The NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys will make their first appearance in the NFL playoffs since 2018 this weekend. They are under a tremendous amount of pressure to make this a successful run, as the team is facing an uncertain offseason—both on the roster and among the coaching staff.
Most prominently, longtime Cowboys owner Jerry Jones might not have much patience left if this group cannot become his first to get out of the divisional round since 1995. Head coach Mike McCarthy signed a five-year deal in 2020, but a disappointing early exit could put him on the hot seat well before that contract expires.
McCarthy will lead his first postseason foray with the franchise, returning to the playoffs for the first time since he reached the NFC Championship Game with the Packers in 2016.
It will be the 58-year-old coach's most important test yet, as dating back to early in his Packers tenure, he has a long history of making questionable decisions when it comes to stopping the clock, or failing to do so in many cases.
These issues were apparent earlier in the season in a divisional showdown with the Eagles—notably drawing the ire of Peyton Manning, who was providing insight for the broadcast—and recently came to the forefront again in the season's penultimate contest.
Facing a three-point deficit against the Cardinals late in the fourth quarter, McCarthy had already burned through all his timeouts—including one in the third quarter when Arizona feinted a trick play against Dallas' field-goal blocking unit—before the two-minute warning.
Because of the timeout mismanagement, McCarthy couldn't challenge what appeared to be a fumble by Chase Edmonds with 2:51 left.
The Cardinals went on to win 25-22, a result that cost Dallas a shot to earn the NFC's top seed and a first-round bye.
These are concerning game-management mistakes, especially given the head coach doesn't actually call any plays for the Cowboys. Those duties belong to Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn, the offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively.
The pairing deserves much of the credit for the Cowboys' turnaround from 6-10 to 12-5, which isn't lost on other teams.
Moore has been a revelation for Dallas since he was hired to be part of Jason Garrett's staff following his retirement from playing in 2018.
The 32-year-old quickly ascended the ranks, rising from a quarterbacks coach in his first year to one of the NFL's most highly regarded offensive coordinators over the last three seasons.
Dallas had the league's top offense this year, racking up an impressive 407.0 yards and 31.2 points per game. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise after the team led the league in total offense in 2019, putting up an average of 431.5 yards per game.
Even in 2020, the Cowboys still ranked in the top half of the league in total offense after losing starting quarterback Dak Prescott in Week 5 to an ankle injury and being forced to rely on Andy Dalton for much of the campaign.
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Moore isn't likely to stick around much longer.
He's been linked with several clubs as a potential head coaching hire this offseason and seems like a natural fit for those trying to groom a young quarterback prospect. Moore has already spoken with the Jaguars, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, and the Broncos recently requested an interview with him, according to 9News' Mike Klis, with more clubs sure to follow.
While Quinn isn't as hot of a commodity as his offensive counterpart, the 51-year-old did take Atlanta to a Super Bowl as the team's head coach and won a championship while serving as Seattle's defensive coordinator.
Quinn is heading up a defense that was the NFL's most opportunistic in 2021, securing a league-best 34 takeaways. Those forced turnovers were a key reason Dallas only conceded 21.1 points per game, the seventh-lowest in football.
It would still be a mild surprise if Quinn were tabbed for another head coaching position after his run in Atlanta ended poorly and Dallas ranked a middling 19th in total defense this season, but organizations have shown a propensity to prefer known assets.
With Quinn and Moore potentially landing new gigs soon, McCarthy might only get one shot at a Lombardi Trophy with his current staff.
The Cowboys not only have the play-callers in place needed to win it all this year, but they also possess a wealth of on-field talent to get the job done.
Prescott returned to form after rehabilitating his ankle in the offseason, finishing the year with 4,449 yards and 37 touchdowns in 16 starts.
The team found a dangerous one-two punch in the backfield, toning down Ezekiel Elliott's usage—although he still eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark on 237 totes—and working in Tony Pollard, who averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per carry on his 130 attempts, more often.
Dallas' receiving corps is one of the NFL's best from top to bottom.
CeeDee Lamb has developed into a legit No. 1 target in his second season, racking up 1,102 yards and six scores on 79 receptions this year. Three other Cowboys pass-catchers—Amari Cooper, Dalton Schultz and Cedrick Wilson—all had at least 600 yards and six touchdowns in 2021.
On the other side, the defense has improved greatly after rating among the league's worst last year.
Cornerback Trevon Diggs had a whopping 11 interceptions, outpacing No. 2 ball hawk J.C. Jackson of the Patriots by three picks. Detroit's Amani Oruwariye was the only other player to have more than five in 2021.
Rookie linebacker Micah Parsons has been sensational, recording 84 tackles and a team-high 13 sacks. The potential Defensive Player of the Year earned a remarkable 93.0 pass-rushing grade from Pro Football Focus, the best mark of anyone in that category.
But while the offense is at the height of its powers and the defense has improved, the Cowboys could lose some key talent this offseason, as Randy Gregory—a Pro Bowl alternate who had the second-most sacks on the team in 2021 with six—Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Schultz and Wilson are among the most important of the 23 impending free agents on this roster.
Even with McCarthy making some foolish mistakes during the regular season, there are still plenty of reasons to believe the Cowboys can finally break through and at least reach the NFC Championship Game.
The 2021 Cowboys accomplished a feat none of Dallas' five Super Bowl-winning teams were able to by sweeping the NFC East this year. COO Stephen Jones told K&C Masterpiece on 105.3 The Fan it was the "first box to check" on the way to a championship.
Dallas will host the San Francisco 49ers at AT&T Stadium in the Wild Card Round on Sunday. The team is 3-1 in playoff games at the venue since it opened in 2009, although the Cowboys only mustered a 5-3 home record this season.
If Moore and Quinn are at their best against the Niners, McCarthy simply needs to manage the clock well and put his squad in the best possible position to advance.
If McCarthy can't stay out of his own way, the Cowboys will have a tough time reaching their potential.