The dust has settled in Arlington. Now it's time to determine just how solid the footing is under Mike McCarthy.
After being upset at home by the San Francisco 49ers, the Dallas Cowboys coach has spent the week defending his play-calling decision in the game's final moments, one that cost Dallas a chance of potentially scoring a game-tying touchdown. Like Cowboys ownership, McCarthy has also been forced to answer questions about his job status at the end of a season in which his team won 12 games.
"We had very positive conversations, just focused on the evaluation process," McCarthy said Wednesday of his discussions with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
On the surface, such a question seems wild. But for all of Dallas' achievements in 2021, the Cowboys' conclusion deserves closer examination -- and critique.
"I think for people in this profession, it's accepted," McCarthy said of the scrutiny. "It's part of the job. I get that. I understand why you're asking the question. It's part of the job. You have a job to do, and I have a job to do here today in answering your questions appropriately and respectfully. But, yeah, I don't put a lot into it because I know personally what I put into this.
"I understand what goes on here every day. I know how to win. I know how to win in this league. I know how to win playoff games. I know how to win a championship. So I have great confidence in that. What we've built here in two seasons, I feel very good about, and I think with that you just stay true to that. The hard part is the personal. We all have kids, so that's the part that I don't like. I would hope people are respectful to that."
Dallas enjoyed quite a turnaround in 2021, going from a woeful 6-10 squad lacking its franchise quarterback to an explosive, ferocious team seemingly capable of making a deep playoff run. Such a sprint to a Super Bowl never materialized, though, with the Cowboys losing to the 49ers on Super Wild Card Weekend.
The fashion in which Dallas' season ended -- appearing unprepared, falling behind by 16 points and botching a final shot at the end zone -- was stunning to more than just Cowboys fans. After winning 12 games and the NFC East crown, the Cowboys have nothing more to show for it than a simple one-and-done postseason experience. Their No. 1 ranked offense mustered just 17 points and appeared to have no answer for whatever San Francisco was doing for much of the contest. When Dallas finally had a chance to potentially tie the game in the final moments, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore instead dialed up a quarterback draw, forcing Dak Prescott to scramble, then attempt to gather the offense in time to spike the ball and stop the clock.
We know how that played out. But Dallas' disappointment was about more than a final few plays, and one Cowboys legend was exasperated by McCarthy's lack of adjustments in the loss.
"San Francisco rushed four guys, for the most part, they blitzed occasionally, but they're a four-man rush football team," Hall of Fame quarterback and FOX analyst Troy Aikman told 96.7 The Ticket this week, via The Athletic's Jon Machota. "But a lot of times when you say that, then you think they're playing coverage. They mixed in some coverage, but there was a lot of single coverage on CeeDee Lamb.
"I hate going back to (when I was playing) because nobody cares, but what I see around the league, it's not just Dallas, I've seen it with a lot of teams, a lot of these offenses want to scheme things. The coordinators, it's all about scheme, rather than 'this corner is playing soft. He's scared to death. Just run the route tree. Run a comeback. Run a dig route. Run a curl. Run anything.' You're going to complete the pass whenever you want. (Michael Irvin) would've had 10 catches at halftime if they played us the way they played CeeDee Lamb in that game.
"The game is not that difficult. If I've got a great player at wide receiver and a corner is playing him single coverage, throw him the ball. He's going to win most of the time."
Aikman's gripe is clear to see, and it's with Dallas' inability to react to what 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans schemed up to contain the Cowboys' prolific passing attack. Instead of adjusting accordingly, Dallas listed at sea with no sense of purpose, producing just one reception for Lamb, an 1,100-yard receiver in 2021 who simply should have a greater impact on an important wild-card game.
This same frustration was palpable enough to sense through the television screen Sunday, and is the primary reason McCarthy is answering questions about his job after seemingly positioning the Cowboys for a memorable postseason. The coach can point to his polished Super Bowl XLV ring as proof he knows how to win a championship, but that title was won more than a decade ago.
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, McCarthy doesn't have the same hardware to lean on.
Instead of pursuing another title and finally reaching a conference title game, the Cowboys' faithful will remember 2021 for one reason: unfulfilled potential.