MOBILE, Ala. — The Dallas Cowboys confirmed, after some initial public ambiguity, that Mike McCarthy will be their head coach in 2022.
They exuberantly celebrated the retention of defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, too, after Quinn interviewed for several head-coaching vacancies this offseason.
And then there’s offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. With February’s arrival, Moore remains both under contract with Dallas and in contention for the Miami Dolphins’ head coach job, per multiple reports. The Cowboys would prefer to keep him — but they’re not fretting as much about replacing Moore as they did for Quinn.
They’re not discussing the gravity of the staff loss with the same tone.
“Not that Kellen’s not a huge, integral part of this, and we certainly want to keep him,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said between Senior Bowl practices at Hancock Whitney Stadium. “But the great news is that Mike is an offensive football coach and called plays for Super Bowl teams and championship teams. So it gives you a little more safety net, if you will, versus where we were on the defensive side of the ball.
“Certainly, it’s great to have Mike and what he’s all about in place. (It’s) not that I’m not rooting for Kellen. I think the world of Kellen and that’s why we want him back. At the same time, not rooting against him to further his career.”
In Moore’s third year coordinating, the Cowboys led the league in points scored (31.2 points per game) and total yardage (407 yards per game). They paced yardage production for the second time in three years, the outlier season the victim of quarterback Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury. But the Cowboys offense struggled to establish its early season rhythm in the second half of 2021 after Prescott missed one game recovering from a calf strain. Dallas’ run game sputtered, its offensive line production far less reliable than in recent years. Penalty-heavy play trickled into a 14-flag postseason outing when Dallas lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round.
The Cowboys seek both systemic continuity on offense for Prescott, and significant improvement in execution and technique across the pass, run and blocking game plan. McCarthy has not indicated interest in calling plays again, saying after the season he believes whoever calls plays should also install the offense.
“This whole thing revolves around No. 4,” Jones said. “We put Dak in some tough situations.”
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USA TODAY Sports had the opportunity to catch up with Jones and vice president of player personnel Will McClay in Mobile on Tuesday. Here are four more takeaways from the conversation:
The Cowboys aim to maintain as much continuity as possible in their evaluation process. They want to evaluate every player as if their roster were bare, ensuring they consider each facet of a player’s potential. But McClay admitted Tuesday how his staff has adapted to Quinn’s values. From draft picks like rusher/coverage linebacker Micah Parsons to free agents like safety/linebacker hybrid Jayron Kearse, the Cowboys defense is emphasizing versatility more than they would have five years ago.
“I think so,” McClay agreed. “Every coach has a system they’ve put in place offensively and defensively, and one of Dan’s deals is versatility because the game has changed. It’s not just the typical 21, hand-the-ball-off-to-the-back personnel. Offenses are using people differently too, so the more versatile we can be on defense, the better we can match up with the strategies. That’s why we’re always trying to find big, long, fast guys so we can match up. Now it’s the coaches’ jobs to teach them what we can do.”
Under Quinn’s direction, the Cowboys jumped from 28th in points allowed to seventh and led the league in takeaways. The front office eagerly anticipates further scheme and player growth.
“We had a long ways to go with this defense when the season started, really struggled the year before,” Jones said. “(Quinn) came in and was everything and more to our defensive football team than even we could have hoped for. We’ve got a good, young group over there. … The arrow’s up.”
The Cowboys face several difficult free-agency questions. Rookie contracts are expiring for homegrown talent in defensive end Randy Gregory, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and tight end Dalton Schultz. Kearse was among the free agents who signed for just one season then overperformed. And then comes mega contracts like that of receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and Prescott. How will the Cowboys allocate the salary cap-limited resources?
Production will factor in. But Jones cautioned against forgetting the role scheme, coaching and opportunities played for guys like Cooper, who had 68 catches for 865 yards and eight touchdowns.
“It’s sometimes not all on the receiver: It’s scheme, it’s getting the receiver the touches he needs,” Jones said. “But if you’re going to pay someone a lot of money, you want them to be the best at what they do whatever that is. … Once you pay that player a lot of money, then comes high expectations and they know that. (When players are the) highest paid at their position, with that comes accountability.”
Expect several 2021 starters to be absent when the 2022 season commences.
One decision the Cowboys at last can face an offseason without: the future at their quarterback position. Prescott has at least three years left on a contract averaging $40 million per year. He rebounded from a 2020 season-ending injury to complete 68.8% of pass attempts for 4,449 yards, 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. That aggregate data doesn’t fully reflect a late-season slump Prescott faced, his efficiency after an October calf strain dipping significantly. But the Cowboys publicly attribute challenges more to the offensive line, penalties and run game than to Prescott’s concerns. Prescott and McCarthy discussed the quarterback redrilling footwork this offseason, but expect a bright 2022. And they’re not concerned about whether his injury history will continue.
“The right guy has the money right now, and that’s No. 4,” Jones said. “From there, we’ve got to put the right pieces around him.”
Jones added: “Dak is a healthy quarterback and he’s built for action. We feel good about him.”
“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions, not going to be able to keep everybody we’d like to keep and that’s part of it. You want to make hay while these quarterbacks are young in their first contract.”
The Cowboys have won one of four playoff games since Prescott took the helm in 2016. A conference championship berth has eluded them since their last Super Bowl appearance during the 1995 season. And the Jones family – especially Stephen and his father, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones – were hurting when Dallas was the lone team to lose at home in the wild-card round. Stephen Jones elaborated further on Tuesday. Did this hurt worse than previous playoff losses?
“Yes,” Jones said immediately as USA TODAY Sports completed the question.
The pain was still raw even if compartmentalized.
The No.1 reason: The Cowboys believed strongly in their 2021 personnel’s ability to contend. A franchise that has prioritized offensive investment lucked out with a more-keen-than-usual defensive evaluation this year. And the Cowboys struck the rare mine of emerging healthier in December and January than they had in August or September.
Then, a 23-17 defeat with a disastrous quarterback draw attempted with 14 seconds and no timeouts, their season was over.
“We (had) some high expectations for this team and it was certainly a tough one to lose,” Jones said. “We’ve been unfortunately on a dry run and feel accountable that we owe it to Dallas Cowboys fans and our organization to win a championship. I know Jerry firmly believes it starts with him and then moves right on down through me and Mike and Will and the whole organization. We just, as he said, it’s very disappointing.
“But you’ve got to get back up and go to work again.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
‘This too shall pass away’ this famous Persian adage seems to be defeating us again and again in the case of COVID-19. Despite every effort