Though the Dallas Cowboys are currently riding high in one of their better seasons of the last 10 years, there's still plenty to prove and accomplish. That's especially true for Head Coach Mike McCarthy as he still works to validate the Jones' decision to hand him the keys after nine seasons with Jason Garrett. If McCarthy is truly an upgrade from Garrett, games like tomorrow's against the Arizona Cardinals are ones he can't afford to lose.
No, the playoffs haven't started yet. The Cowboys could go down tomorrow and still redeem themselves in the postseason. But this Cardinals game comes with some significant playoff-relevant stakes and at a time when the mood around Dallas is scarily positive.
Despite the hyperbole you may hear at times on social media, or anything that happened to him in New York the last two years, Jason Garrett had seasons like this with the Cowboys. He was hardly a Dave Campo or even Chan Gailey; Garrett's problem was never converting good opportunities into great results.
Garrett's Cowboys won three division titles during his tenure. They went 12-4 in 2014 and won a playoff game. The 2016 team went 13-3 even after losing Tony Romo a few weeks before the season and starting rookie Dak Prescott at quarterback. In 2018, Dallas went 10-6 and won their first postseason game but again lost in the second round.
A consistent trend with those playoff-bound Cowboys teams was that they would drop a significant regular-season game leading up to the playoffs. Anomalous on their own, the trend shows why these Dallas teams under Garrett weren't more successful in January.
It's also why I'm looking at tomorrow's game against the Arizona Cardinals as a major litmus test for Mike McCarthy and the 2021 Cowboys.
The 2014 team was 8-3 going into the Thanksgiving Day game against the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles. But despite the visiting Eagles having to play Mark Sanchez at QB on a short week, they rolled over the Cowboys in an embarrassing 33-10 rout.
Same basic story in Week 15 of 2018; Dallas went down 23-0 to the Indianapolis Colts. Again, the Cowboys just seemed insufficiently prepared or motivated for a good test of mettle with the playoffs on the horizon.
That's what tomorrow's game represents to me. The Cardinals are 10-5 and one of the clear contenders in the NFC. They've been in a slight funk lately and dropped to second in the NFC West, but that's all the more reason that the Cowboys can't afford to lay another late-season egg.
Mike McCarthy has some great things going right now in Dallas. His team is 11-4 and has already clinched the NFC East. They're only a game back from the Packers for the number-one seed. They have some of the hottest young stars in football in Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs; lots of excitement swirling around them and the team in general.
The consistent flaw that I saw with Jason Garrett as a head coach was in managing success. He had a knack for keeping the team together during rough times, keeping them fighting during less glamorous seasons or individual games when things weren't going their way. Garrett knew how to play the underdog card and inspire belief when there was none coming from the outside.
But once things started going their way and the hype train got rolling, Garrett's Cowboys tended to “eat the cheese,” as Bill Parcells once said, and never met the greater expectations.
This is where McCarthy can start to really distinguish himself as a difference maker from the last regime. A Garrett-led Cowboys team probably lets the Cardinals come to town and embarrass them; a trap game with the division already won and a playoff spot secured.
Can Mike McCarthy's Cowboys finally take things to the next level? While beating Arizona tomorrow doesn't accomplish that, it could be a great sign of what lies ahead in the postseason. If Dallas is truly a contender in 2021, they shouldn't allow the Cardinals or anyone to come into town and embarrass them.