For a team that is going to the postseason with a 12-5 record for the second year in a row, the Dallas Cowboys are inspiring a lot of angst among their fans. Part of it is the opponent. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already beaten Dallas in the season opener. Additionally, as you may have heard, Tom Brady has never lost to the Cowboys whether he was quarterbacking for the Bucs or the New England Patriots. Despite Tampa having a losing record, there is a perception that they are trending upward, despite being 3-4 over the past seven games. Meanwhile, Dallas has clearly had some struggles since the bye week. They still were 6-3, and at least some of their issues during that time have been due to injuries. In truth, it is hard to find one single thing to blame for the recent performances that saw them generally playing down to their opponent, or worse. But we live in a society that doesn’t like complexity or nuance, and in football, when a scapegoat is needed, it is most often the head coach.
While he is not alone in taking heat as quarterback Dak Prescott gets blamed for his fair share of things, Mike McCarthy is the only one who is realistically expendable. While twelve wins in a season is not just very good but hard to duplicate year to year, the focus now is on whether he can break the long running history of playoff futility haunting the Cowboys. If you listen to sports talk, particularly the national shows, the wild card game is being presented as make-or-break for him. The fact that so many talk incessantly about Dallas for ratings and invent controversy when it doesn’t exist is reason enough to be skeptical about the idea. But longtime Jerry Jones crush Sean Payton is flirting with a return to coaching, and that just adds unwarranted momentum to things.
Perhaps we should pay a bit of attention to Jones, who gave one of his most unequivocal answers ever when asked about this.
Jerry Jones emphatic when asked how Cowboys playoff success could impact Mike McCarthy job security.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 10, 2023
If Cowboys lose to Bucs, could Mike be out?
“No!” Jerry exclaimed to @1053thefan. “I don’t even want to—no. That’s it.”
I absolutely endorse this. Winning in the NFL is hard, and building a successful team and culture does not happen overnight. Cutting ties with a coach who is having the level of success McCarthy has had in his second and third years with the team makes no sense.
Why, then, do so many think he should be gone if the Cowboys flop in Florida? My podcast partner Roy White laid out an interesting map of the season and what has happened that we’ll use and expand, to explore the idea.
As mentioned, the Buccaneers handed an embarrassing loss to Dallas to open the season in a game where Prescott looked uncomfortably similar to how he did in the embarrassment against the Washington Commanders. Further, he was injured and would go on to miss five games. Frankly, at that point most fans assumed the season was sunk. Some even felt McCarthy might deserve a pass if the team missed the playoffs under those conditions.
But then came McCarthy’s finest hour, or five weeks. With the help of a ferocious defense and admirably steady play from backup Cooper Rush, the Cowboys went 4-1 in Prescott’s absence. It kept them in the hunt for the playoffs, and as Roy reminds us, people were talking not about firing the head coach, but considering him for Coach of the Year honors.
Prescott’s return was very encouraging as the team won the two games prior to the bye by multiple scores, including a 49-29 win over the Chicago Bears. Things looked very bright at that point, but for some reason Dallas has struggled coming off bye weeks, and that was the case in the loss against the Green Bay Packers and their old nemesis Aaron Rodgers.
We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
They appeared to bounce back with a vengeance in a 40-3 trouncing of the eventual NFC #3 seed Minnesota Vikings in their stadium, the best overall performance of the season. But after a 28-20 win over division rival and current wild card team, the New York Giants, the remaining games seemed a clear case of the Cowboys playing down to the competition. Their victory over the Indianapolis Colts was a neck-and-neck affair until a fourth quarter explosion masked things a bit. Then they barely pulled out a win over the Houston Texans that required a heroic goal line stand and a 98-yard touchdown drive. Then they dropped the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, admittedly a team on the rise as they would squeak into the playoffs in Week 18. Their next two wins were over teams having to play backup quarterbacks, and then they just looked horrible in their finale against the Commanders and yet another backup QB.
It is certainly fair to question whether McCarthy has been worse at coaching since the high point against the Vikings. But there are certainly factors that make it more complicated to judge. The defense that carried the team with Rush at QB has fallen off significantly, with the sacks and pressure on the quarterbacks most notable. Injuries have piled up, with the cornerback room particularly hard hit. The last few games of the season saw two particularly important players go down, Leighton Vander Esch and Tyler Biadasz. Vander Esch is normally the defensive signal caller, and Biadasz serves a similar role in setting protections for the offensive line. That is above and beyond the effect of missing two of the better and most consistent performers on the team and the resulting shuffling of players to try and cover for them.
There is another element that is harder to measure but still seems to play a role. The play-calling and scheme on offense has become far less effective. Motion, tempo, and play-action were used less late in the season. First down runs were repeatedly called even in games where they were doing absolutely nothing. Add in the lack of effective wide receivers even with the addition of T.Y. Hilton, and what was a points scoring machine in the middle of the season has become clunky and easy to stop.
Hints also have emerged that in the past game or two the staff was more focused on trying to see what some players could contribute rather than putting full effort into winning. This seems counterproductive, but since the loss to the Jaguars it has been clear that the most likely outcome was by far to be the fifth seed in the NFC. They were locked into no worse than a wild card slot for weeks. This may have been a case of trying to get as ready as they could for the playoffs while giving injured players as much time to recover as possible.
The outcome of Monday night will certainly affect perceptions of McCarthy, but given the many issues the team has to deal with, it should not be a make-or-break situation. Another bad outing from Prescott would likely doom things, and there McCarthy has no control. The team did look ill-prepared for the loss in Washington, but as mentioned there seemed to be self-imposed limitations on what they were willing to try, and Prescott had his worst completion percentage of his career.
Tampa Bay is not going to be an easy matchup, and just to make matters worse the Cowboys have performed much worse on the road than at home, with four of their five losses happening in away games. The lone home defeat was in that frustrating opener against the Buccaneers. It is indeed a lot to overcome. But McCarthy can’t do it alone. And another playoff disappointment is not a sign he needs to go. On balance, he has gotten a lot out of a team that frankly faced the season with some glaring unanswered personnel questions, particularly wide receiver and offensive line depth. Those are strictly on management, which in Dallas is synonymous with ownership.
It is not logical in any way to decide that the team needs to move in a different direction based on a first round playoff loss. McCarthy has one more year on his contract and deserves to finish it out. His record has earned that.