The Dallas Cowboys won’t have a home playoff game. They won’t have momentum entering the postseason, nor a perfectly healthy roster. Indeed, they can’t even have total confidence in which team is going to show up against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round on Jan. 16.
But what they will have is expectations. More specifically the expectations of team owner Jerry Jones, who made it clear almost six months ago what he expected of this team and head coach Mike McCarthy: A significant step forward.
As Jones said in his “State of the Cowboys” address in July: “I think we’re in better shape today to make a run at it than 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 performance this season will be more a function of the next few weeks than anything he did in the past six months. As unfair as that might sound, it’s the hard reality of a franchise that flunked out of the wild-card round one year ago. When much is expected in the postseason and nothing is delivered, the margin for failure is significantly smaller moving forward. And that’s why McCarthy is in some tight quarters right now.
His offense, despite putting up an inconceivable 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, still features a pass rush that should feast on a bad Tampa Bay offensive line. And his quarterback, Dak Prescott, despite throwing a career-high 15 interceptions this season, is getting paid to win playoff games like these.
Dallas showcased too much potential this season to fall flat again in the wild-card round. If the Cowboys do, questions are going to be raised 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, dial the clock back to July, when Jones made it clear that his continued support of McCarthy (despite having “choices” at head coach) was anchored in his belief that the next step was possible. While that might not be a Super Bowl step for Jerry, it was most certainly a vision of playoff success.
“I need to win it, but I’ll be candid with you, there’s degrees [of success],” Jones said. “I want to be fair to everybody concerned. We need to be in the playoffs. We need to be viable in the playoffs for it to be a successful season.”
At the time, there wasn’t much need for a debate over the meaning of the word “viable.” The implications of that language was clear. McCarthy couldn’t put together a season like this — finishing 12-5 and contending for a No. 1 seed — and then lose another first-round playoff game. There had to be some tangible success. To think that anything has changed over the past six months would be lunacy. Especially with one of Jerry’s “choices” at the head coaching position, Sean Payton, just now starting to flirt with the Denver Broncos.
Add it up and what you have is a critical juncture for Dallas and the identity that 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 no-showing a season-finale against Washington and then dropping their first playoff game? Or do they want to show the ability to bounce back and make a fundamental gain that continues upward trajectory?
Anything less than a win next week will be the critical answer that Jones is looking for. Failure this time around can’t be dressed up with talk about learning to win or empty congratulations about qualifying for the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, particularly against a Tampa team that enters the playoffs with a losing record and an offense that 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 out Tom Brady” games — and as much as we will play up Tampa’s season-opening 19-3 win in Dallas — this is a game the Cowboys shouldn’t lose. Their roster is younger and better. They are healthier. Their coaching across the course of the season has been better. Add it up and this is something that can't end in another moment of recession.
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 that he proclaimed was in “better shape” to make a run than the 2021 edition.
We’ll find out if he’s right on Monday Night Football. For Mike McCarthy, that's where the measuring season starts.