You can understand why Mike McCarthy would be so particular about his future. He’s spent his career working with elite quarterbacks, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, and understandably would like that to continue when he becomes an NFL head coach again.
Still, it was somewhat of a shock when ESPN reported Monday that McCarthy has told people there is only one job he covets. He wants to be the next coach of the New York Jets.
This news came at the end of a day when three coaching vacancies were filled. Bruce Arians will be the next coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Former Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury will take over the Arizona Cardinals. And Matt LaFleur, the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, has agreed to replace McCarthy in Green Bay.
On Wednesday, the Browns filled their top spot by promoting interim offensive coordinator Freddie Kitchens and the Broncos hired Vic Fangio, the former Bears defensive coordinator.
That leaves the Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins without coaches.
So why would McCarthy specifically be lobbying to coach the Jets? Sam Darnold and $100 million in cap room might be the best place to start.
Darnold was the second quarterback taken in the 2018 NFL draft, two picks after the Browns anointed Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield the first overall.
In 13 games, he completed 57.7 percent for 2,865 yards, 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. But the Jets, who were 5-11 in 2016 and 2017, were terrible again.
After beating the Colts on Oct. 14 they were 3-3. Then they lost nine of their last 10 and head coach Todd Bowles was fired hours after a 35-point loss at New England on New Year’s Eve.
However, McCarthy understands the Jets have a ton of money to spend and is confident enough in his reputation – nine postseason appearances, four NFC Championships and one Super Bowl title (XLV) – to know his being in New York might be enough to bring quality players in to build around Darnold.
McCarthy, who was interviewed by the Cardinals, met with the Jets last weekend and SNY said he’d “warmed” to the possibility of taking the job after being impressed with the organization.
Considering his track record, one would say he’s much more qualified than others the Jets have interviewed – former Dolphins coach Adam Gase, former Lions and Colts coach Jim Caldwell, Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard, Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken and Baylor coach Matt Rhule.
That said, there is one option possibly standing in McCarthy’s path. It’s been reported the Jets might be interested in trading for Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
“We’ll see what God has in store,” said Harbaugh.
Don’t smirk. History is replete with examples of teams dealing for head coaches.
The Jets traded Bill Belichick to the Patriots in 2000. The Raiders dealt Jon Gruden to the Bucs in 2002. The Jets sent Herm Edwards to the Chiefs in 2006. Seattle acquired Mike Holmgren from the Packers in 1999. And who can forget that the Pats dealt Bill Parcells to the Jets in 1997.
Is Harbaugh, 56, an upgrade over McCarthy? You decide: He’s won 104 games in 11 seasons in Baltimore and made the playoffs seven times, winning Super Bowl XLVII against his brother, Jim, then coach of the 49ers.
The Ravens are in negotiations now to sign Harbaugh to a long-term contract, which would obviously end that speculation. It might be the Jets are waiting to see how that goes before re-focusing on McCarthy.
You’d think McCarthy would have been a natural candidate for the Cleveland job. And that might have been the case had the Browns not finished the 2018 season on such a positive note.
The Browns, who lost 31 of 32 games the previous two seasons, enjoyed a renaissance when Gregg Williams replaced Hue Jackson on Nov. 9. But in terms of Mayfield’s progression, it was the shift at offensive coordinator, from Todd Haley to Kitchens, that made the most difference.
In six games with Jackson and Haley, Mayfield threw for 1,471 yards with eight touchdowns and six inceptions. In eight games for Williams and Kitchens he tossed for 2,254 yards, 19 TDs and only eight interceptions.
In addition, the offensive production (23.75 points per game) was greater and Mayfield’s confidence was stoked by the creativity of Kitchens’ play calling. Mayfield had lobbied for Kitchens and its likely general manager John Dorsey heard him and was amenable to keeping his star happy.
Had things not ended so well for Mayfield, the Browns might have immediately turned to McCarthy. Dorsey worked in Green Bay for 21 years and helped bring McCarthy there 13 years go. Assistant GM Eliot Wolf (14 years) and Alonzo Highsmith, the VP of player personnel (19 years), also worked side-by-side with McCarthy in Green Bay.
McCarthy’s ambition to coach the Jets may come down to the organization’s confidence he can do for Darnold what he did for Rodgers.
Of course, that relationship did not end well. McCarthy and Rodgers bickered about offensive philosophy, a situation exacerbated by the fact the Packers had won just 11 of their last 28 games.
The Packers were also rebounding from 6-10 and not making the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the first season Rodgers was their starter. When McCarthy was fired on Dec. 2, they were 4-7-1. They finished the season 6-9-1.
But this is what the Jets know: McCarthy’s winning percent (.618) is undeniable and also 17th among NFL coaches with at least 100 wins. Only a dozen league coaches have more than his 10 playoff wins. And his nine postseasons are more than Mike Tomlin, Mike Shanahan, John Madden, Dennis Green, Bill Walsh, John Harbaugh and Sean Payton.
Rodgers was 35, a two-time MVP and Super Bowl champion by the time he and McCarthy lost faith in each other. Darnold is 21 and as green as the Jets home jersey, immensely talented and eager to learn.
McCarthy is a smart guy. He sees the Jets as a chance to renovate his reputation. If the Jets feel that way, too, it shouldn’t be long before the match is made.