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Evaluating Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy could still be difficult in 2021

How much progress would be enough for the Cowboys?

Dallas Cowboys v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Losing seasons in the NFL tend to create a sense that things will surely get better. We are certainly experiencing that for the Dallas Cowboys. The high impact injuries, especially on offense, make the expectation that they will have more success reasonable. They just need to regress to the mean for things to get better, and the number of such injuries just makes that regression more likely. Overall, the NFL is an 8-8 league as well. Things like how the draft awards higher picks to poor teams and the way the schedule is created enable that. These things, along with the much belabored circumstances caused by the COVID protocols all year argue for the Cowboys to see a less futile performance in 2021. That should make us feel better about head coach Mike McCarthy, who has been all but guaranteed a return for a second year.

But just how much more success should be required to really have faith in him? Let’s say the Cowboys find one or two more wins, finishing at either 5-11 or 6-10. Would getting to eight or nine wins be true progress?

Generally, you would think not. If the lack of preparation in the offseason and training camp plus the major injuries really were what held the team back, then ten wins and a playoff berth should be the bar for 2021. If the team does not achieve that, then there should be serious consideration given to whether McCarthy was the wrong hire. At a minimum, it should make 2022 a make or break year for him. Unless the Cowboys start racking up wins next year, McCarthy’s seat needs to have the temperature turned up.

Before going on, let’s state that all Cowboys fans are hoping for a real rebound and a trip to the playoffs next season. Saying we expect that is too strong a statement to make. There have been too many failures in all aspects of the game to go there, and there is plenty to be worried about.

The biggest factor so far has been the generally dismal performance of the defense, which has not seen as many injury issues. The secondary has had a number of games missed, but those have been more short term, and the performance there has not had as big an effect on the putrid run defense as the multiple failures in front of them, particularly the interior of the line and the dazed and confused linebackers. The evidence pointing to the shortcomings of the coaching staff are particularly disturbing. McCarthy apparently got to bring in the coaches he wanted, and Mike Nolan in particular has just been hugely disappointing. Now we are expecting a new defensive coordinator next year, and the blame for this has to be laid at McCarthy’s feet.

The offense has been less of a problem, even with the tragic injury to Dak Prescott. Still, the very high number of turnovers, some failures to make good moves like delaying the switch of Zack Martin to tackle, and the general ineffectiveness of the running game, cannot be overlooked. McCarthy is an offensive-minded coach, and he needed to do a better job.

This is a shell-shocked roster. While they don’t seem to have completely given up, there have certainly been some glaring incidents where a lack of effort by some players seemed apparent, once again with the defense more obvious. McCarthy’s first task for next year is to motivate the entire roster to put in the effort needed to win more games.

Again, the return of so many of their best players, particularly Prescott and his leadership, will help a great deal. But the leadership of McCarthy will be at least as crucial, and must be judged honestly.

While it is not at all a bad thing to support the head coach, the comments from both Jerry and Stephen Jones this season have sounded too much like making excuses, and that extends to some of the players as well. The strong support they have given Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith in particular seemed divorced from reality.

Getting the ship righted for the Cowboys is going to take more than positive reinforcement. It also requires some toughness and perhaps even harsh choices, with Elliott and Smith very much included. While just about all teams have a tendency to look at salaries in awarding playing time, McCarthy has to fight that. Between Elliott’s fumbles and frequent short gains to put the offense behind the chains and Smith’s mystifying failures to properly read and react to plays, they have hurt the team too often. Decisions need to be made accordingly. Barring a highly unlikely set of horrid circumstances similar to this season’s, McCarthy has to move this team in a positive direction, or face negative consequences for himself.

He also has the remaining three games to get through. While the Cowboys still have a remote chance of making the playoffs, that can mainly occur through a combination of winning out while the Washington Football Team loses the rest of the way, a highly improbable outcome. But McCarthy can ill afford to lose all three games. That is certainly not inconceivable, with the San Francisco 49ers favored in this Sunday’s matchup, the New York Giants playing better, and Philadelphia finally having realized who their franchise quarterback is. It may be unacceptable, however. At the least, it would just turn up that seat thermostat.

The only thing that would yield a truly positive outcome for McCarthy is to get to the playoffs next season. It is not beyond imagining, but it is going to still be a tough hill to climb. And if things wind up in the range of 8-8 that plagued the team under Jason Garrett, things are going to be very uncomfortable for the current head coach.