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Spagnola: No Head-Coaching Honeymoon Here


FRISCO, Texas – So what's the bar?

Is it the high bar?

Or are we talking a mere parallel bar?

This might be Mike McCarthy's highest hurdle taking this Dallas Cowboys head coaching job, dealing with these immediate lofty expectations.

See, for now, he seems to be handling everything quite well, just three days on the job.

Appears quite organized on staff decisions. Who he might keep on the previous staff, and from the sounds of things, seemingly not many, if just one. Who he envisions hiring to restock what previously had been an ever-expanding 24-man staff, and seems to already have a pretty good handle on who's available and just where he wants to go with significant positions, like defensive coordinator, offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator, defensive line coach, running backs coach, offensive line coach, among others.

Looks as if he already has mapped out offseason schedules, and that's important since NFL teams with new head coaches can begin offseason workouts on April 6, two weeks ahead of everyone else. Then planning dates for rookie minicamp, OTAs, team-wide minicamp and the start to training camp, along with how he wants to conduct those allotted days.

Then there will be the "we" decisions, as McCarthy labeled them, sifting through the laundry list of unrestricted free agents the Cowboys must deal with alongside Jerry and Stephen Jones and Will McClay. Sign 'em? Let 'em walk? Where do you spend your salary cap funds?

And McCarthy sounds as if he's already ready to hit The Star running.

Then comes the hard part. Playing games. Winning games.

And my guess is, and he knows it, and certainly the guys upstairs here know it, there will be no honeymoon. Not with the prime parts of this roster already in place. And most of all, not when you are the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

This ain't Kansas, er, Cleveland.

Why, you know the Cowboys fan. You know the local media. Doesn't matter if your quarterback is Steve Pelluer or Troy Aikman. Tony Romo or Quincy Carter. A rookie Dak Prescott or a veteran Vinny Testaverde.

Most figure it is the Cowboys' inalienable right to win the NFC East, go to the playoffs and by golly at least reach the NFC title game. Yearly!

That's the bar the Cowboys established from 1966 through 1985, during those 20 consecutive winning seasons. The bar was high, so high, that just a month ago Roger Staubach called 1979, an 11-5 team winning the NFC East, a disappointing season. Yep, the team that had been to the Super Bowl in three of the previous four seasons was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round.

Pretty disgusting, right? And folks don't even like talking about the early 1980s when the Cowboys went to three consecutive NFC title games, but losing all three. How dare they.

And then there were the 1990s, stringing together six consecutive winning seasons and seven throughout the decade, winning three Super Bowls, playing in four NFC title games, winning the NFC East six of those 10 seasons and going to the playoffs seven times – one game short of an eighth. Heck, two seasons of 10-6, 8-8 and first-round playoff losses in 1998-99 got Chan Gailey fired after his second season.

Talk about spoiled.

That brings us to 2020, and the high bar of expectations.

Over the past nine seasons under Jason Garrett, the Cowboys finished 8-8 four times, each of those times with a chance to win the NFC East in either the final game of the season or the 15th game of the season (2019) – but didn't. They finished with four winning records, claiming the division title three times, and the time they did not win the East at 9-7 in 2017, had they beaten Seattle in Game 15, likely would have at least earned a playoff spot. They also fashioned with a 2-3 playoff record in three appearances.

That didn't appease a soul.

And no matter in Garrett's first three 8-8 seasons the Cowboys might just as well put up an "Under Repair" sign outside The Ranch, the roster in shambles, evidence by the 1-7 start to 2010, the end of Wade Phillips' run as head coach.

But most would agree, McCarthy isn't being asked to accept some "Mission Impossible" for 2020.

He's inheriting a seasoned quarterback, a running back having gained more than a 1,000 yards in three of the past four seasons and winning the NFL rushing title in two of them and would have won a third if not for being suspended six games in 2017. He's inheriting six Pro Bowlers (Amari Cooper and Jaylon Smith recent replacement additions, to go with Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick and Ezekiel Elliott) and a team comprising a 56-40 record, with only one losing season over the past six years.

So you know the score, and so does McCarthy.

"And lastly, I'm just going to say this and to the fans," McCarthy began concluding his opening remarks on Wednesday, "the commitment will be unwavering. I won my first Super Bowl here in North Texas at AT&T Stadium. I just want to tell you I am anxious and excited to get to work on winning the next Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys."

Plus, his history only compounds the expectations. Thirteen years of head coaching experience at Green Bay. Nine playoff appearances. A 10-8 playoff record, and one and done only three times. Six division titles. Appearances in four NFC title games. A Super Bowl title. Oh, and a 7-3 record in 10 games against the Cowboys, including 2-0 in the playoffs.

Those were the kind of introductory stats Cowboys owner Jerry Jones immediately rattled off during Wednesday's press conference, including pointing out McCarthy having worked throughout his coaching career with the likes of Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.

Plus, as Jerry further ticked off reasons he was the guy for this job, "His natural instincts for the game and how to get the job done, and also his familiarity in working for a storied and historic franchise that has a worldwide fan base, that expectations are very high."

So walking into The Star seeing those five Super Bowl trophies in the lobby area won't be intimidating to him. The Packers have six NFL Championship trophies and four more named after Packers legendary coach Vince Lombardi. Towering statue of Tom Landry outside AT&T Stadium? No problem. The bronzed tributes to Curly Lambeau and Lombardi reside outside Lambeau Field on Lombardi Way.

Oh, and let's point this out, too: On the way into Green Bay, the Titletown USA sign greets you.

So guarantee you McCarthy knows the expectations. Same as in Green Bay. Win the division. Win a playoff game or three. Put a Lombardi in his hand.

Think not?

Well, already heard a talking head wonder aloud, "How soon do you think the Cowboys will win a Super Bowl?"

Even in Wednesday's press conference, Jerry was asked, "Why do you think Mike McCarthy can win a Super Bowl?"

Not a game. Not a division title. Not a playoff game or two?

A Super Bowl!

My goodness, the guy hadn't even moved into his office yet and Super Bowl talk already had begun.

"I mean, those things, Lombardis are hard to get ahold of," Jerry said, "and we know that. And he's had one in his own (holds up a clutching-like hand) right here. To catch that right now (to hire McCarthy) and get our time to do that was just an opportunity."

Yep, Mike, you're sure to know there have been none of these Lombardi Trophies passed around here since the 1995 season, since Barry Switzer held one high in his hands in Tempe, Ariz., screaming "We did it our way baby! We did it! We did it!"

Well, no one else has "did it" the past 24 seasons, and the reason why you are now the Cowboys' seventh head coach since that night, including Switzer, who only lasted two more Lombardi-less seasons.

Welcome to Dallas, Mike. No need to duck in these parts.

The bars are mighty high.