Jerry Jones turns up heat on Mike McCarthy, sending pointed message to Cowboys coach

ORLANDO, Fla. – As he unwound, sipping on a beverage following a long day of sessions at the NFL meetings this week, there was little doubt that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is intent on working the uncertainty surrounding the status of coach Mike McCarthy for all it’s worth.

Motivational fuel? Good business? Both?

McCarthy survived with his job intact following the disastrous ending against the Green Bay Packers in January – arguably the worst playoff loss in franchise history, which included a 27-0 deficit in the first half – but his future seems murky as Jones has declared (again) that he’s "all-in" for chasing that elusive championship glory in 2024. McCarthy is on the final year of his five-year contract as the poster image for the NFL hot seat.

"I’m not concerned about that," Jones told USA TODAY Sports during a 45-minute chat at the resort where owners, coaches and other NFL biggies convened.

"Most of America gets up and they don’t have it guaranteed in front of them. You’re going to write what you’re going to write, but when you ask me about not extending him, my answer is that most of America doesn’t have anything guaranteed down the road. Most folks don’t have guarantees."

Jones, the league’s most high-profile (and loquacious) owner running the most high-profile franchise, maintained that he isn’t trying to send a win-big-or-else message as McCarthy and most, if not all, of his staff of assistants proceed with lame-duck status. Yeah, right. Intentional or not, that’s exactly what he’s doing with the thick drama hovering above the Cowboys.

The heat is turned up, for better or for worse.

"I’ve had coaches in their final year before," he said, pointing to McCarthy’s predecessor, Jason Garrett, as an example. "I just am comfortable like this. There’s nothing that keeps me from extending him next week. Or during training camp. So, it’s not fait accompli that he’s going to coach this year without a contract (extension). I didn’t want to get into it as this particular time. We’ve had other contracts come up that we haven’t extended. No reason other than I wanted to manage it that way.

"You’ve got a very significant problem in the NFL with dead money for coaches. And it’s because you’ve got extended contracts, to where if you let somebody go, you’ve got to pay off their contract. It’s gotten to be so much of an issue that you can decide if you want to do what you do this year and reshuffle the cards next year with them. There’s nothing that says I won’t be extending those coaches next year. They’re all good coaches. Obviously. That’s just the way I do it.

"I’m doing it, to be very candid with you, because we have such a problem with dead money with coaches in the NFL. So, that’s what I’m trying to avoid."

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy before the NFC wild-card game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium.
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy before the NFC wild-card game against the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium.

It has to be only so comforting (or not) when the team’s owner is bemoaning dead money. McCarthy knows. The NFL is a high-stakes, cut-throat business. Embarrassing playoff failures don’t cut it. Especially when it’s become a trend. Yet McCarthy is seemingly taking the increased heat – against the backdrop of the Cowboys’ massive spotlight – in stride.

"I don’t see it as any more pressure," McCarthy, 60, said during the NFC coaches breakfast media session on Tuesday. “I think that’s just the reality of our business."

He added that he put it to the younger coaches on his staff like this: "You have to bet on yourself."

Despite the playoff failures, McCarthy guided the Cowboys to two NFC East titles and 36 regular-season victories over the past three years – second-most to the back-to-back defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (37) during that span. That’s why Jones contends that the Cowboys have been "hanging around the rim" – hardly a source of comfort for the fan base of a franchise that hasn’t won a Super Bowl in 28 years.

Then there was McCarthy’s work last season with Dak Prescott after taking over the offense from since-departed coordinator Kellen Moore. Prescott led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes and was runner-up to Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson for league MVP honors.

Jones may have thought hard about it after the embarrassing setback, but he is hardly ready to break up the McCarthy-Prescott dynamic. At least not now.

"Mike took over the offense and did it his way, did his application and coaching to Dak," Jones said. "Dak got better and everybody agrees – Dak, Mike and me, too – that he can do better."

Like his coach, Prescott is entering the final year his contract, a four-year, $160 million deal. And like McCarthy, the playoff meltdowns have created a narrative of its own for Prescott.

Yet unlike the case with McCarthy, Jones has publicly stated his intention to ultimately sign Prescott to an extension. The twist with Prescott’s situation, though, is that the quarterback holds some leverage with a contract clause that prevents the Cowboys from keeping him off the market with a franchise tag if his deal expires.

Of course, Jones wouldn’t mind if Prescott, 30, gains additional leverage by leading the Cowboys to a Super Bowl crown.

"He’s got leverage now," Jones said. "We both want him to be in a real good negotiating position. It’s actually more fun if I’m negotiating with them after we’ve won the Super Bowl."

Although the Cowboys are "all-in," there’s the reality of the challenges that have surfaced since the free agency market opened in mid-March. Cap-strapped Dallas lost eight free agents, including six starters. The lone addition to this point is linebacker Eric Kendricks, reunited with new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

So, after having nine players from last season’s team earn Pro Bowl plaudits, the equation for McCarthy to succeed this season includes getting impact from the upcoming draft and progression from young returnees on the roster.

Jones, also faced with the prospect of signing young stars CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons to long-term extensions, will tell you that even the best coaches can’t thrive without enough talent. Or at least without figuring out how to extract the best from the resources at hand.

Which is why they’re paid the big bucks. If they survive.

"You can say that about coaching," Jones said. "But I’ll say it about everybody."

That, too, is quite the bottom-line message.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jerry Jones turns up heat on embattled Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy