In coaching search that involves Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis, the Cowboys need to make a call on Sean Payton

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

In the world of NFL coaching searches, the Dallas Cowboys started in the shallow end of the pool — choosing safety over splash.

This is what Mike McCarthy and Marvin Lewis represent. Known commodities with long track records. Available and pliable when it comes to their coaching staffs. Both winners of Super Bowls, McCarthy as a head coach with the Green Bay Packers and Lewis as a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. Both about as knowledgable as you can get on the NFL level, with decades of experience leading rooms, calling plays and juggling expectations from both team owners and fans. They’re ready, willing and eager, each needing the Cowboys more than the franchise needs them.

But neither is Sean Payton. And if Payton is a coach Jerry Jones covets, he should pick up the phone. Because you don’t compromise this decision.

That’s where I’d start the Payton conversation if I’m Jones — with a little bit of realistic self-reflection. Surely, the Hall of Famer knows the ledger well. In a litany of ways, Jones has arguably done more to advance the league to juggernaut status than any owner alive today.

Saints head coach Sean Payton, center, shares a word with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett before a September game. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)
Saints head coach Sean Payton, center, shares a word with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jason Garrett before a September game. (Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)
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Which, at the age of 77, is why he has to selfishly make this head coaching decision solely for himself. He has the wealth. He has the fame and influence. He has the super yacht, mansions and private jet. What he doesn’t have is the last sip of the ultimate football success that he desires. Nor does he have the coach he has long-coveted as the guy who might provide it before his reign ends.

Payton is that guy. And Jerry owes it to himself to make the push for him. Even if it means paying a hefty price.

That’s what a decade of Garrett should have bought, along with the $1.3 billion in player salaries that Jones paid in that span. It should have purchased the knowledge that you don’t settle at a time like this. You make the call. You listen to the price. And you consider — like you always said you would — exactly what you’d be willing to give up for one last Super Bowl win.

I’m not precisely sure what that price is for Jerry Jones, but it has to be a hell of a lot more than what it takes to reel in Mike McCarthy or Marvin Lewis.

How much more? That’s hard to say. But Jones will never find out without making the call. And as fate would have it, this could be as good a time as ever — with the New Orleans Saints dropping a tough loss in the first round of the playoffs and looking like they’re closer than ever to a crossroads with quarterback Drew Brees. That such a moment would coincide at a time when Dallas is conducting its first wide open head coaching search since January of 2007 is nothing less than serendipitous.

If Jones doesn’t make that call today, he may never have the opportunity again. And if he does, there’s no telling what his Cowboys will look like or whether Payton will still have the coaching fire that he does right now. The laws of attraction in the NFL change on an annual basis — destroying the natural fit of coaches and owners with little rhyme or reason.

Is the situation perfect? Of course not. Payton is under a recently extended contract with a team that still has a litany of talent to work with in the coming years — with or without Brees. He’s also deeply rooted in the city of New Orleans, which adds a complex emotional component that seems to grow with every passing year. Conversely, Dallas is headed to a series of franchise-altering financial decisions, with the contracts of quarterback Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper appearing to lock up a solid percentage of the salary cap for years to come. All of which makes surrendering cheap and valuable draft assets to acquire a head coach almost indefensible.

But there is some bottom line math here that puts some things into perspective. Most especially if Jones believes Payton is still the bright and aggressive offensive mind that he has always seemed to be. And that math goes something like this: How much would Sean Payton cost at this stage of his career, being nine seasons removed from his Super Bowl win in the 2009 season? And is it worth more to hire a coach like McCarthy or Lewis and retain draft picks than have Payton in hand.

Of course, the answer lies in the price. But you can’t know the price unless you pick up the phone and ask, which Jones absolutely has to do, unless Payton no longer fits his ideal candidate.

Mike McCarthy is a candidate to become the Cowboys' head coach. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Mike McCarthy is a candidate to become the Cowboys' head coach. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

It’s hard to believe that would be the case, given that Payton has many of the attributes that sources say Dallas is looking for. He’s deeply experienced. He has won a Super Bowl. He has managed to update his offense to the point that he’s still considered one of the top schematic coaches in the NFL. He can call plays, lead a locker room and survive inside an organization where he doesn’t have power over the 53-man roster.

What else could Jones be looking for? Surely it’s not just about dictating a few offensive coaches to an incoming candidate — something that wouldn’t even be necessary for Payton, who is more than capable of shaping an offense himself. And surely it’s not about money, given that Jones could realistically pay his next coach $20 million per season without breaking a sweat.

That essentially leaves draft picks as the only barrier. A crapshoot commodity that is often misperceived as being worth exponentially more when looking forward but rarely recognized as being wildly uncertain when looking backward. Dallas fans and even Jones himself looks forward and sees first-round picks like Zack MartinEzekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith. But they could just as easily look backward and see first-rounders like Taco CharltonMorris Claiborne and Felix Jones.

Top level draft picks are usually a mixed bag. Top level head coaches are usually not. And top level owners are usually the kind of people who understand that reality. It’s why Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft and Tom Brady have been drafting in the back half of the first round for nearly two decades and continually win in New England. It’s also why the Ford family and a never-ending string of coaches and quarterbacks have been drafting in the front half of the first round for nearly 50 years and continually lose in Detroit.

That’s two franchises on opposite ends of the Super Bowl spectrum, consistently divided over a differing understanding of talent, value and opportunity. There was a time early in Jones’ career that he was on one end of the spectrum. Now he’s on the other.

The next hire has to be someone who can flip that reality. Leaving Jerry Jones to ask himself who is most capable of making it happen: Mike McCarthy, Marvin Lewis, or Payton — who has always seemed just out of reach.

It’s an important question. The kind that can’t be compromised by failing to make every last phone call. Even the ones that might end up costing the most.

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