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Mike McCarthy has to prove he’s evolved, or else the Cowboys just hired Jason Garrett 2.0

McCarthy is a good, but not great replacement for a good, but not great head coach.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Garrett is out as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He leaves behind a legacy of offense-first planning that often topped out at good, but never great. His inability to make in-game changes, evolve as NFL defenses became wise to his schtick, and give his offensive stars the opportunity to maximize their potential ultimately became his legacy in Texas.

Mike McCarthy is, reportedly, in as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. He brings a legacy of offense-first planning that often topped out at good, but never great. His inability to make in-game changes, evolve as NFL defenses became wise to his schtick, and give his offensive stars the opportunity to maximize their potential ultimately became his legacy in Wisconsin.

This may be a problem for Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones.

Yes, McCarthy has a Super Bowl win under his belt. But like Garrett, his tenure as longtime head coach of a storied NFL franchise was always defined by the feeling he should have done more. His career as the Packers’ head coach outside that magical 2010 playoff run featured a 6-8 postseason record (.428 winning percentage). Aaron Rodgers’ career peaked over the six years that followed — he won two MVP awards, led the league in passer rating twice, and threw 210 touchdown passes in 88 games — but McCarthy could never get him back to the promised land.

This narrative isn’t lost in Dallas. Garrett wrapped up his tenure with a 2-3 playoff resume (.400) despite nearly a decade of above-average quarterback play between Tony Romo and Dak Prescott. Hell, both coaches oversaw a season with the NFL’s best record crumble into an immediate postseason exit. McCarthy shepherded the Packers’ 15-1 season in 2011, only to lose to the Giants at home in the Divisional Round that winter. He was also there for the terminus of Garrett’s 13-3 2016 campaign — it was his Packers that went to Dallas to upend Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott (he’d turn that momentum from a stirring comeback win into a 24-0 halftime deficit against the Falcons one week later).

There’s an innate feeling that “good” will continue to be Dallas’ biggest obstacle in its quest for greatness. McCarthy inherits a talented roster, including Prescott and Amari Cooper (should they be retained as pending free agents), as well as Elliott, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Leighton Vander Esch, for starters. He should be able to coax that group to the playoffs without much strain. That lineup ranked second in the NFL in offensive efficiency this past fall, and third when it came to stopping opponents on third down, even if Garrett’s 8-8 record failed to reflect that talent.

Then the onus will be on him to prove he’s not the same coach who came completely unprepared for the Falcons in 2017. Or who crapped away a 19-7 lead in the final three minutes of an NFC title game against the Seahawks in 2015. Or the guy who was completely befuddled by Colin Kaepernick’s ability to run the ball in 2013 or 2014.

Can this pairing finally unlock the Cowboys’ potential?

The most damning evidence about McCarthy’s fit at the end of his Green Bay tenure has been the Packers’ rebound from 6-9-1 in 2018 to NFC North champions without him. Rookie head coach Matt LaFleur’s moderately hands-off approach has kept Rodgers happy, and his ability to work Aaron Jones into the offense has taken the strain from an aging Rodgers’ shoulders. The easy narrative to follow was that McCarthy had broken the Pack, and now they’re fixed.

There were mitigating factors that contributed to McCarthy’s departure, however — namely the mercurial franchise quarterback who reportedly clashed with his head coach throughout the 2010s. Did McCarthy’s offensive philosophy fall behind the ever-evolving NFL in Green Bay, or did Rodgers limit what he was able to implement? That’s a question we should get an immediate answer to once the Cowboys take the field in 2020.

There’s also the issue of the team he’s inheriting in Dallas and its future. The Packers saw their McCarthy malaise end thanks to the decidedly un-Packer free agent acquisitions of Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos, all of whom boosted a lackluster Green Bay defense and came up big in spurts over a 13-3 season.

The Cowboys will need similar help for a unit that ranked 19th in the league in defensive efficiency, but their impending descent into cap space hell means there’s no quick fix in free agency. McCarthy’s main role as the team’s new general may be to prep his young quarterback for a season of shootout wins. That’s a strategy that worked with a generational talent in Green Bay — until the postseason when, expect for one magical season, it didn’t.

McCarthy spent his year out of football studying trends and preparing for a comeback in a perpetually pass-happy league. Will that mean he’s updated his aging West Coast offense for something more modern? He’s inheriting an accurate, mostly turnover-averse mobile quarterback who had 14 game-winning drives in his first three seasons in the league. Will he buttress Prescott’s talent with ideas stolen from the recent ascension of the Rams, Chiefs, and Ravens offenses? Or will Kellen Moore’s continued employment as offensive coordinator merely confirm a repeat of 2019’s wasted potential?

Jerry Jones wanted to hire a head coach with NFL experience in order to cut out the learning curve of promoting an assistant or a collegiate hire, turning away from the recent trend of banking on a fresh young mind to puff up his offense (see Sean McVay in Los Angeles or Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona, among others). That doesn’t mean McCarthy doesn’t bring his own set of questions with him. If he can’t evolve, Jones may have just brought in a cavalry in an effort to battle with the rest of the NFL’s tank divisions.

McCarthy may have been the most accomplished coach Jerry Jones could have hired to replace Jason Garrett. Only three other coaches — Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, and Bill Belichick — have ever made the playoffs eight straight years with the same team, as his Packers did from 2010-17.

That doesn’t mean he’s the best man for the job. If McCarthy’s history in Green Bay is any indication, the Cowboys just signed up for a few more years of very Garrett-esque finishes and frustratingly conservative and occasionally predictable playcalling.

For nearly 11 seasons, we wondered whether McCarthy was the governor keeping Rodgers’ high-test engine from reaching full speed in big games. Now the head coach is moving to Dallas, and we’ll get to test this theory on Dak Prescott and company.