Every year, a bunch of NFL coaches at all levels are fired.
Whether they should be fired is a whole different debating point. The history of the NFL shows that the teams that achieve consistent success, apart from having stable ownership groups, have another factor in common. They change coaches and General Managers infrequently.
The tendency in recent years has been for some Head Coaches to be fired after one season. This year, the Denver Broncos fired Nathaniel Hackett during his first season, and the Houston Texans, having fired David Culley last year after one season, fired Lovie Smith after one season. Indianapolis also fired Frank Reich during the season, although it was not his first year in charge, and, in a fairly unusual move, replaced him with ex-player Jeff Saturday, a man with no coaching experience in the NFL. The results say that was a bad idea, as Saturday went 1-6 after taking over.
The entire firing and hiring cycle is distorted by the involvement of the most successful coaches until after Superbowl. Paradoxically, being a co-ordinator or senior coach on a Superbowl team is bad for your promotion prospects, since you are not free to interview and prepare for meetings with interested teams until the second week of February, at which time many franchises seeking new coaches have already made their hires. Eric Bienemy, the offensive co-ordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, is constantly talked about as a potential head coach, but is seemingly always busy until mid-February because the Chiefs keep making it to the Superbowl.
While some teams are installing a whole new coaching staff, some teams are seeking replacements for co-ordinators and mid-level coaches who were deemed culpable for poor team performance, and fired or have contracts that were allowed to lapse without being renewed.
The Dallas Cowboys, who actually won a road playoff game for the first time in 25 years, but then lost their next game to be eliminated from the playoffs, are a team that decided to change the offensive coaching. They persuaded Dan Quinn, their defensive co-ordinator, to not take any head coach offers, so his excellent defense will continue.
However, on the offensive side of the ball, the usual bonkers Cowboys decision-making has once again reared its ugly head.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy, a coach notorious for poor game management skills, has decided to take over offensive play-calling in Dallas. Unsurprisingly, this has led to the departure of Offensive Co-ordinator Kellen Moore.
My guess is that Moore’s contract with the Cowboys contained a clause stating that he would get to call offensive plays in games. So, if McCarthy made it clear that he intended to assume that role, the Cowboys were in breach of the contract with Moore, which effectively gave him carte blanche to seek alternative employment. He had 1 year left on his contract, and it seems that the contract was indeed terminated by mutual agreement, as the Cowboys stated.
The move had been telegraphed last week when McCarthy was unable or unwilling to answer media questions as to whether Kellen Moore would continue as offensive co-ordinator. To be fair, McCarthy was in the usual rock-meet-hard-place situation. If he had said what was going to happen, he would have been throwing Moore under the bus, potentially embarrassing the franchise. If he had denied that something was going to happen, the media would have ended up politely asking why he lied, once the news became public. So he had no alternative but to stonewall media inquiries and try to slide out of the discussion at the time.
As to why McCarthy has decided to take over play calling, well, he is an offensive coach, and the decision effectively signals that he thinks he can do a better job in games than Moore. That will be a big task. Moore’s offenses have been consistently good in the 4 seasons that he was the OC in Dallas.
The real underlying challenge is that the Cowboys cannot win through the playoffs. They look good in the regular season, but often disappoint in January. This has been a perennial problem going back 20+ years. It was a major complaint against previous HC Jason Garrett. The suspicion was that Garrett was unable to motivate the team to raise it’s game in the playoffs. McCarthy, already a Superbowl-winning coach, would provide that extra oomph. That was the theory.
So far that theory has not been vindicated.
The dismissal of Kellen Moore has been greeted with glee by the significant number of Cowboys fans who grew to hate Jason Garrett (or “coach clap”, as he became derisively known). They saw Moore as the last remaining holdout from a failed regime. They now expect better things with…
…well, whoever runs the offense. Which is a challenge. As I always say, firing somebody is the easy part. Now you have to decide what or who to replace that person with.
McCarthy’s announcement that he intends to call offensive plays has two immediate impacts. One, it increases his game-day workload, which, for a coach who has a reputation for poor game-day rapid decisions, is not a logical move. Second, it more or less ensures that any established offensive coach will not want to come to Dallas. Byron Leftwich, who was being seriously touted as a Head Coach candidate 2 seasons ago, was fired by the Buccaneers this off-season, but since he called plays in Tampa, I do not see him, or any other OC that has called plays, being willing to come and work at Dallas, if the Head Coach is going to get the game-day glory.
It is always possible that McCarthy may give up his play-calling plan if a top-flight OC says to Jerry Jones “I’m not joining unless I get to call the plays”, but I suspect that McCarthy will want an offensive coach who is not a threat to his position. He is effectively looking over his shoulder at Dan Quinn, who has built an excellent Cowboys defense, and who is clearly highly valued, and was a head coach previously. If the Cowboys decide to fire McCarthy, Quinn is going to step straight into that job.
Ultimately, the results in the future may come down to an open question: just how good is Dak Prescott? According to the Moore naysayers, he is a potentially great QB who was hobbled by rinky-dink play-calling that does not play to his strengths. So, if that is correct, a new OC might unleash all of that un-realized potential.
I have my doubts. When I watched Prescott throwing the ball downfield in game against the 49ers, when the Cowboys went vertical, his lack of accuracy on deep balls was obvious. The Cowboys may find out the hard way that Moore’s playbook, far from obscuring Prescott’s talents, was maximizing them, and the replacement playbook may show that Prescott, while a very good quarterback, is not good enough to take the Cowboys to the Superbowl.
In the meantime, Kellen Moore, who clearly knew or suspected in advance that he might be moving on, has already joined the LA Chargers, who have an excellent young quarterback in Justin Herbert. He will have total offensive control, and may take several coaches from Dallas and elsewhere with him, since the Cowboys let a lot of coach contracts lapse without renewing them. There is also a backup quarterback in Dallas named Cooper Rush, who looked surprisingly effective in games where Dak Prescott was injured, who is a free agent. It would not surprise me if the Chargers make a run at Rush in free agency, in order to bring in a QB who knows the Moore offense and can rapidly teach it to the other offensive players.
UPDATE – the Chargers have hired former Cowboys quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier to be their quarterbacks coach. Nussmeier was one of the Cowboys coaches who was out of contract after the season.