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Dallas Cowboys coaching candidates to replace Mike McCarthy

Matt Johnson
Dallas Cowboys
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have suffered another first-round playoff exit, extending their streak to 25 years without an NFC Championship Game appearance. With one of the best rosters in the NFL and an impatient Jerry Jones, big changes are possible in Texas.

While the Cowboys delivered a six-win improvement from 2020 to 2021, head coach Mike McCarthy isn’t receiving the credit. NFL insider Charles Robinson shared on the “You Pod to Win the Game” podcast that many around the NFL have credited defensive coordinator Dan Quinn for the team’s impressive turnaround.

There are also questions surrounding McCarthy’s future in Dallas. CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora reported before the Wild Card game that many people familiar with Jones believed an early Cowboys’ playoff exit would lead to the owner considering a coaching change.

  • Dallas Cowboys record (Mike McCarthy era): 18-16

It doesn’t help that McCarthy made baffling decisions and this team lacked any composure or discipline (14 penalties). All of those factors could force Jones to make a coaching change. McCarthy was the X-factor for Dallas in the playoffs and so many of his shortcomings proved costly with the season on the line. While the Cowboys might not like firing coaches they love, it’s necessary.

While it doesn’t seem to be under consideration right now based on the post-game press conference, things can change quickly in Dallas.

“I don’t even want to discuss anything like that at this particular time. That’s not on the table. The game speaks for itself.”

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on possibility of firing McCarthy, via NFL.com

After being knocked out of the playoffs, let’s examine four Dallas Cowboys coaching candidates who could potentially replace McCarthy.

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Kellen Moore, Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator

NFL: Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There are few NFL coaches Jones is higher on than Kellen Moore. The former Boise State quarterback only played in Dallas for three seasons (2015-’17) and suited up in just three games. But his time in the organization raised eyebrows. After retiring, Moore was immediately hired as the Cowboys’ quarterbacks coach. A year later, he was promoted to offensive coordinator and now calls plays for the NFL’s best offense.

If McCarthy is fired, Moore becomes the favorite to replace him. Jones signed him to a new contract in 2021 to keep him from taking the Boise State job/ The Cowboys’ owner also offered glowing praise regarding Moore becoming a future head coach.

But there are risks in promoting Moore. In-game management, specifically using challenges and calling timeouts, are shortcomings. More concerning, the Cowboys’ offense went through a lot of inconsistency this season and Moore’s play-calling became predictable. Many of Moore’s issues as coordinator were on display in the loss to San Francisco. Plus, hiring Moore would mean the next candidate leaves.

Dan Quinn, Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator

NFL: Denver Broncos at Dallas Cowboys
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

While Moore would be the likely candidate to replace McCarthy, Quinn might be the best in-house option. The driving force behind the Cowboys’ 250-point improvement in scoring differential this season was the defense. Quinn and his staff played an integral role in Trevon Diggs making a second-year leap, Dallas’ pass rush dominating and his scheme fit the personnel perfectly.

Related: NFL defense rankings – Huge shakeups for top 20 defense before training camp

If Dallas doesn’t promote Quinn to head coach, there’s a strong possibility he doesn’t return next season. He is the favorite to replace Vic Fangio for the Denver Broncos and is interviewing with several other teams. While the Cowboys could replace him with Mike Zimmer, that could impact the locker room. If experience matters, he also has two Super Bowl appearances with one coming as a head coach.

Of course, there will now be questions about Quinn. Dallas seemed unprepared for the 49ers’ rushing attack and lacked the discipline to handle the motions and run action boot. If McCarthy is fired, fans might not love Quinn getting a promotion after this defensive performance.

Brian Daboll, Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If Jones decides to replace McCarthy, Brian Daboll needs to be atop the Dallas Cowboys’ list of candidates. He is the best offensive play-caller in the NFL today and he is credited with helping turn Josh Allen into an MVP candidate. The NFL world also saw him draw up the perfect game plan to beat Bill Belichick twice this season, in non-windstorm conditions.

Quite frankly, Daboll could do even more for Prescott than Moore has thus far. A receiving corps of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb would be chess pieces in Daboll’s offense, with the veteran coach finding countless ways to get them the football in space. He’d also have one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL, a maestro at reading the field and making pre-snap adjustments, executing everything. Daboll is the kind of coach who could push the Cowboys to a higher level.

Byron Leftwich, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Indianapolis Colts
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

NFL teams looking for a coach who can establish a great relationship with his quarterback and an entire locker room need to target Byron Leftwich. It’s about more than the Buccaneers’ play-caller receiving glowing endorsements from Bruce Arians and a Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. He also looks out for players’ best interests, like contract incentives, and is a master of his craft in game preparation.

“It’s not just, ‘OK, you’re going to run my stuff and we’ll do it my way. We’re going to do what we need to do for our group, as a group, to play well.”

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich on the importance of making adjustments to game plans, via NYT

The New York Times detailed Leftwich’s adaptability as a coach, one of the most common qualities of great head coaches. Brady also praised Leftwich’s willingness to both listen and his ability to identify things in the game that fit what Brady likes. It’s exactly the kind of relationship that Jones should want his head coach to have with Prescott.

Leftwich wouldn’t be able to keep Quinn around as defensive coordinator, but his connections around the NFL as a player and then as coordinator will give him access to a deep group of quality candidates. Combine that with his natural leadership and rare work ethic, it’s easy to see why so many are confident he can thrive.