Free from Payton buzz, Cowboys coach McCarthy needs to nail offseason

FRISCO, Texas -- The Sean Payton rumors can finally be put to rest.

The Denver Broncos have agreed to a trade with the New Orleans Saints to make Payton the Broncos' head coach, and Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy will no longer have to hear about Payton being the next coach in Dallas.

For McCarthy, the 2023 offseason figures to be the most important one for him yet.

Why? He needs to find an offensive coordinator, an offensive line coach, quarterbacks coach and a running backs coach. And he needs to win. Probably more than he did the last two years when he went 12-5 each season and got to the divisional round in 2022.

A Cowboys head coach has not called plays since Jason Garrett in 2012.

In 2019, as he entered the final year of his contract, Garrett wanted to call plays and have his hands on the future of his job. But owner and general manager Jerry Jones decided that would not be the best way to operate, and Kellen Moore was given the keys to the offense as coordinator. Garrett was out after an 8-8 finish in 2019.

While 2023 is not the last year of McCarthy’s contract -- 2024 is -- he will be getting the opportunity Garrett never got, a chance to go down fighting by doing what he did best all those years with the Green Bay Packers: calling plays as the head coach.

Speaking to reporters at the Senior Bowl Wednesday, Jones said McCarthy will call the plays in 2023 and the Cowboys will run a version of the West Coast offense McCarthy ran with the Packers.

When McCarthy arrived in Dallas in 2020, he kept Moore in place as the playcaller and said if he had taken a job elsewhere, Moore would have been an offensive coordinator candidate for him. Maybe McCarthy was just placating Jones by keeping Moore, because he said previously he would never not call plays again during his tenure with the Packers.

For McCarthy to succeed in 2023, he has to get the structure of the offensive side of the ball right.

Brian Schottenheimer is considered the favorite for the coordinator job. He spent 2022 as a consultant for the Cowboys. McCarthy sang his praise late in the season. The Cowboys are also reportedly interviewing Carolina Panthers assistant head coach/offense Jeff Nixon for the job. He doesn’t have ties to McCarthy, but he has more recent ties to college football, and NFL offenses have started to look more and more like college offenses in recent years.

The offensive line job might be even more important, especially if McCarthy is calling plays. Joe Philbin spent years with McCarthy in Green Bay, but that connection was not good enough to get Philbin another year with the Cowboys as offensive line coach.

With OT Tyler Smith, C Tyler Biadasz and OT Terence Steele (who is coming back from a torn ACL and MCL), the Cowboys have three ascending players in place. Guard Zack Martin continues to play at an All-Pro level, OG Connor McGovern is set to be a free agent and there are questions about OT Tyron Smith’s future, since he is entering the final year of his contract and has not played a full season since 2015.

The running back room could look a lot different, too. Ezekiel Elliott might not be back. Tony Pollard is set to be a free agent, but the Cowboys can always place the franchise tag on him.

The Cowboys felt the need to have new voices in quarterback Dak Prescott’s ear, which is why they allowed Moore to leave and did not renew the contract for quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier. McCarthy came to the Cowboys as a "quarterback whisperer" -- have you heard he coached Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers? -- but nothing seemed to change Prescott’s interception woes in 2022.

Doesn’t McCarthy share in those mistakes? Can he coach it out of Prescott in the future? Is elevating coaching assistant and former NFL backup quarterback Scott Tolzien to the quarterbacks coach job the answer?

At least McCarthy doesn’t have to worry about the Payton shadow anymore. He just might not be shadow-free.

Some folks believe defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who passed on head-coaching chances the last two years, will be the next Cowboys coach.