The Dallas Cowboys do not have a playoff home game. They will have no momentum going into the postseason, nor a perfectly healthy roster. In fact, they can’t even have full confidence in which team will face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild card round on January 16.
But what they will have are expectations. More specifically the expectations of team owner Jerry Jones, who made it clear almost six months ago what he expected from this team and head coach Mike McCarthy: A big step forward.
As Jones said in his “State of the Cowboys” speech in July, “I think we’re in better shape to run today than we were when we were here at this time last year.”
Well, get out the measuring sticks, because this is where the rubber meets the road for McCarthy, whose job performance this season will be more a function of the weeks to come than anything he’s done in the last six months. As unfair as that may sound, it’s the harsh reality of a franchise that dropped out of the wild card round a year ago. When much is expected in the post-season and nothing is delivered, the margin for future failure is significantly reduced. And that’s why McCarthy is in a tight spot right now.
His offense, despite being an unthinkable dud in a 26-6 loss to Washington on Sunday, is one of the best in the NFL. His defense, despite not being completely healthy, is still equipped with a passing rush that should feast on a poor Tampa Bay offensive line. And his quarterback, Dak Prescott, despite throwing a whopping 15 career interceptions this season, gets paid to win these kinds of playoff games.
Dallas showed too much potential this season to fall flat again in the wildcard round. If the Cowboys do that, it will raise questions about McCarthy’s ability to elevate and prepare when it matters most. The same kind of questions were asked about his predecessor, Jason Garrett, with the same implications about job security. If you don’t believe that, turn back the clock to July, when Jones made it clear that his continued support for McCarthy (despite having “choices” with the head coach) was anchored in his belief that the next step was possible. While that may not have been a Super Bowl move for Jerry, it was certainly a vision of playoff success.
“I have to win it, but I will be frank with you, there are diplomas [of success]Jones said. “I want to be fair to everyone involved. We have to make the playoffs. We have to be viable in the playoffs to make it a successful season.”
At that time, there was not much need for a 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 competing for a No. 1 seed—and then lose another first-round playoff game. There had to be a tangible success. To think that anything has changed in the last six months would be madness. Especially with one of Jerry’s “choices” in the head coaching position, Sean Payton, who is just now starting to flirt with the Denver Broncos.
Add it up and what you have is a pivotal moment for Dallas and the identity McCarthy is trying to create. It’s a moment where the Cowboys can look at themselves and ask what they want to be. Do they want to be a team defined by not showing a season finale against Washington and then dropping their first playoff game? Or do they want to show they have the ability to bounce back and make a fundamental gain that continues an upward trajectory?
Anything short of a win next week will be the crucial answer Jones is looking for. Failure this time cannot be dressed up with talk of learning to win or empty congratulations on qualifying for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, especially against a Tampa team entering the playoffs with a losing record and an offense which has been an all-you-can-eat buffet of mediocrity.
As much as the matchup will be hyped as one of those “you can never count Tom Brady” games – and as much as we’ll be playing Tampa’s season-opening 19-3 win in Dallas – this is a game the Cowboys should be playing. do not lose. Their roster is younger and better. They are healthier. Their coaching over the course of the season has been better. Add it up and this is something that cannot end in another recession moment.
Six months ago, this is what Jones was talking about when he said he wanted a viable playoff team. This is the opportunity he envisioned when he talked about having “choices” that weren’t McCarthy. And this is the roster he proclaimed was in “better shape” to make a run than the 2021 edition.
We’ll see if he’s right on Monday Night Football. For Mike McCarthy, the measuring season starts there.