to blow the whistle during practices and attend all the boring meetings while the owner makes all the big-time decisions. Jones signs the players, courts the free agents and commands the draft war room. Jones is the one issuing weekly radio manifestos. Jones handles the relationships (and attends Beyonce concerts) with temperamental players. Jones reserves the right to meddle with things like the running back rotation, which should be 100 percent within the coaching staff’s purview.

The only person in Dallas with the power to veto Jones (stopping him at the last second from drafting Johnny Manziel, for example) is his son, team chief operating officer Stephen Jones. The Cowboys org chart is a family tree, and the official team website makes no attempts to hide it (all the scouting and personnel executives not named “Jones” are not even listed, as if they don’t really exist). The Cowboys are more of a kingdom than a football franchise, as the bizarre decision to lock Garrett in the Tower of London for a week instead of just dismissing him on Black Monday illustrates. Embarrassing things like that happen because no one has the authority/courage to tell Jones just how embarrassing they are.

If there’s one thing every king hates, it’s abdicating power to someone with their own ideas about how to run the kingdom. Former Cowboys quarterback turned Fox analyst Troy Aikman said as much in December when asked if he would consider a role as the team’s general manager. “It’s unlikely that Jerry will ever bring somebody in that can help this football team in that regard, just because he’s been real stubborn and steadfast, in that he’s the one in charge,” Aikman said on Dallas radio station 1310 The Ticket (via CBS Sports).

“I think in a lot of ways until that changes,” Aikman said, “this team’s going to have some problems.”

McCarthy always worked within a Packers structure where Ted Thompson or (at the end of his tenure) Brian Gutekunst held final personnel authority. But McCarthy certainly had his say in what was always a very professional (and usually successful) front office. He will expect input. He will expect autonomy. And he certainly won’t appreciate being blindsided by something the team owner decreed on a radio show, a fact of life Garrett simply made part of his weekly routine.

As McCarthy told Peter King of NBC Sports last month, he spent his year away from the NFL convening regularly with a roundtable of fellow coaches like Jim Haslett in a barn he converted into a football think tank. The imagery sounds a little too precious—the aging rock band recording in a countryside farm house to “rediscover their roots”—but McCarthy certainly emerged from Big Pink with fresh ideas about how to orchestrate an offense, structure his coaching staff and run a team that he is itching to implement.

In other words, McCarthy expects to be in charge. But that job is taken. And that will cause friction.

McCarthy and Jones no doubt talked through these issues during their interviews. McCarthy certainly received some soothing reassurances about where the Jones family’s authority will end and his will begin. But there’s a difference between what’s said in an interview and what actually happens; McCarthy might have gotten the hint that Jones has trouble following through on his proclamations if he walked past a pacing Garrett in the lobby.

The Cowboys have finally solved their Garrett problem. But if they don’t solve their Jones problem, McCarthy will become just another Garrett, unable to do the basic things other head coaches do without risk of stepping on powerful toes or getting undermined by his own boss.

Unfortunately for McCarthy and the Cowboys, the Jones problem is the one that will never, ever go away.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.


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