Mike McCarthy has earned his reputation.

He’ll try to improve it this season when the Dallas Cowboys kick off their season Thursday at the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Nine active coaches have won a Super Bowl. McCarthy might be the least respected one. He’s viewed by many as just a guy who stood on the shoulders of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers to reach his accomplishments. It was the brilliance of Favre and Rodgers that was largely responsible for McCarthy’s 125-77-2 record in Green Bay.

Probably numerous coaches could have won one championship with those Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Better coaches might have won more over 13 years. Don’t take our word for it. If McCarthy was truly exceptional at his job, he would have been hired immediately after the Packers fired him in 2018.

Instead, he sat out for a year until Jerry Jones rescued him. With the Cowboys, McCarthy has a chance to prove that he wasn’t merely a lucky beneficiary of having two of the greatest QBs of all-time. He can show everyone that he knows how to develop a contender. The betting public doesn’t believe in McCarthy. He trails only Denver’s Vic Fangio, who’s the favorite to be the first NFL coach to be fired in 2021.

Dallas is good enough to win the NFC East. Especially with the healthy return of Dak Prescott, who missed the final 11 games of last year with a broken ankle. On one hand, it’s unfair to fault McCarthy for the Cowboys’ 6-10 record last year. For any coach, losing your starting quarterback pretty much ends your season. At the same time, it’s totally fair to blame McCarthy for not taking advantage of the worst division we’ve ever seen.

McCarthy would point to the Cowboys winning three of their final four games. But ultimately, the reason the Cowboys didn’t make the playoffs is because they went 2-4 in their own putrid division, including the season-ending loss to the New York Giants.

It was McCarthy who hand-picked Mike Nolan, a questionable hire from the start. Nolan hadn’t been a defensive coordinator since 2014. Not surprisingly, Dallas struggled to learn his scheme and allowed the fifth-most points (29.6) in the league, the most in franchise history. It was so bad that anonymous players ripped the coaching staff.

McCarthy had no choice. He had to fire Nolan. At Green Bay, McCarthy stuck too long with much-maligned Dom Capers as his defensive coordinator. He didn’t make the same mistake again. McCarthy’s fate might rest on how the new D.C. fares.

Since the Cowboys were so bad at stopping people, anything Dan Quinn does probably will be viewed as an improvement. He has a revamped roster that will feature as many as eight new starters.

Plus, Quinn had the benefit of exhibition games and a longer training camp after last year’s limited preseason due to COVID-19. The addition of rookie linebacker Micah Parsons will be one to watch. Arguably, no defensive rookie will be under more pressure from the start. He has already impressed Pro Football Focus, which has given Parsons — along with fellow rookie linebacker Jabril Cox — high grades.

Quinn is used to working under pressure. He was the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons before being fired last year after an 0-5 start, which included an improbable loss to Dallas.

Tampa Bay is an excellent test for the new defense. The Buccaneers feature possibly the best collection of pass catchers in the league: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Scotty Miller, and Rob Gronkowski. Tom Brady will put maximum pressure on the entire group. Dallas won’t face a tougher challenge all season.

If the Cowboys can be merely average on defense and Prescott stays healthy, they should win the NFC East easily. Their offense is loaded and has a trio of exceptional wide receivers: Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. Lamb might be the most talented of the group. Dallas has the most stable quarterback situation in the entire division. And on paper, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants appear to have thin rosters.

Expectations are high, as McCarthy made very clear with an expletive-laden rant on Hard Knocks.

According to Forbes, the Cowboys are the most valuable franchise in sports, worth an estimated $5.7 billion. But they haven’t been legitimate Super Bowl contenders since the 1990s. Jones turns 79 next month. He’s running out of patience, and perhaps time.

If McCarthy puts Dallas on the path to a title, he’ll get plenty of respect.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.