The Dallas Cowboys certainly hope that Monday night’s trip to Tampa Bay isn’t the biggest game of their season. But this first-round game certainly comes with significant stakes on its own, and especially if it proves to be yet another “one-and-done” postseason appearance. Beyond just extending their time in the tournament, what does the Buccaneers game mean for Dallas?
The pressure for the Cowboys to do something big this year has been palpable since the offseason. Murmurings of Sean Payton’s availability as a head coaching option put Mike McCarthy on the hot seat, at least as far as public opinion is concerned. And while Dallas did just post its second-straight season with 12 wins, which was tremendous considering QB Dak Prescott’s five-game absence, now the postseason brings another level of scrutiny.
Mike McCarthy wasn’t brought here to win lots of regular season games and the occasional division title. Jerry Jones had that already in Jason Garrett. No, McCarthy rode in with his Super Bowl ring and was supposed to change the status quo. If the Cowboys fall in the first round again this year, repeating last year’s disappointment against the 49ers, it will be a horrible black mark for McCarthy and one that could open up plenty of debate about his job security.
Remember, Sean Payton isn’t just another head coach to this organization. He’s often been called “the one who got away” for Jerry Jones; an assistant coach under Bill Parcells from 2003-2005 who left for his storied run with the New Orleans Saints. Had Payton stuck around another year, we probably would have never seen Wade Phillips or even Garrett as Cowboys head coaches.
With Payton still under contract with the Saints, Dallas would likely have to give up a first-round pick and more for New Orleans to release their rights. That may be the dealbreaker for the Jones family, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t explore other options. Maybe they send McCarthy packing if it meant they could keep Dan Quinn around, who’s already being linked to other teams with head coach openings.
So far, Jerry Jones has strongly proclaimed that McCarthy’s job is safe no matter what happens Monday night or beyond. But we’ve heard that before from Jerry and seen him pull the plug on Phillips and Garrett after similar endorsements. If the Cowboys embarrass their owner again in these playoffs, how could anyone feel safe? Even if Mike sticks around, Offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore feels likely to be the sacrificial scapegoat.
More big picture questions
While his contract prohibits immediate action, Dak Prescott’s future could also be significantly impacted by these playoffs. He turns 30 next summer and the Cowboys may get a wandering eye if he doesn’t perform well. Could Dallas be prompted to spend a mid-round pick at quarterback and start grooming a potential replacement?
Again, McCarthy, Prescott, and these Cowboys did just go 12-5 and are headed into their first playoff game as the favorites. Who knows what lies ahead? If this is the year that Dallas finally breaks past the second round for the first time since 1995, all of this angst will disappear quickly.
But that’s what’s on the line for Dallas on Monday night, and hopefully the following week as well. While the 26 years of disappointment shouldn’t matter to the coaches or players, they certainly matter to the front office and fans who’ve lived through it all. The pressure to perform is as high as its ever been and Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore, Dak Prescott, and others can’t expect to just walk away from another letdown without some kind of consequence.