The year is 2006. Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has just replaced starter Drew Bledsoe six weeks into the season, and he will start the rest of the way. Romo won’t just start the rest of the season—he’ll start every season from now until 2016, when he’s ousted by rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott, in turn, will start every season through to today.
2006 to 2023. Eighteen seasons. All of them led by Romo or Prescott, save for a handful due to injury. That right there is true stability at the league’s most important position.
Of course, the Cowboys have nothing to show for it—you already know that. The Cowboys haven’t played in a conference championship since the 1995 season, despite making the playoffs 13 times since. Their latest exit, a 48-32 walloping at the hands of the Green Bay Packers—the still-wet-behind-the-ears Green Bay Packers; the 7-seed-visiting–AT&T Stadium (where the Cowboys had won their past 16 games) Green Bay Packers—is perhaps the most embarrassing one in recent memory. Wait—maybe it’s last year, when Ezekiel Elliott lined up at center on the final play. No, wait—it’s the Jared Cook catch against the Packers a few years ago. Or, wait—is it the Romo muffed hold in 2006?
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was already considered a hot-seat candidate entering the 2023 season after the team had failed to get over the postseason hump in his first three years at the helm. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore was dismissed, and McCarthy had taken over play-calling duties; usually, when the head coach takes more control over a unit, it’s a sign that he’s feeling the heat. The Cowboys had an excellent season—they went 12-5 for the third consecutive year—but stumbled in the postseason again (and became the first team in league history to win 12 games in three consecutive seasons yet fail to make a conference championship game in that stretch).
After that devastating loss, the greatest postseason disappointment of the McCarthy era, his future in Dallas was yanked back into doubt once again. But on Wednesday, owner Jerry Jones announced that he was retaining McCarthy for the 2024 season. Jones released a long statement detailing his belief in McCarthy and the direction of the team:
Jones highlighted the improvement of the team under McCarthy, and he is not wrong: The Cowboys have unquestionably improved under McCarthy, who inherited a Jason Garrett–led team that floated around .500. But that Garrett run is exactly what makes Jones’s belief in McCarthy cheap. It is hard to believe McCarthy is being given another year because he owns the best regular-season win percentage among all coaches in Cowboys history when Garrett was also regularly given another year after another year, not for producing 12-win seasons, but for producing nine-win ones.
Jones also highlighted McCarthy’s postseason success—a position that is very difficult to take seriously. McCarthy is 1-3 in the postseason with Dallas; his lone win was against an 8-9 Buccaneers team in the wild-card round after the 2022 season. McCarthy was 10-8 in the postseason with the Green Bay Packers; every single one of his playoff runs was powered by a Hall of Fame quarterback (either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers). He appeared in only one Super Bowl (which he did win). That makes his career postseason mark a dead-even 11-11.
McCarthy doesn’t have postseason success—he’s just been there a lot, largely on the backs of very good quarterbacks. McCarthy deserves his fair share of credit for helping those quarterbacks be good, but that’s not as valuable of a trait as it seems, because it’s not nearly as rare of a trait as it seems. Bobby Slowik helped C.J. Stroud win his first playoff game, and it’s Slowik’s first year as an offensive coordinator. Look at the other coaches who have elevated QBs this season: Ben Johnson with Jared Goff; Kevin Stefanski with Joe Flacco; Matt LaFleur with Jordan Love; Dave Canales with Baker Mayfield; Kyle Shanahan with Brock Purdy. This playoff field is littered with quarterbacks who are enjoying huge boosts from their play callers, and those boosts are likely greater than the one McCarthy has given Prescott, who was already a very good quarterback before McCarthy and whose greatness comes largely as a result of the high-difficulty throws he can make. It isn’t schemed up for Prescott the way it’s schemed up for those other guys.
If Jones’s stated reasons for retaining McCarthy don’t ring true, then why has he really kept McCarthy at the helm?
Jones has mistaken what a championship run produces with what produces a championship run. After a team wins a Super Bowl, they slide into stability: The head coach, general manager, and quarterback tend to stick around. That championship nucleus powers the rest of the franchise, pulling more star players into its gravity, using its championship experience to teach and develop young players.
At this time, and only at this time, stability becomes the predictor of contention. The team is considered a perennial contender because of the strength of the nucleus; the head coach, general manager, and quarterback have all been here before, survived these ups and downs, proved they can build a champion. But before stability predicts a Super Bowl run, stability must be produced by it. Stability is earned.
Jones is leapfrogging the championship and going straight for stability instead. He has a veteran head coach in McCarthy—a coach who knows how to run a solid offense, how to teach it to the players, how to add wrinkles to it to keep up with modern times. McCarthy is paired with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is exactly the same: a coordinator with head coach experience, who has a tried-and-true system, and who knows how to work with players and get his vision on the field.
This is what a good team looks like. It will win games in the regular season; it won’t embarrass the owner. But it will die in the postseason. I know this because it has, time and time again. Just as the Prescott-McCarthy teams have lost in the postseason (they’re 1-3), so too have the Prescott-Garrett teams (1-2), the Romo-Garrett teams (1-1), and the Romo–Wade Phillips teams (1-2). The Cowboys consistently have a good team, sure, but the franchise is unwilling to risk what is necessary to field a great one.
What Jones doesn’t see is that it is instability, not stability, that produces a championship team. The thing about the Super Bowl is that it is extremely difficult to win. You almost always need one of the best quarterbacks. It would also be nice to have one (or two) of the best wide receivers, one (or two) of the best edge rushers, and one (or two) of the best cornerbacks. And if you could somehow find five capable (or excellent) players along the offensive line, and then a few more impactful players at some other positions, and then a coach (and offensive and defensive coordinators) who can actually organize and teach those players, and then have none of them get hurt, and also get extremely lucky in a few other facets of the game so that you can win three or four best-of-one playoff series in a row (against a team that also has one of the best quarterbacks and a couple of other remarkable players, et cetera, et cetera), then you are a champion.
Getting all of that right is only possible with risks. That’s why the Chiefs added Patrick Mahomes, a wildly risky first-round quarterback prospect, to a roster that already had Alex Smith. That’s why the Rams traded for Matthew Stafford to replace Jared Goff, their young and recently extended quarterback who had just appeared in a Super Bowl. That’s why the Buccaneers signed a 42-year-old.
These risks are easy to justify in hindsight, and in a vacuum, we can pair them with accompanying risks taken by Jones’s Cowboys. Before Andy Reid joined the Chiefs, he was a regular-season winner known for failed postseason runs, as McCarthy is now—but the Chiefs believed in Reid’s growth, and now he has two Super Bowl rings as a head coach. Stafford was, much like Dak is now, a tough pocket passer with great highlight-reel throws but disappointing postseason performances; then he joined McVay, and he took the leap.
But the sudden leap into contention came as the result of new pairings, unimagined alchemy: Reid with Mahomes, Stafford with McVay. We can continue. Brady with Bruce Arians and Mike Evans; Nick Foles with Doug Pederson just at the advent of the run-pass option. To win a Super Bowl, you have to catch fire. The components of fire are known—oxygen, fuel, heat—just as the nucleus of the contender is known: head coach, general manager, quarterback. But for both, you still need a spark.
There is no spark in Dallas. There is only a return to what is known. McCarthy is back for a fifth season. Prescott is back for a ninth. And Jones is back for his 36th.
It’s easy to forget how silly it is because it has been this way for so long, but Jerry Jones is the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. He is the owner, and he also runs the football operations. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls in his first seven seasons at the helm and since then haven’t appeared in a single one.
It is maddening that this team—the team in which the general manager will literally never be fired, ever—struggles to take risks. General managers under traditional employment should be fearful of taking risks, as they are responsible for the long-term health of the team. It’s their job to think about dull but important things like 2027 cap space and aging star players. When these general managers do things like gamble on quarterback changes or move on from generally successful but unspectacular head coaches, they are putting their job security at stake.
Jones should be the most aggressive general manager in the NFL. He should take a quarterback in the first round of every other draft just to see if he accidentally hits on a Mahomes. He should constantly cycle young offensive coaches into the building just to see if he accidentally hits on a Shanahan. While franchise changers at quarterback and head coach are hard to find, you will eventually find them if you get to search indefinitely.
This is the hand that Jones has dealt himself—pocket aces, in position—and yet he refuses to put some chips into the middle and see a flop. Jones the owner overpowers Jones the general manager. While a general manager (with job security, as Jones has) shouldn’t mind going 3-14 after their gambles turn up fruitless—hey, good draft pick!—an owner loathes the mockery, the fan anger, the embarrassment. This is especially true for an owner like Jones, as long-standing and influential as he is. The rest of the league likely revels in Jones’s failures, so Jones staves them off with winning records and waves away postseason disappointments as inevitable misfortune in a chaotic league.
Jones claims he is building a Super Bowl contender. But his actions imply he’s far more interested in ensuring that he never ends up last than he is in maximizing his chances of ending up first.
For Jones the owner, Jones the businessman, this is extremely defensible. Win 12 games, impress the home crowd, sell some tickets, watch the Prescott and CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons jerseys fly off the shelves, and run it all back next year. A great portion of Jones owns the Cowboys because he wants to make money, and he is having absolutely zero issues there.
But another portion of Jones—I won’t claim to know how big—owns the Cowboys because he wants the Cowboys to win the Super Bowl. And right now, that part marches on orders from businessman Jones. The Cowboys continue to employ Prescott, who is a great quarterback and is more than capable of winning a Super Bowl, but they have no answers for his postseason struggles. The Cowboys continue to employ McCarthy, who is a good coach and has coached the Cowboys well, but they have no answers for his postseason struggles either. Only when football guy Jones takes over—only when the Cowboys decide to risk losing seasons and embarrassing mistakes in the pursuit of true greatness—will either of these things change.
There is a window for things to change next year. Prescott has one year left on his deal and has a no-tag clause at the end. The Cowboys must either sign Dak to a big extension or let him walk in free agency; Prescott also has a no-trade clause. A change at quarterback might come with a change at head coach; or, if another great Prescott season ends with an unprepared team’s loss to an inferior opponent in the postseason, stability at quarterback might come with a change at head coach. Maybe the Lamb contract (also up after 2024) will put pressure in one direction or the other. That’s the thing about change in the NFL: Even if you prioritize stability over all else, change is inevitable in a league this big and this competitive.
I won’t hold my breath. I’ll believe in an aggressive Jones when I see it. I’ll feel that championship focus, that Super Bowl desperation in Dallas, that clear, cultural shift from “This is good enough” to “Only a Lombardi is good enough.” But they haven’t had it recently, and with the retention of McCarthy, they still don’t have it now.