The Dallas Cowboys are a mess.
In recent days, anonymous players griped to Jane Slater of NFL Network that the coaching staff is unprepared. Head coach Mike McCarthy publicly called out his players' commitment after none of them rushed to confront Washington's Jon Bostic after his illegal hit on quarterback Andy Dalton. Team owner Jerry Jones lost his temper during his weekly 105.3 The Fan appearance while arguing against the notion that these Cowboys lack leadership.
All of this frustration spilling out into the public sphere is an obvious sign of an unhealthy team culture.
"If the right culture is set in place, it should never get to the point where calling out players in public is necessary," says one executive who does not work for the Cowboys.
And now the team is dropping big-name veterans, with Dontari Poe and Daryl Worley getting cut Wednesday after Everson Griffin was traded Tuesday.
The Cowboys are still somehow only a half-game behind the Eagles in the pitiful NFC East, but they've looked so bad that McCarthy is firmly on the hot seat just seven games into his Dallas career.
The executive says he isn't surprised that the Cowboys are struggling this season.
"[McCarthy] never really 'owned' his mistakes in Green Bay," he says. "Details matter as both a leader and play-caller on both sides of the ball. As this game evolves, you must evolve and adapt in order to succeed."
However, a source who has previously worked with McCarthy says he didn't see this coming at all.
"Maybe 12 [Aaron Rodgers] covered up a lot of the things going on in Green Bay," he says. "But you don't fool a whole building that long, and they still won games."
This source pointed out that McCarthy wasn't instantly successful in Green Bay. He was 2-4 at this point in the 2006 season, his first as Packers head coach. He finished the season 8-8 and then went 13-3 the following year.
That first year, the source says, McCarthy was still building his own culture and developing a relationship with then-starting QB, Brett Favre. That transition takes time, and the source thinks McCarthy will still succeed in setting that foundation this season, even though the situation seems dire from the outside.
There's a recent precedent of firing coaches after only one season on the job. Cleveland fired Freddie Kitchens after a disappointing and dramatic 2019 season, and Arizona fired Steve Wilks after one year in 2018. Though it's still early in this season, both of those decisions look wise. Kevin Stefanski has the Browns at 5-2, and Kliff Kingsbury's Cardinals are on a roll at 5-2 in the stacked NFC West.
During his radio appearance Tuesday with the Shan & R.J. Show on 105.3 The Fan, Jones defended his coaching hire (h/t Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News):
"One of the reasons Mike McCarthy is the coach is because he's been through it. He's had tough times, and he's had disappointing times. ... Certainly we couldn't have wanted to be at this stage with our team this year, but if I'm going to hire a coach that will be at this stage and work through this for the betterment for the rest of the year and for what's in the future, I've got my man."
At least publicly, Jones is still backing McCarthy. But what does the rest of the league think about McCarthy's long-term future in Dallas?
One personnel executive expects McCarthy to get a second season in Dallas because the injuries to his roster are so severe. Quarterback Dak Prescott is out for the season, and as of Wednesday afternoon, backup quarterback Andy Dalton was still in the league's concussion protocol. Starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins and tight end Blake Jarwin also had season-ending injuries. In his past two radio appearances, Jones has pointed out that roughly 40 percent of the Cowboys salary cap is not playing this season because of injuries.
McCarthy does deserve some slack because of the injuries to impact players, but you don't have to leave the conference to find a team with similar key injuries adapting and coping far better. Niners defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas suffered season-ending injuries. Defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Richard Sherman have played only one game each, and myriad other players, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, have been on and off the injury report for a 4-3 San Francisco team that has won two in a row.
"Injuries are a factor," says the executive. "But if he can't adapt as a leader and show promise, in my opinion, Jerry's patience won't last into a second season."
The source who worked with McCarthy thinks his future will likely be determined by the buy-in factor with the players.
"There needs to be a feel to it, and the players feel it the most," the source says. "If you can tell that they aren't buying into something, then you might as well rip the Band-Aid off. If you can tell they are building some kind of culture and camaraderie, if there is something they are rallying around, then I don't think it is worth it."
Without Prescott, the offense has floundered. In his last three full games, Prescott passed for over 400 yards in each. Against Washington last Sunday, Dallas quarterbacks passed for 59 yards. Running back Ezekiel Elliott is averaging career lows at 4.1 yards per rush and 6.4 yards per catch.
The defense has been even worse. Dallas let No. 1 cornerback Byron Jones walk in free agency, and McCarthy hired Mike Nolan as his defensive coordinator. Judging by the numbers of missed tackles and blown coverages, it seems like the players have struggled to pick up the new scheme. The Cowboys have league's worst rushing defense, rank 27th in total yards allowed and have allowed a league-high 34.7 points per game.
In his radio appearance Tuesday, Jones also said he planned to "change some personnel," and later that day, the Cowboys traded defensive end Griffen, a 2020 free-agent acquisition, to the Lions. On Wednesday, they released defensive tackle Poe and cornerback Worley, two other 2020 free-agent acquisitions, after a trade market never developed for either player, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk reported that Dallas cut Poe and Worley because they were underachieving. Dallas brought in six veteran free agents on defense this offseason, and aside from cornerback Maurice Canady (who opted out), none are still on the roster at the midway point of the season. Griffen, Poe and Worley are gone, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was cut before the season, and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was cut during camp after a season-ending injury. These free-agency busts have also led Dallas to its current fate.
Their 25-3 loss at Washington was a statement defeat in every way, as Dallas was dominated by a team coming off five straight losses. Dallas allowed Washington to rip off a season-high 208 rushing yards and 397 yards of total offense. Washington hadn't had a 100-yard rusher all season, but rookie running back Antonio Gibson finished with 128 rushing yards.
It was a tired performance that lacked any sign of fight, coming off a 38-10 loss to Arizona the previous week. The missed tackles were plentiful. Elliott got blown up by Cole Holcomb on his way to sack Dalton. Dallas also allowed a safety and a 52-yard touchdown pass. Paired with the anonymous player quotes from earlier in the week, the loss raised an obvious question: Have Cowboys players quit on McCarthy?
"Not sure if I saw them quit on Sunday, but with the talent they have, I think people were expecting them to be a much better team," says an NFC team source.
"We need more belief and more high spirits around this team, and really more fight," veteran defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence told reporters after the game. "That's really I feel like one of our weaknesses. We need to build a stronger backbone, fight, and also make sure that we brought everything possible to come out with a victory."
Lawrence's quote speaks volumes about McCarthy's coaching. It's his job to inspire his roster and prepare them well, and it's rare that a player will publicly acknowledge motivation and effort as an issue.
The Cowboys have another division rival game up next, this time at Philadelphia on Sunday night. The scout sees it as a must-win for McCarthy to ensure he has a future in Dallas.
During his radio appearance this week, Jones, who gave McCarthy a five-year contract, said he was frustrated with the Cowboys' 2-5 record and the injuries to key players.
"We haven't spent the time, the years, the money, the effort and everything for the Dallas Cowboys to be where we are right now," he said.
Jones was patient with McCarthy's predecessor, Jason Garrett, and allowed his contract to run out in 2019 after 10 years on the job. Jones has fired only one head coach after less than three years: Chan Gailey.
While looking for Garrett's replacement, Jones interviewed only two candidates. Both were established head coaches: Marvin Lewis, who coached the Bengals for 16 years, and McCarthy, who spent 13 years as Green Bay's coach.
Jones didn't bring in any up-and-coming candidates who would be first-time head coaches. He was set on hiring an experienced coach, one who could get a win-now roster with a talented quarterback over the hump and find the postseason success that Garrett never could.
McCarthy made the playoffs in nine of his 13 seasons in Green Bay, made it to the conference championship game four times and won a Super Bowl. He wasn't a flashy, young hire, but he was a logical choice to bring that playoff consistency to Dallas.
If the Cowboys don't rebound in a year when the division is barely competitive, Jones may find it's more valuable to cut his losses with McCarthy and opt for one of the up-and-coming coaches he ignored in his previous search.