Jerry Jones was adamant a few days ago that Mike McCarthy’s job does not hinge on the Cowboys’ performance in the playoffs. But as Jason Garrett and Wade Phillips could tell you, Jerry’s words don’t mean much without the desired results. If Dallas does suffer a big letdown against Tampa Bay, just how safe is McCarthy’s position as head coach?
Back in 2010, the Cowboys were coming off a year with some significant achievements. They’d gone 11-5, won the NFC East, and won their first playoff game since 1996. In three seasons as head coach, Wade Phillips had given Jerry Jones two division titles, that elusive playoff win, and a winning record every year.
But after beating the Eagles in the 2009 playoffs, Dallas went to Minnesota and got embarrassed in a 34-3 blowout. That huge loss changed the vibe throughout the organization, and it set the stage for what happened the following year,
The Cowboys floundered to a 1-5 start that year even before QB Tony Romo broke his collarbone. During that cold streak, Jerry Jones was asked repeatedly about Phillips’ security as head coach. He was defiant against any questioning, supporting Phillips by denying any notion that he might make a change.
Dallas would lose its next two games, the last of which was another lopsided 45-7 defeat to the Packers. With the season seemingly lost, and with Phillips appearing to have lost his roster in the process, Jones fired him and made Jason Garrett the interim head coach.
Garrett’s nine-plus years as coach were also filled with supportive statements from Jerry Jones. He would repeatedly vouch for Garrett as the man who could take Dallas back to the Super Bowl, even up until 2019. But repeated disappointments eventually ended Garrett’s tenure, albeit with far more rope than Phillips had enjoyed before him.
Mike McCarthy’s situation right is much more akin to Wade Phillips’. In three years the Cowboys are headed to their second playoff appearance and had plenty of regular-season wins along the way. But after going one-and-done in last year’s playoffs, losing at home to the 49ers, McCarthy still has to prove what he can do for Dallas in the postseason.
After last week’s atrocity in Washington, Jerry Jones was asked if McCarthy’s future hinged on what happened this week in Tampa Bay.
“No. I don’t even want to ... No. That’s it,” he said. “I don’t need to go into all the pluses or minuses. I’ve got a lot more to evaluate Mike McCarthy on than this playoff game.”
“I can’t tell you how much confidence I’ve got in Mike and our coaching staff of being on top of where we are with this team right now,” Jones said. “They’ve got every nuance. They understand every frailty that we might have or we might have shown Sunday [in the loss to Washington]. They’ve got everything in their grasp and in their understanding, and I have complete confidence in this coaching staff. It’s outstanding. We’ve got a great chance to go down there and have success.”
Sounds great for McCarthy, right? But if McCarthy knows his history, he should know these glowing words from Jerry only go as far as the next humiliation. Those 12 regular-season wins aren’t going to soothe Jones’ pain if his team is still an object of ridicule after this postseason.
Would that be enough to cost McCarthy his job? Maybe not immediately, but it could set the stage for 2023 similarly to how the team went into 2010 with Wade Phillips. The leash could get much, much shorter.
One big difference from then to now is that there doesn’t seem to be a Jason Garrett waiting in the wings. If things do go awry in these playoffs, Kellen Moore may lose his job before McCarthy does. There’s no indication that he has any special connection to the Jones family and would receive some greater loyalty from it, or is part of some big-picture plan for the future.
But while McCarthy may not have to worry about an understudy on the coaching staff right now, he is up against even greater frustration and desperation from the front office. When Jerry dumped Phillips it had only been 15 years since the Cowboys’ last Super Bowl. It’s now 26 years and counting.
Realistically, after back-to-back seasons with 12 wins, Mike McCarthy is probably safe for 2023 regardless of what happens in the postseason. But Jerry Jones’ proclamations of faith and loyalty are hardly why reason he should feel confident. If his team doesn’t deliver quickly, McCarthy could soon hear a much different tune coming from his boss.