To his credit, Mike McCarthy has endured.
He weathered the 6-10 season in 2020, after his hiring by the Dallas Cowboys felt like an uninspired reach for someone flexible and familiar to ownership. He rallied in 2021, finishing 12-5 and beating back whispers about Sean Payton lurking in the psyche of Jerry Jones. And when the Cowboys owner said he wanted more success in 2022, McCarthy obliged by taking a stride forward, spinning his second 12-5 season into the first playoff win of his Dallas tenure.
Now in 2023? After taking the offense into his hands, he’s in the midst of his third straight season that will conclude with a playoff berth — a feat that hasn’t happened in Dallas since Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer combined to take the Cowboys to six straight postseasons from the 1991 to 1996 seasons.
And yet, here we are again. Staring at Sunday’s 31-10 road loss to the Buffalo Bills and contemplating one reality: We don’t know if the Dallas Cowboys are capable of anything more than the heights they have already reached under Mike McCarthy’s command.
For all the offensive productivity and blowouts of lesser teams, we were still left pondering the road woes on Sunday — not to mention the wisdom of playing starters deep into a fourth quarter when they’re getting physically annihilated. Still left to contemplate how the same team that dominated the Philadelphia Eagles on Dec. 10 can fall so flat one week later against a Bills franchise that still hasn’t found its identity this season. And all coming against the backdrop of where ownership stands on a potential contract extension for McCarthy.
Well, Sunday should be a solid barometer, as should the remainder of the season because right now, there’s no certainty that these Cowboys are better than the past two iterations where it matters most: the postseason. If this edition of Dallas is a Xerox of the past two, what is McCarthy accomplishing that Jason Garrett hadn’t already before him?
That might sound harsh, but the bottom line results are what they are.
Here’s Garrett’s final four seasons in Dallas: In 64 regular-season games, he never had a losing season, finished 40-24, won the NFC East twice, went 1-2 in the playoffs and he was ultimately fired because he could never break through to a Super Bowl despite talented rosters.
Now compare that with McCarthy’s 64 regular-season games in Dallas. He’ll have one losing season, he currently has a 40-24 regular-season record, he’s currently in contention to win his second NFC East title, and he’s gone 1-2 in the playoffs, with the 2023 postseason still ahead.
Right now, they both cut the same figure: Head coaches who endure when they have to, but never conquer when they must. Steering rosters that are clearly capable of achieving significant regular-season wins, but still short when it comes to seizing meaningful playoff success.
Before Jones considers a contract extension, perhaps he should wait to see if McCarthy can put some distance between his results and Garrett’s. Because right now, it looks like this regime is a more exciting continuation of the last — but also with a better roster and a more experienced Dak Prescott at quarterback.
That’s not to diminish what McCarthy has accomplished. It’s undeniable that he’s helped Prescott reach a new plateau in his play while also shaping the offense into something complementary and lethal. Along the way, he juggled his ego with that of former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, yielded a significant amount of leadership and control of the defense to coordinator Dan Quinn, and for the most part, kept himself from getting sucked into the circus that Jerry likes to create around his team.
There’s something to be said for all that, especially when McCarthy pulled it all off under the initial expectation of failure, then in the face of an annual media referendum on whether he was doing enough to keep his job. But that impressive navigation also shouldn’t be what carves out another contract for him in Dallas, either. Not if Jerry is serious about his annual claim of wanting to win another Super Bowl.
In a little less than six weeks, the clock on that goal will reach 28 years and counting. And this Dallas roster is arguably the most talented since … well … maybe since those Super Bowl teams in the 1990s. This reality should provide McCarthy with ample opportunities to break through a playoff ceiling that Garrett never could, particularly in a season when only the San Francisco 49ers look relatively unbeatable in the NFC — and even they went on a three-game losing streak in October.
But to get there, the incomprehensible flops like Sunday against the Bills can’t happen. Not with McCarthy risking his starters in a game that is clearly lost. Not with two of the Cowboys’ three remaining games against current division leaders (the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Lions). Not in a final month when the Cowboys should be building momentum into the postseason. Not when they’re fighting with the Eagles to win the NFC East and host a home game in the first round of the playoffs. And most definitely not when they’re showcasing an element of weakness outside of AT&T Stadium that is suddenly the most pressing issue in the franchise.
Make no mistake, McCarthy is signed through the 2024 season, but a large part of his future in this franchise is going to be shaped in the next three weeks and beyond. It will be the difference between the fan base clamoring for his firing or applauding an extension in the coming offseason — the difference between squandering another well-built roster or seizing upon it to make the conference title game or Super Bowl the new standard.
Anything less than that? Then this edition of the Dallas Cowboys will be in jeopardy of carving out a familiar legacy of being good enough, but never great enough. And in a year of opportunity like this, with everything there for the taking, even Mike McCarthy can’t possibly endure that.