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Why Mike McCarthy’s best work could come with fewer regular-season wins this year

The Cowboys might not match their 12-5 record from the last two years, but that doesn’t mean McCarthy has let them down

Washington Commanders v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Brandon Sloter/Image Of Sport/Getty Images

The Cowboys are sitting at 9-3 and preparing for a tough December stretch. Matching their 12-5 record of the last two seasons will be difficult considering the competition coming up, but a reduced win count won’t be indicative of Mike McCarthy’s performance as head coach. Even with fewer wins, he may be doing his best work yet in Dallas.

Now the playcaller, and more involved on offense since Kellen Moore’s departure, McCarthy’s tweaks have unleashed QB Dak Prescott as an MVP candidate. He’s had to overcome some early injury issues to key offensive linemen but has Dallas both scoring heavily, and executing in critical moments. The team as a whole is playing with confidence, even an edge, that should serve them well in the postseason.

Even before this switch, McCarthy’s Cowboys have impressively gone 12-5 each of the last two seasons. He’s recovered nicely from a disastrous debut in 2020, partly due to Prescott’s leg injury but also a poor choice in hiring buddy Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator.

Of course, while big win totals and occasional NFC East titles are nice, the true measure of McCarthy and this team comes in the playoffs. That’s where he has to separate himself from Jason Garrett as a true upgrade in the big chair; pushing this team to final results that they haven’t seen since the mid-90s.

That being said, let’s say Dallas does only finish 11-6 on the year. You just know some talking head on ESPN or FOX Sports will use that as fodder for a segment on the Cowboys regressing in McCarthy’s fourth year. Let’s do a preemptive strike on that notion.

The remaining schedule is pretty brutal. After hosting the Eagles next Sunday night, the Cowboys have a two-game road trip against the Bills and Dolphins. They’ll return home for a Saturday night game against the Lions in Week 17, and then have a road finale against Washington. Of those five, Philadelphia, Miami, and Detroit are playoff teams and Buffalo is just a game back of a wild card spot.

If the Cowboys can get just two wins out of their next four games, that’s nothing to turn your nose up at. If this last victory against the Seattle Seahawks was their most impressive so far in 2023, a win over any of those four teams would top it. Coming out of this crucible having broken even on wins and losses would be solid work and good priming for the playoffs.

That would send an 11-5 Cowboys team to Washington for what could easily be a meaningless game. At that point, the Eagles have probably won the NFC East while Dallas would likely be locked into the fifth seed as the NFC’s top wild card team. They would have nothing tangible to play for against the Commanders, opening the door to a semi-bye week and rest for veterans and other banged-up players.

Dallas might even use that opportunity to give QB Trey Lance, their third-stringer who’s only been an emergency option all year, a chance to play. Much like Sam Howell’s one start against Dallas to close the 2022 season, seeing what Lance can do in this finale could help the Cowboys to make decisions about their backup situation this offseason.

Naturally, we’d all love for Dallas to get to 12 wins over the next three to four weeks. They’re certainly capable of doing it, but this is about having reasonable expectations. They nearly got upset by Seattle this week and have four tougher challenges ahead.

As long as the Cowboys keep playing up to their potential on both sides of the ball, all the good things are still on the table for this season. That’s what Mike McCarthy has delivered thus far in 2023; hope that this year could finally be different. But like Garrett, Wade Phillips, and Bill Parcells before him, McCarthy has to finish the job in the tournament to change the longstanding narrative around this franchise.

But even if Dallas only wins two of their next five games, that may not be the sign of trouble that some will assume. It could just be a circumstance of how the dominoes fell in the schedule and how meaningful the Week 18 game winds up being. Mike McCarthy’s work can be lauded plenty based on current results, and hopefully even more in the playoff games to come.

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