Reality of Cowboys’ 2021 season: Dak Prescott’s massive extension puts head coach Mike McCarthy on hot seat

·NFL columnist
·6-min read

The outside world has been against Mike McCarthy for a while now. That puts him in a familiar zip code as a Dallas Cowboys head coach.

Jason Garrett resided there for years. Wade Phillips, Dave Campo and Chan Gailey all rented in that neighborhood for years. Even Bill Parcells briefly wandered through. Pretty much every Dallas coach not named Jimmy Johnson was mired in some state of deep criticism since the franchise’s last Super Bowl win nearly 26 years ago. The only thing that might differentiate them is how quickly they landed on that real estate.

McCarthy got there quickly, thanks to a 2-7 start in 2020 that had some speculating whether he might be team owner Jerry Jones’ first one-and-done coach following a massively disappointing season.

A few months later, not a lot has changed. At least not from the standpoint of oddsmakers, some of whom have posted McCarthy as the betting favorite to be the first coach fired in 2021. Is it a fair assessment? Probably not, especially when you rehash the totality of bad luck that McCarthy had last season (we’ll get to that in a moment). 

The pessimists have correctly pinpointed the reality of pressure and how much McCarthy is facing next season. Not just because of his poor first year. And not because he vouched for now-fired defensive coordinator Mike Nolan last season. It's because of one fundamental change that occurred this offseason and what it means for the Dallas Super Bowl window.

McCarthy enters 2021 with the second-highest paid quarterback in the NFL, in the wake of Dak Prescott’s four-year, $160 million deal signed this offseason. That carries an abundance of expectations that only a small fraternity of head coaches can speak to. Indeed, not only is Prescott going to be under a different microscope this season, but his head coach will be, too. McCarthy has to make this all work as perfectly as possible around Prescott — or stand accused of wasting a $40 million season from a contractually minted franchise quarterback.

This is low-key one of the NFL’s staunchest realities for head coaches — the fact that quarterbacks are now eating up such a significant piece of salary cap space, having even one disastrous season with them instantly pitches the head coach into a perilous trajectory. Not just with the media and fans, but also with team owners who expect to consistently achieve top-level results when they’re fielding one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league.

Jun 3, 2021; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) goes through drills as head coach Mike McCarthy watches during voluntary Organized Team Activities at the Star Training Facility in Frisco, Texas. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dak Prescott (4) goes through drills as head coach Mike McCarthy watches during OTAs at the Star Training Facility in Frisco, Texas, on Thursday. (Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports)

That puts McCarthy into a new space in 2021. It's very different than last offseason, when McCarthy had a clean record and the Cowboys were still see-sawing with Prescott at the negotiating table. Back then, few thought that Dallas would run into the buzzsaw of injuries that it faced in 2020. And there were even a few stragglers who cast doubt about whether Prescott could land in the $40 million per season category. Flash forward one year and McCarthy’s record has a significant first-year smudge on it, while Prescott enters the season perched as the second-highest paid player in the league, trailing only the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. If that’s not enough to telegraph how important this season is for McCarthy, take some time and absorb that Prescott is only on a four-year deal. That’s four shots to make his $40 million annual salary worthwhile. And all of them are going to weigh heavily on the head coach.

To be fair, the annual pressure is always like that in Dallas. Every season has to count for something. And when it doesn’t, it’s only natural that the head coach becomes the guy who catches the majority of the heat, especially when the team owner is the general manager and the only truly fireable guys left are usually the head coach or the quarterback. That’s also what makes 2021 unique for McCarthy. In a traditional franchise, the three likeliest pink slips in the face of disaster are the general manager, head coach and quarterback. In Dallas, only one of those three can be fired for at least the next few years.

Jerry Jones won’t fire himself. And he can’t fire Prescott after locking him into $126 million guaranteed money. All of this leaves one man who can be swapped out in the face of agony in 2021. And we all know who it is.

That doesn’t necessarily mean McCarthy should be the odds-on favorite to be the first guy fired next season. Not when you consider the maddening injury spate last season was out of his hands — and the coronavirus robbed him of some important chemistry-building time last offseason. Indeed, even if you skewer his choice of defensive coordinator (for which McCarthy deserves a mountain of criticism), it was hard to accurately weigh Dallas' 2020 season. The injuries were that awful.

There’s also history to consider. Jones hasn’t fired a head coach after two seasons in more than 20 years — last doing it after the 1999 season, when he parted ways with Gailey. And Jones is coming off a remarkable run of patience with Garrett, who remained in place for nine-plus years and survived spiraling criticism at various points in his tenure. Even McCarthy has a track record that suggests there are better things in store in his encore performance, given that the Green Bay Packers took a big leap from Year 1 to 2 under his guidance.

All of that suggests that while McCarthy’s seat might be hot, it’s not so hot that he should be considered a danger to be fired right out of the gate. But if the totality of 2021 is a disappointing rehash of last season — even with injuries — it’s hard to see McCarthy surviving that kind of failure, especially inside an NFC East that’s in a state of flux. The Cowboys are the favorites at +100 to win the East, according to BetMGM. It's a division filled out with three other franchises that are fielding starting quarterbacks who could all be swapped out by 2022.

That is the pressure. Looking at an NFC East and seeing that Dallas unequivocally has the best quarterback, but also looking at Prescott’s salary layout and realizing that he’s paid more than the other three starters combined. The onus is on McCarthy to maximize that financial commitment, whether it’s developing or managing or commandeering the pieces around Prescott to make sure they all fit.

That’s what 2021 is about for McCarthy. That’s what he has to get right. He has the $40 million quarterback. And now it’s part of his job to make that paycheck worth it.

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