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Cowboys vs Colts may be bigger for Mike McCarthy than you’d expect

This somewhat random interconference matchup could have deeper meaning for the credibility of Dallas’ head coach.

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Of all the games on the Dallas Cowboys’ 2022 schedule, tonight’s against the Indianapolis Colts has relatively low stakes. With the two clubs on opposite trajectories this season, it’s one that has Dallas favored by roughly 10 points. But despite this disparity, or perhaps even because of it, tonight’s game may be more meaningful for Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy than you might think.

The referendum on McCarthy’s value has been going on since his arrival in 2020. While his Super Bowl ring came with some cachet, Dallas’ 6-10 season and historically bad defense quickly took the shine off. While injuries played a huge part in the losing record, questions about whether or not the Cowboys had really upgraded from Jason Garrett were fair given the results.

Last year was a dramatic turnaround; a 12-5 record and McCarthy’s first NFC East title. But even with that came a bad showing in Dallas’ first and only playoff game, which only furthered the discussion of McCarthy’s actual impact on the team compared to the previous regime.

Offseason speculation about Sean Payton returning to Dallas in 2023 only added fuel to the fire. Despite the dreaded vote of confidence from Jerry Jones in his current head coach, it certainly feels like McCarthy is fighting for his job this year.

So far, so good. Unlike in 2020 when Dak Prescott was injured, these Cowboys went 4-1 in his absence and are currently one of the top teams in the NFL. While trailing the Eagles in the division, they’re arguably the second-best team in the NFC and are bringing all of the momentum into this Sunday Night Football showdown with Indianapolis.

So if Dallas is so hot right now, how could this one game matter that much? Even with a loss they’d still be 8-4 and slated for the top wild card spot in the playoffs. The status quo wouldn’t be disrupted.

But that’s the whole point, really. On a night when the Cowboys are expected to win and have everything going in their favor, this is when a truly great team needs to go in and handle their business. While a victory against the 4-7-1 Colts won’t make anybody throw a parade, a loss would certainly cause a stir.

The classic “letdown game” was a signature of Jason Garrett’s tenure. He knew how to get his team up for some of the big moments, be it scrapping against a juggernaut opponent or dominating the NFC East for much of his run. But then Garrett’s Cowboys would turn around and no-show some random game against a middling team and undo much of the positive. You just never knew which version you were getting.

We experienced this a few weeks ago in Dallas’ unfortunate trip to Green Bay. With the Packers on life support and the Cowboys coming off a bye, there was no excuse for that loss. McCarthy’s return to Lambeau Field was a big story that may have muddied the emotional waters a bit, but it was simply an utter collapse by Dallas in a valuable NFC matchup.

Tonight’s game has even less on the line and no underlying story about the head coach’s history. It’s about as neutral as it gets, with the Cowboys’ hope of eventually catching Philadelphia the only clear item of consequence.

It’s almost unfair, in a way. While having little to lose in the tangible standings, the Cowboys have everything to lose in terms of respect and perception. And that’s when these games get especially dangerous.

But that’s why this one holds some real meaning for Mike McCarthy. It’s an opportunity to further separate himself from the previous head coach and show Dallas why it doesn’t need to worry about the next one. You’ve had 10 days off and no excuse for anything less than a win. Show up tonight and do the darn thing; beat this bad team and keep working your way toward the bigger goals of this season.

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