The Dallas Cowboys will not have a home playoff game. They won’t have momentum going into the postseason, nor an entirely healthy roster. In fact, they can’t even have complete confidence in the team that will show up against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild card round on January 16th.
But what they will have are expectations. More specifically the expectations of team owner Jerry Jones, who made it clear about six months ago what he expected from this team and coach Mike McCarthy: a significant step forward.
As Jones said in his “State of the Cowboys” speech in July: “I think we’re in a better position to run in today than we were when we were sitting here this time last year.”
Well, get out the measuring sticks because this is where the rubber meets the road for McCarthy, whose job this season will be more of a job in the next few weeks than anything he’s done in the past six months. As unfair as that may sound, it’s the hard truth for a franchise that failed in the wild card run one year earlier. When a lot is expected in the postseason and nothing is delivered, the margin for failure is much smaller going forward. Which is why McCarthy is in some tight spots now.
His offense, despite his unimaginably botched performance in a 26-6 loss to Washington on Sunday, is one of the best in the NFL. His defense, despite not being as healthy, still features rushing passes that have to feed off Tampa Bay’s poor offensive line. And his quarterback, Dak Prescott, despite throwing a career-high 15 interceptions this season, is getting paid to win playoff games like this one.
Dallas showed a lot of potential this season to fall back into the wild card round. If the Cowboys are doing this, questions will be raised about McCarthy’s ability to rise and be ready when it matters most. The same sorts of questions have been raised about his predecessor, Jason Jarrett, with the same implications for job security. If you don’t believe it, dial the clock to July, when Jones made it clear that his continued support of McCarthy (despite having “options” in the head coach) was firm in his belief that the next move was possible. While this may not have been Jerry’s move to the Super Bowl, it was certainly a vision of playoff success.
“I need to win it, but I’ll be honest with you, there are scores [of success]Jones said. “I want to be fair with everyone involved. We have to be in the playoffs. We need to be able to stay in the playoffs for it to be a successful season.”
At the time, there was little need for debate about the meaning of the word “viable.” The implications of that language were clear. McCarthy couldn’t put together a season like this—finishing 12-5 and in contention for the top seed—and then lost another first-round match. There must be some tangible success. To think that anything has changed in the last six months would be madness. Especially with one of Jerry’s “choices” for the head coaching position, Sean Payton, just beginning to court the Denver Broncos.
Add it up and you have it is a defining juncture for Dallas and the identity McCarthy is trying to forge. It’s a moment when cowboys can look at themselves and ask what they want to be. Do they want to be a select team by not making the season finale against Washington and then dropping out of their first playoff game? Or do they want to show the ability to bounce back and make fundamental gains that continue to the upside?
Anything short of a win next week will be the definitive answer Jones is looking for. Failure this time can’t dress up talk of learning to win or empty congratulation about making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, especially against a Tampa team that enters the playoffs with a losing record and whose offense was an all-you-can-eat buffet of mediocrity.
As much as the game will be touted as one of those “You can never count on Tom Brady games” — and as much as we’ll be playing in Tampa’s season-opening 19-3 win at Dallas — this is a game the Cowboys should not miss. t lose. Their menu is smaller and better. They are healthier. Their training over the course of the season was even better. Add it up and this is something that can’t be finished in another moment of stagnation.
Six months ago, that’s what Jones was talking about when he said he wanted a viable team. This is the opportunity he conceived when he spoke of having “choices” that McCarthy did not. This is the list he has declared to be in “better shape” to run a race than the 2021 edition.
We’ll find out if he’s right on Monday Night Football. For Mike McCarthy, here begins the season of measurement.