The speculation was fair.
Four years later, McCarthy has not.
He has not guided a talented roster to an NFC championship game, much less a Super Bowl, both measures of success that have eluded the franchise for more than 28 years.
So to wonder whether McCarthy would return to the Cowboys was to wonder whether Jerry Jones would operate as many of the trigger-happy NFL team owners do. After all, McCarthy’s Cowboys not only hadn’t advanced further in the playoffs than they did in previous 12-5 campaigns, they’d also lost a wild-card embarrassment at home this year after winning on the road last year. By postseason standards, the team regressed.
The Cowboys became, for the second time in three years, the only team to lose among six wild-card hosts. That they lost to McCarthy’s former Green Bay Packers only added insult to injury.
So to wonder whether the Cowboys would replace McCarthy was to wonder whether Jones believed his talent is not reaching its ceiling. Was elevating the floor, which McCarthy had done in the regular seasons relative to Garrett, sufficient? And if not, was a better candidate available?
The unusual caliber of coaching talent on the free-agent market further fueled fair speculation.
But ultimately, this team belongs to Jerry Jones, and this team’s decisions funnel through Jerry Jones. The Cowboys’ 81-year-old owner and general manager needed to ask himself if starting over is really more likely to guarantee his team gets over the hump — if firing the man at the helm of a team with a top-five offense and a top-five defense makes sense.
On Wednesday, Jones confirmed his belief: It doesn’t.
Breaking down Jerry Jones’ decision to keep Mike McCarthy
News broke Wednesday evening of McCarthy’s job security, with Jones issuing a statement shortly after reports flooded the internet. Within an hour, the Cowboys had scheduled McCarthy’s end-of-year news conference for Thursday morning.
“I believe this team is very close and capable of achieving our ultimate goals,” Jones said in his statement. “The best step forward for us will be with Mike McCarthy as our head coach.”
Jones detailed the “many layers of success” and “progress” McCarthy has overseen in three straight postseason-eligible seasons, a stretch that eluded his predecessor. He praised McCarthy’s relationship with players and acknowledged — as Jones is adept at doing — fans’ top reservations.
Jerry Jones on retaining Mike McCarthy as Cowboys coach: “While we’re all disappointed with the result on Sunday and with our playoff record, I am 100 percent supportive of him as our head coach and ability to reach our goals.”
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 18, 2024
Why extend a coach after the wild-card embarrassment?
“The lens we use to view and evaluate Coach McCarthy is holistic,” Jones said in his statement. “While we’re all disappointed with the result on Sunday and with our playoff record, I am 100 percent supportive of him as our head coach and ability to reach our goals.”
Is this simply a matter of settling for good but not great?
“There is accountability for our results,” Jones said, as if in defense against the criticism he regularly takes for presiding as both team owner and general manager. “I am accountable for our results.
“We will start our process of review and decision-making regarding everything that impacts our team and roster.”
The most expensive and, by Jones’ public admissions, the most important member of the Cowboys roster publicly supported this decision Sunday. Whether Dak Prescott was embracing humility beyond what logic dictates or actually believes it, his support of McCarthy was powerful in the heat of the team's loss.
“He’s been amazing,” Prescott said Sunday night. “I’ve had the season that I’ve had because of him. This team has had the success that they’ve had because of him. I understand it’s about winning the Super Bowl. That’s the standard of the league and damn sure the standard of this place.
“So I get [the questions], but add me to the list in that case.”
Jones has long said the Cowboys run through Prescott. And in the regular season, Prescott soared. He led the league in touchdowns a year after leading in interceptions, a reversal he credits in large part to McCarthy’s teaching, enabling quarterback and receivers to play more on the same page. Prescott's career-best 105.9 passer rating ranked second only to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, who most around the league believe is playing with a better cast and better coach. That factored into Prescott's beating Purdy in All-Pro voting, with Prescott earning the second-most votes among the 50 league voters and trailing only the Baltimore Ravens’ dual-threat magician, Lamar Jackson.
Multiple Eagles pointed to Cowboys' WC loss in explaining the unexplainable.
Lane Johnson: "It's a weird business. You saw with Dallas last night, tremendously talented team. That's what the NFL is about, man. Sometimes you go out there & f*** around & find out. & we found out."
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) January 16, 2024
By his own admission, Prescott “sucked” in the playoff loss, with multiple interceptions including a pick 6, but his production and sophistication at the line of scrimmage through the regular season speak well of McCarthy’s play-calling and scheming.
After Prescott’s comments rippled through the league this week, several coaches told Yahoo Sports that they believed McCarthy was safe. The only reason to make a change, most thought, would be if six-time Super Bowl champion Bill Belichick were succeeding McCarthy.
Where do the Cowboys go from here?
The likelihood of guaranteeing a Belichick hire was slim. The likelihood of a Belichick-Cowboys marriage bearing Super Bowl fruits also wasn’t a lock. One coach asked: Has Belichick proven he can win without Brady more than McCarthy has proven he can win without four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers?
Questions about Belichick’s willingness to cede personnel control also surfaced, as sources around the league view the Cowboys’ talent pool as sufficient to contend. Scheme deficiencies (the Cowboys lacked sufficient run attack and run defense this season), the Jones culture and the specter of the Super Bowl drought drew greater concern.
All of those things should land McCarthy squarely on the hot seat for 2024. Prescott knows that his job, too, is judged heavily by postseason performance. But with a roster as close and an operation as functional as the Cowboys seemed to be through much of this season, Jones’ gut prodded him toward the sentiment that underratedly fuels many of his decisions: optimism.
The aging team owner believes the breakthrough is within grasp. He’s unwilling to discard it just yet.
And so Jones chose to focus more on the trajectory of Prescott and the offense in the regular season than on the downward-sloping arrow that the wild-card debacle and road losses to playoff teams represented. He chose to lean more into the loyalty and optimism that have defined his past two decades of stewardship and less into the risk-taking reputation he developed in his younger years. And Jones chose to guide fans more to the 11 playoff wins, four NFC championship appearances and one Lombardi Trophy that McCarthy has amassed in his head-coaching career — and less toward the growing length of time that has elapsed since that success or the MVP who was a constant in those advances.
“Mike has the highest regular season winning percentage of any head coach in Cowboys history,” Jones said in his statement, “and we will dedicate ourselves, in partnership with him, to translating that into reaching our post season goals.
“Certainly, Mike’s career has demonstrated post season success at a high level, and we have great confidence that can continue.”