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Science Lab: McCarthy, Cowboys & cosmic scales


Editor's note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, Texas — The football universe is expanding to include an influx of newly-capable teams, and the Dallas Cowboys are in dire need of reaching Their Goal before things get out of reach. Their impressive end to the 2023 regular season ended in horror in the first round of the playoffs, however, leading to questions on if Mike McCarthy would remain head coach of the team.

McCarthy will indeed, at least for the 2024 season, a decision that was formally announced by owner and general manager Jerry Jones on Wednesday evening; and one that means several things for the organization.

There was/is no shortage of wreckage to be sorted through following the meltdown that occurred against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium on Super Wild Card Weekend, a 48-32 loss that was far worse than the final score implies.

The reality is Jones was forced to weigh the future against the past this week.

McCarthy isn't simply a Super Bowl-winning coach, but he's also led the Cowboys to 36 wins in the past three seasons along with two division titles, and owns the highest regular season winning percentage of any head coach in Cowboys' history — an item Jones made sure to point out in his official statement which indicates it carried a ton of weight on his scale.

"I think the biggest thing is, you know, we're disappointed. I got a whole team in the locker room that's hurting. I haven't thought past the outcome of this game." - Mike McCarthy

What also tipped things in his favor was the fact McCarthy's return to offensive play-calling gave the Cowboys the No. 1 offense in the league, an MVP candidacy for quarterback Dak Prescott and a historic season for two-time First-Team All-Pro wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.

Now, about the future stuff.

There's no getting around just how abysmal the Cowboys' performance was in the biggest game of the season this time around, and after having earned the No. 2 seed and home field advantage, where they were enjoying a 16-game win streak. It was a failure on every level — scheme, player execution, etc. — by most involved in the contest on both the sidelines and in between the lines, and that served as a massive counterbalance to what had occurred in the past.

An organization that was once again primed to end a 28-year championship drought didn't simply fall short, or backwards, it took a dive face first off of Reunion Tower onto the street below.

"Our loss on Sunday is shared by everyone here, not just Coach McCarthy. Our players. Our coaches. Our front office. Myself." - Jerry Jones

And, with that, there was enough justification to move on from McCarthy, but also enough to keep him around for the final year of a five-year deal to thrust him into a prove-it season.

The Cowboys are going with the latter.

For Prescott, this means lack of another shakeup atop the coaching pyramid and on the offensive side of the ball. The 30-year-old quarterback readily admits he played some of his worst football against the Packers and, as such, shares accountability to the degree that he tied himself to McCarthy's hot seat as well.

He'll now escape a second regime change and, assuming McCarthy remains play-caller, which is the expectation, a move to a fourth offensive maestro.

"I understand it's about winning the Super Bowl. That's the standard of this league and damn sure the standard of this place. I get it but add me to the list in that case." - Dak Prescott

As a related sidebar, it's expected Prescott could likely land a contract extension this offseason, but he'll be QB1 in Dallas regardless, given his no-trade clause and the structure of his current contract.

Prescott entered the league with Scott Linehan in that role before it was awarded to Kellen Moore, who was divorced following the 2022 season. McCarthy made additional changes to the coaching staff beneath him, and it's unclear if he'll shake the tree in that regard, but the more pressing matter at hand lies on the defensive side of the equation, where Dan Quinn resides.

Quinn's era with the Cowboys has been mostly stellar since replacing Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator in 2021. The team has led the NFL in both QB pressures and takeaways roughly annually, and hadn't allowed a 100-yard receiver or 100-yard rusher for a large part of the 2023 season, despite having lost record-setting cornerback Trevon Diggs and former Pro Bowl linebacker Leighton Vander Esch for the season.

The emergence of DaRon Bland as a record-setter himself helped ease the loss, and several other players took steps forward in their development under Quinn and his staff — one that includes Al Harris — such as Osa Odighizuwa, Markquese Bell and, of course, Micah Parsons.

But for all of the great things that were achieved over the past three regular seasons, it was a unit that also contributed to the Cowboys' downfall against the Packers, delivering zero takeaways, pressuring Jordan Love only four times, allowing a large number of chunk plays and suffering from miscommunications in real-time.

But, much like the status of McCarthy, the Cowboys must weigh the past against the future though, unlike McCarthy, Quinn could possibly make the decision for them.

It's not expected that the Cowboys are looking to move on from Quinn, but he's undergoing a tour of interviews for head coaching vacancies right now, including with the Seattle Seahawks, so there is no way of knowing quite yet if Quinn will remain in Dallas as defensive coordinator.

If he doesn't, retaining McCarthy ensures at least one main pillar remains in place going forward, versus the coaching staff being completely detonated by Jones this offseason.

Should Quinn remain, it'll be as close to the phrase "run it back" as possible in Dallas, though the rule of attrition in the NFL means the roster will look different in many ways.

McCarthy has built a culture in Dallas that his players have praised at every turn, some going so far as taking to social media to campaign for him to stay put.

"Just like we said today, let's run dis sh– back." - Juanyeh Thomas

For the record, that intangible was also placed on McCarthy's scale by the Joneses.

In the end, there will be no change at head coach for the Cowboys, a team that continues to show it's uninterested in routinely experiencing a carousel of head coaches, but instead feels it's not far from where it needs to be. There's evidence to support that train of thought, but recent evidence also challenges it, and only time will tell what lies at the end of this track.

It'll either be the long-lost sixth Lombardi trophy, or the team will find itself standing in front of this same scale in the near future, wondering what might've been.

Needless to say, it's the former they're hoping for.

The phrase "Super Bowl or bust" gets thrown around a lot in the NFL, and particularly as it relates to the Cowboys, but it's rarely ever been truer than it is at this exact moment.

The stars have no choice but to align in 2024.

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