Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy survived calls for his firing after a first-round playoff exit in 2022. After being put on notice by owner Jerry Jones in July, a Cowboys coaching search could be imminent based on the results in the 2023 NFL playoffs.
McCarthy has proven to be a smart hire by Jones. After a 10-loss season in 2020, Dallas delivered consecutive 12-win campaigns over the past two years. It also earned consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2006-’07, making McCarthy one of the team’s winningest coaches in years.
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However, expectations are much higher in Texas. The franchise hasn’t played in an NFC Championship Game since 1996, creating a drought that is impacting Jones’s legacy. Even for an owner who has shown more loyalty to his head coaches in recent years, certain standards must be met for McCarthy to stick around.
Another first-round playoff exit will likely end McCarthy’s tenure in Dallas. With that in mind, let’s examine the top Cowboys coaching candidates in 2023.
Sean Payton, former New Orleans Saints head coach
Jones has wanted Sean Payton for years. Dallas reached an agreement with the New Orleans Saints in 2019, agreeing to the parameters of a trade that would send Payton to Texas. At the last minute, though, the Saints backed out because NBA star Anthony Davis demanded a trade away from the New Orleans Pelicans.
McCarthy would solve many of the Cowboys’ problems. He is one of the best strategists and play-callers of his era, meaning the offense would remain one of the best in the NFL. Just as important, the potential loss of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn this offseason would be mitigated by Payton hiring Vic Fangio as his defensive architect.
This is who Jones has always wanted and it will be his last chance to hire Payton. A trade with New Orleans means sacrificing a 2023 first-round pick and additional compensation, but going from McCarthy to Payton is an undeniable upgrade.
Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator
Dallas struck gold in 2021 when McCarthy parted ways with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and beat out a number of competitors for Quinn. One of the best defensive-minded coaches and leaders in football played an immense role in the defensive turnaround of the Cowboys’ defense.
|Dallas Cowboys defense by seasons||PPG Allowed||Defensive DVOA||Yards per Play Allowed|
|2020||29.6 (28th)||23rd (6%)||5.9 (23rd)|
|2021||21.1 (7th)||2nd (-15.2%)||5.5 (21st)|
|2022||20.1 (5th)||2nd (-13.3%)||5.1 (7th)|
Barring a surprise, this will be Quinn’s last season in Dallas. It could have long-term ramifications for the Cowboys’ defense and locker room, especially if Jones sticks with McCarthy and another bad hiring is made as we saw with Nolan. Quinn is beloved by the players, including Micah Parsons, which puts Dallas in a challenging position if he becomes a head coach elsewhere.
That’s why, if the Cowboys don’t advance far in the playoffs, Jones might need to consider a coaching change. While McCarthy helped build a positive team culture, there’s a strong argument to be made that this team takes a further step back in 2023 if it loses Quinn than McCarthy.
Ben Johnson, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator
Every year there are offensive coordinators partnered with MVP-caliber quarterbacks that are hired as NFL head coaches. Some of the decisions work out, but more often teams realize that the All-Pro quarterback executing the offense is who made everything work. In the case of Ben Johnson, he elevated Jared Goff and the Lions’ offense.
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Very few thought highly of Goff entering the 2022 season, even Detroit was uncertain if he would be its starting quarterback a year from now. Johnson changed all of that in just a few months. The Lions’ offense finished the regular season ranked sixth in points per play (0.415), fifth in Offensive DVOA (13.3%) and yards per play (5.9) and posted the fourth-highest touchdown rate in the red zone (66.2%).
Johnson accomplished all of this with a well-balanced offense that found different ways each week to exploit opposing defenses based on a variety of weaknesses. He accomplished more with a lesser supporting cast than so many other coordinators have achieved with All-Pro skill players.
If Jerry Jones decides to move on from McCarthy and misses out on Payton, Johnson needs to be one of the top Cowboys coaching candidates. While he might not be the next Sean McVay, it’s hard to fathom what he could do with the All-Star cast in Dallas.
Kellen Moore, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator
Relationships matter for the Cowboys and the love Jones has for Kellen Moore makes him one of the favorites to replace McCarthy. The team’s investment in Dak Prescott also means the face of the franchise needs to be happy, which makes an even stronger case for promoting Moore.
It’s hard to argue with the success we’ve seen from this offense under its offensive coordinator. The Cowboys led the NFL in red-zone touchdown rate (71.43%), second-half scoring (14.3 PPG) and they finished fifth in third-down conversion rate (45.45%).
Continuity matters, especially long-term for this franchise. If Jones is going to take the ultimate step of firing McCarthy, the decision is only being made if he knows there is a viable replacement. Moore is going to become an NFL head coach before long and staying in Dallas would help this team sustain a high-scoring offense for years to come. While internal promotions are when we see NFL coaches fired, the strength of the Cowboys’ coaching staff could make it an exception.
Dallas Cowboys coaching candidates
Here is a full list of coaching candidates who should be considered if McCarthy is let go.
- Sean Payton, former NFL coach
- Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator
- Kellen Moore, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator
- Ben Johnson, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator
- Shane Steichen, Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator
- Brian Flores, former Miami Dolphins head coach
- DeMeco Ryans, San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator