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Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Mike McCarthy: What’s at stake tonight for them?

We can talk keys to the game until the cows come home. We can focus on the guys who will fight in the trenches as it truly does matter. This game will be decided on the contributions of nearly 40 guys on both sides with the odd bounce of a tipped ball or fumble probably making the most influential play of them all. It is football. It is the game we love and the game we don’t fully understand.

Of course, that is the magical draw to it. The thrill of victory in playoff games like this is so profound that you might have conversations about it 50 years later. I can mention games from the past two decades and Cowboys fans have a way of pulling details that assign the entire game, season and possibly era to a moment in time.

• 2006 vs. the Seahawks? Why was Tony Romo even the holder? … And the ref’s spot of Jason Witten’s goal-line catch.

• 2007 vs. the Giants? Patrick Crayton’s drop, Cabo, and Romo missing a wide-open Terrell Owens inside the 5-yard line with maybe the worst throw of his career.

• 2014 vs. the Packers? Easy. DeMarco Murray’s fumble and Dean Blandino.

• 2016 vs. the Packers? How did Aaron Rodgers not fumble when Jeff Heath blindsided him?

• 2021 vs. the 49ers? Clock management and a No. 1 offense that couldn’t function when it mattered.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Cowboys playoff roundtable: Keys to the game, Mike McCarthy’s future and predictions

These are simplistic, of course, and we could have gone through a bunch of other moments since I started covering this team in 1998, but this is the last time we will visit before this titanic affair Monday night in Tampa. We should all be prepared for the historical moments that someone will have hung on their legacy.

But, know this: It is seldom a narrative that treats the guys at the top kindly. Defensive players are seldom caught up in this historical piñata because they seldom have a moment we can pin on them. Defensive players usually are allowed large samples of their careers, so I don’t think Micah Parsons can do anything in this game that could hurt his standing in the public forum. No, this end to the 2022 season will be about four names.

They are, as you would predict: Jerry Jones, Mike McCarthy, Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott.

Jones has the keys and despite apparently not knowing who Tampa Pro-Bowl receiver Chris Godwin is in a Friday radio interview, nothing will happen beyond people like me trying to be understanding of the potential effects of age while wondering does he really need to be the only GM/owner with multiple weekly media appearances in the NFL? We know how this Cowboys’ drought has one verifiable constant, but we also know that this isn’t the first time a franchise has found a consistent path because of its leadership at the top. As long as Jones holds the deed, we are barking at the moon, even if Dallas pushed Amari Cooper and La’el Collins out of town for nothing and because he just got mad.

Mike McCarthy is a different story.

As we mentioned in Sunday’s chat with the esteemed Mr. Machota, I think odds are pretty good this one is vital for his job security: I would suggest that you cannot take the job with the promise that this regime can take us places where Jason Garrett could not in 10 years and then not win a single playoff game in the first three seasons. I just don’t think that is acceptable at any level. 

Not saying it has to be a Super Bowl right away, but 2021 and 2022 have been 12-win contenders who would go one-and-done both times as favorites? I have significant doubts about what might become of his regime. Let’s even make this a non-Sean Payton space for a minute and ask: If Dan Quinn is leaving to become a head coach, would Jerry and Stephen Jones be fine with him taking a job elsewhere rather than making sure he stays by making them their own head coach? I think people who read me regularly have an idea of my regard for McCarthy. He isn’t perfect, but he is a proven winning coach who has been at worst a “tier 2” coach for coming up on two decades. In other words, if you are feeling he has not delivered on his promises, then you might need to ask about underlying circumstances and more importantly, who is a clear upgrade from a guy who puts you in a strong playoff position in two of his three seasons (the ones where Prescott’s leg didn’t shatter). But, again, you didn’t hire him to win games in October. This isn’t Bruce Bochy’s gig.

I hoped to see more of McCarthy taking control of his destiny in 2022. I wanted him to exercise some potentially defiant stances that might make the front-office bristle (in particular, less Ezekiel Elliott and more Tony Pollard), but like so many of his predecessors, he never had the guts to do it his way in the face of being called to the principal’s office. Perhaps that is ultimately all it will ever take to break the playoff drought around here. Someone who wants and demands all of the authority to exercise all of the powers of a normal head coach and not allow someone to start or someone to keep calling plays because that is the deal they made with the owner and his family.

Tonight, I hope he gets his tactical and strategic decisions right because he won’t have many fighting for his future if he loses this one. Is he really coaching for his job after trailing only Andy Reid in wins the past two seasons?

I think that he is.


Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore (Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)

On to Kellen Moore. The variance of his potential outcomes is magnificent. If the Cowboys win, I think he will be more likely to be hired as someone’s head coach and if they lose and look clueless on offense, there is a fantastic possibility that it is time for a fresh approach. But, this is his fourth season as offensive coordinator and in three of them, Dallas has had amazing productivity and statistical dominance. In fact, the Cowboys are No. 2 in points (a sliver below Kansas City) and No. 1 in yardage. How then, during that stretch, could an offense come up so quiet when the season reaches its climax and potentially amass zero postseason wins?

Personally, I have never had a massive issue with the play architecture of his offense, but rather the continuity and cogency of the sum of its parts. Sure, the all-hook/curl play calls when nobody appears open and the lack of conflicts against zones have been problematic. But what about the sequencing of plays and inability to look at a pie chart of skill players getting touches and not see that there are weeks when the explosive players aren’t being properly fed at the expense of the plodders? We don’t wish to say this is all on Moore, but I don’t know who else should get blame when the Cowboys’ offense stalls in the final month of each of the past two seasons and you don’t seem to have answers to the questions. Pounding the same plays on early downs that put you behind the sticks repeatedly is a well-worn storyline.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Cowboys’ playoff notebook: Injury updates, analyzing Dak Prescott and Dallas’ scheme

Now, the big one. This is the game Prescott needs more than anybody.

This space has been accused of being too Prescott-friendly. My response? This is my 25th season covering this organization and the 25th season in which the majority of the fan base seemed to think its quarterback stinks. I’m not kidding, either. It had already begun in 1998, two full years before Troy Aikman’s retirement. He makes too much money and is killing the cap. Romo was widely doubted around here and relentlessly criticized — until he retired — and he made too much money and was killing the cap.

Now it is Prescott’s turn.

There are probably no positions in sports under more scrutiny than the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. This has a lot to do with St. Roger and St. Troy and the five Super Bowls they brought to town. QBs in Buffalo, Detroit and Cleveland don’t deal with this. They also don’t deal with the same level of stardom. Heavy is the head that wears the star.

The clock ticks. People do a double-take when they are told that 2023 is the year Prescott turns 30 years old. People talk about finding coaches who can “help the development of Dak”, but when a player completes his seventh season and starts his 102nd NFL game Monday (Romo’s career was 127 starts, Kurt Warner had 110, Andrew Luck had 94), there is no development left to see. Can a player improve late in his career? Sure. But, that definitely can not be defined as helping a young player find his way. We are dangerously close to “he is what he is” territory.

I forget who I stole this cliché from, but it is a good one. “Be a thermostat and not a thermometer.” It is perfect here. The Cowboys don’t need Dak to blend with his mates when things start going bad. They need him to set the temperature, not reflect it. He has to stop the bleeding. He has to lead the team out of danger. Instead, down the stretch in 2021 and to a certain extent the past few weeks in 2022, we have seen him look as uncertain, confused, anxious and mentally fragile as everyone else in this organization.


Dak Prescott (Tim Heitman / USA Today)

A franchise QB on a franchise QB contract has to be as confident in himself as anyone. He has to be able to block out the doubts, noise and adversity. He has to trust his training and ability to take him through the slumps and the bad breaks because they will happen. He has to shake off the interception that bounced off his own guy’s hands. He has to be a fighter pilot who is willing to do dangerous things without his heart rate increasing. He has to be calm in the storm and understand that his teammates are taking his cues. But, for me, too often recently, when the stadium is nervous and his teammates are skittish, Prescott often joins them. The bigger his contract has grown, the more this seems to happen. He was carefree as a young player making no money. Now the burden appears to grow with his tax bill. He knows that he is expected to do more and that makes him capable of doing less. He is trying to carry 27 years of burdens and it makes the hill to climb into a mountain.

Maybe this is why a hostile stadium is a blessing. Get away from the crowd that shares the doubts and nervousness. Go where it is you against the world — and the greatest quarterback to play the game.

If Prescott loses this game, people will be forced to search for a reasonable off-ramp on his contract (after 2023) and declare he is not the chosen one to end this Dallas era of futility. It will be a long spring and summer around here.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

The Cowboys’ struggling ground game has led to missteps in the passing game

I am capable of telling you it isn’t all his fault and there is plenty of truth in it. But, at a certain point, he has to level up. Beating Tom Brady is a massive step in that direction, but not if he looks rattled early and often. It is not about chasing a contract anymore for Prescott. He has more money than he can ever spend. It is about chasing a legacy. Doing something Romo could never do and pushing this team to a playoff road win for the first time since the year he was born.

I have no idea if Prescott knows who Herb Brooks is. The late, great coach told his United States Hockey team in Lake Placid before it played the Soviets in 1980 that “great moments are born from great opportunity.”

This isn’t playing the Soviets tonight. That team was a heavy favorite and seemingly impossible foe that required a miracle. This test is against a flawed team that barely made the playoffs and is actually the underdog.

But, across the field is Brady. And in Prescott’s head are the voices of a million doubters. At stake is potentially Prescott’s entire career resumé as well as his future in Dallas being on stable footing.

Nobody needs Prescott to play a perfect game. We have seen across the league how that is likely impossible this time of year. He must set the temperature and play a winning game. Do something that people will talk about when his career is complete.

Beat Brady and send him and that Super Bowl champion franchise from 23 months ago into its own offseason.

It’s a great opportunity.

(Top photo of Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott: Tom Pennington / Getty Images)

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