Is hot seat fair to Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy as key injuries continue to mount?

FRISCO, Texas -- It was the 17th question of the news conference, about 7 minutes, 50 seconds in, after the Dallas Cowboys’ Sunday night 19-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Before the season there was a narrative out there with you being on the hot seat,” a reporter asked coach Mike McCarthy. “After a performance like this, do you feel that pressure vacillate?”

“I’m 0-1, we’re 0-1 as a football team,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, I got a little more work to do coming out of this game than I would like, but that’s our business.”

Fairly or not, each week will be a referendum on McCarthy’s immediate and long-term future. That was the biggest storyline coming into the season after a disappointing end to the 2021 campaign with a home playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers in January.

With the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals visiting AT&T on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS), McCarthy will look to avoid his first 0-2 start since his first year with the Green Bay Packers (2006).

Now he will have to do it without starting quarterback Dak Prescott, who had right thumb surgery on Monday. Prescott’s return is uncertain, although owner and general manager Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas during the week that the quarterback could return within four weeks. Before the surgery, sources said Prescott would need six to eight weeks to recover.

If the Cowboys lose to Cincinnati, the McCarthy talk will only intensify, despite Jones’ declaration at the start of training camp.

"I want to be real clear: He wouldn't be sitting here today if I didn't think he was the man to lead this team to a Super Bowl," Jones said in July.

But should McCarthy be on the proverbial hot seat?

On the day he took the job in 2020, he thought he was inheriting an offensive line that included perennial Pro Bowlers in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick, with a top-of-the-line right tackle in La’el Collins.

They never played a game together under McCarthy, with Frederick retiring before the 2020 season.

McCarthy also was getting Prescott, who was seemingly entering his prime. In the fifth game of the 2020 season, Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. Last season, he missed one game with a calf strain that affected him for most of the second half of the season.

And now the fractured thumb.

Sunday’s game against the Bengals will be McCarthy’s 35th in Dallas. Prescott will have missed 13 of them, and he could potentially miss the next three games, if not more.

“It’s football, it really is,” McCarthy said when asked if he felt like he hasn’t caught a break. “I've lost my starting quarterback before. It's unfortunate. Frankly, my emotion goes to the person because I know how much these guys put into this. But yeah, it's all part of the challenge. It makes it even more sweeter when you get to where you want to go."

While injuries can derail a season, McCarthy has noted on multiple occasions that his best moment -- winning Super Bowl XLV -- came with the Packers needing 77 players that season. When the Cowboys finalized the roster this year, he noted 10 rookies played key roles in that Packers Super Bowl victory.

It might just seem like the Cowboys have had far too many offensive line combinations under McCarthy. Since the start of 2020, the Cowboys have used 43 different five-man units for at least one snap together, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That ranks 13th in the NFL; the Philadelphia Eagles lead the way with 61.

Not only is Prescott missing Sunday’s game but so is safety Jayron Kearse, who has a sprained left knee and led the Cowboys in tackles last season, and left guard Connor McGovern. Add to that, the Cowboys lost left tackle Tyron Smith until December with a torn hamstring in one of the final training camp practices.

“Dude, it’s the league, man,” tight end Dalton Schultz said. “[McCarthy] is like, ‘Listen, the guys that are in this room, you’re going to play. At some point something’s going to happen. You’re going to get an opportunity and you’re going to be expected to play at a high level.’”

Jones’ history needs to be factored into what might or might not happen with McCarthy.

He has made one in-season coaching change since becoming the owner and general manager in 1989.

In 2010, the Cowboys got off to a 1-7 start and Jones replaced Wade Phillips with Jason Garrett. Coincidentally, the last game Phillips coached was a 45-7 debacle against McCarthy’s Packers at Lambeau Field in which the effort of several players came into question.

Phillips was 10 months removed from winning the NFC East and a playoff victory at the time of his dismissal. If this season goes in a similar direction, there could be another parallel to 2010. In the sixth game of that season, quarterback Tony Romo suffered what turned out to be a season-ending broken collarbone.

None of that history matters to the players. None of the outside noise really matters. What matters is winning against Cincinnati.

“Obviously we’re under a microscope, and that’s fine,” Martin said. “I think guys understand that. It’s part of the game. Everyone deals with injuries. Yes, it’s unfortunate that some guys haven’t been out there, that Dak’s been hurt a bunch. But we’re not the only team dealing with injuries, and it’s up to the players really. I think we can do a better job of kind of rising to the occasion when certain guys are out. It’s not all on the coaches. It’s on the players having to take some responsibility and really pick up some slack.”