As Cowboys camp starts, Jerry Jones backs Mike McCarthy … right into a playoff-success-or-else corner

OXNARD, Calif. — The Dallas Cowboys' official 2022 training camp kicked off on a stage perched under gray clouds and described in similarly gray tones. But when Jerry Jones finally stopped talking on Tuesday, the path forward had steered into 100 percent visibility — or to borrow Jerry’s term, "viability" — for head coach Mike McCarthy.

As the Cowboys push forward, McCarthy has got the backing of owner Jerry Jones.

Right into a corner, of sorts.

It’s hard to interpret what Jones said any other way, given that he once again blessed a forthcoming season with his trademark shotgun-marriage vows of support and expectations. First, he stumped briefly but unprompted for McCarthy’s return this season, then following with a longer and more wandering projection about where the franchise is headed in Year 3 of his head coach’s tenure. In any other season, it could have been compared to numerous similar endorsements Jones has made. After all, it’s the most optimistic time of year for the league’s most annually optimistic team owner.

But we all know the the landscape here, too. And so does McCarthy. No matter how many words or slogans or optimistic back slaps are delivered by Jones, two things haven't changed in the last six months: The 2021 season ended in a bitter playoff failure, undercutting one of the better recent chances Jones and the Cowboys have had for a deep postseason run. And less than 10 days after that disappointment, he-who-shall-always-be-named when it comes to Jones and Dallas — the rest of us call him Sean Payton — stepped down as head coach of the New Orleans Saints.

If we’re being honest about the distortion field that surrounds the 2022 Cowboys season, those are the two factors that warp everything — both good and bad. And you could see it right from the start on Tuesday, when Jones felt obliged to start his press conference with an endorsement of McCarthy, but then also went on to not-so-subtly describe the task McCarthy has in front of him.

In short? There’s a sense of urgency about a roster that looked good enough to be great last season. This time around, it had better not just make the playoffs — but take that next step.

“I told them I’ve got a birthday coming up here real quick,” said Jones, who turns 80 this season, drawing some laughs. “I don’t have time to have a bad time. It ain’t on my schedule. I’m not so sure that’s a joke. That’s the way it is.”

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People will take that as Jones injecting his typical humor into expectations, but it recalls something a source inside the building said in the summer of 2018, following a disappointing 9-7 season: “I don’t think he knows how many campaigns he has left in him.”

That line was uttered when Jones was on the doorstep of 76 years old and coming off a season when it felt like Dallas had taken a step backward. It was also delivered in the midst of one of the many offseasons when the rumor mill was churning at full force, insisting that he was still tinkering with Payton as a potential replacement for then-coach Jason Garrett — the longtime Jones favorite who just couldn’t achieve a postseason breakthrough.

It’s worth considering what's happened since that summer four years ago. Jones' close friend and owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair, died of cancer during the ensuing season at 81. Confidants said it was a loss that shook Jones up, making him hyper-aware of his mortality. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a few months after McNair’s death, Jones completed his purchase of a $250 million yacht and made plans to spend part of an offseason tooling around Europe.

If head coach Mike McCarthy fails to lead the Cowboys deep into the playoffs once again, there's a Sean Payton-size solution sitting out there for the 79-year-old Jerry Jones. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)
If head coach Mike McCarthy fails to lead the Cowboys deep into the playoffs once again, there's a Sean Payton-size solution sitting out there for the 79-year-old Jerry Jones. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Of course, the sugar high of such things only lasts so long. Much like Jones' previous legacy moments — the entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2017; the completion of his multibillion dollar “The Star” complex in Frisco, Texas; nailing down another cornerstone collective bargaining agreement and television deal — things eventually return back to football. And when that happens, expectations set in.

This season will be no different. As much as McCarthy has the staunch backing of Jerry’s son, Stephen Jones, there will be no protecting his job security if 2022 ends in some kind of shortfall. Failing to make the playoffs would essentially guarantee McCarthy’s third season will be his last. And failing to advance in the playoffs would be a sign that the team is stuck in the same gear — even if it would be the first time in 14 years that Dallas had made back-to-back postseason appearances.

And let’s not ignore the change in the football matrix that will be on constant replay amid any Cowboys struggles this season: For the first time since he left the franchise in 2006, Payton is available for acquisition. The Saints still hold his coaching rights through 2024, but he’ll be available for a much more modest draft pick than it would have cost Dallas if Jones had tried to acquire him while he was still the acting head coach in New Orleans. Instead, he’ll spend the season in the friendly confines of a Fox football broadcast, free to talk to any NFL owner he wishes at any moment he wishes. And he’s already done the heavy lifting, letting everyone know that he envisions a return to the coaching sideline again.

That should put pressure on many coaches across the NFL, not just McCarthy. But nobody is kidding themselves about the affinity Jones and Payton have for each other. Nor should anyone question whether Dallas would be an attractive landing spot for Payton, given the team will have a strong talent base and the ability to finesse the salary cap moving forward, thanks to a solid $20 million surplus that is currently sitting on the books this season.

None of this means McCarthy is guaranteed to be set on a rail out of town, though. Jones has already been at work defending the offseason moves that saw the departures of key players like defensive end Randy Gregory and wideout Amari Cooper, who are both considered the “availability” liabilities that Jones occasionally refers to. But the remaining roster is still very much a playoff-caliber machine in an NFC that isn’t nearly as impressive as the meat-grinder of talent that has piled up in the AFC. Not to mention the NFC East is still in flux, with uncertainty up and down the division, leaving it ripe for Dallas to seize once again.

But this will ultimately be a zero-sum season, and all of that will be focused on the playoffs. Jones is hardly bashful about that reality. It might not be Super Bowl-or-nothing, but it's certainly playoff-success-or-nothing.

“I need to win it, but I’ll be candid with you, there’s degrees,” 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.”

On a gray first day, that was about as crystal clear as anything could get. And Jones was speaking as much to McCarthy as anyone else who was listening.