Dallas Cowboys: McCarthy has had a Zeke-caliber RB before…

Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

People forget the Dallas Cowboys new head coach, Mike McCarthy, has coached a player of Zeke’s caliber once before.

When Mike McCarthy was first hired to replace Jason Garrett as the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, fans rejoiced with some expressionless sarcastic clapping. But then the panic started to set in: “McCarthy’s a passing guy,” some worried. “McCarthy doesn’t like to run the ball. The Cowboys are going to waste Zeke!”

But then the calm set in: “Mike McCarthy’s never had a running back of Ezekiel Elliott‘s caliber,” they assured. “Eddie Lacy is the best back McCarthy’s ever coached. If he’d had a real blue-chip RB like Zeke, he surely would have been run-heavy.”

This is all sound logic. Logic many of us gave our nod of approval to. But it ignores one big moment in Mike McCarthy’s coaching tenure. When he was a coach for the New Orleans Saints.

In 1999, Mike Ditka bet the farm to draft Ricky Williams out of Texas. In Ditka’s last great attempt to keep his job, he traded the entire ’99 draft plus two high picks in 2000 to move up for Ricky Williams. As many of us non-millennials can remember, things didn’t go well for the Saints that season and after a 3-13 season, Ditka was out and defensive guru Jim Haslett was in.

The problem was, Haslett knew nothing about how to design and call an offense. He needed to hire a guru opposite him to take the reins. Enter Mike McCarthy. When people think of Mike McCarthy they often think exclusively about his decade plus time in Green Bay. What many people seem to forget was his time as offensive coordinator in New Orleans.

Given complete control of the offense in NOLA, McCarthy inherited one of the most talented, albeit maligned, running backs in the NFL, Ricky Williams. Williams’ underwhelming rookie campaign had more to do with the system and personnel than it had to do with the former Heisman Trophy winner and future Pro Bowler’s personal performance.

Keep in mind, that team had six consecutive losing seasons, the offense didn’t have a single 1000 yard receiver and a QB named Billy Joe split his starts with another QB named Billy Joe. I shouldn’t have to tell you how many Billy Joes is too many.

All McCarthy and Haslett did that first year is take the 3-13 Saints to 10-6, winning the division and claiming the first playoff win in franchise history. McCarthy made Williams his undisputed workhorse, giving him nearly 25 carries a game and averaging a cool 100-bills per contest.

Mike McCarthy had his Zeke-caliber RB and he used him.

Two things we need to clarify here:

  1. McCarthy completely rebuilt the QB room and the receiving corps in 2000. He didn’t have the luxury of strong passing game to turn to, hence his reliance on Ricky.
  2. McCarthy has clearly evolved as a coach since then, citing analytics, trends, and an evolving league.

The 2020 Dallas Cowboys are an elite passing offense. They were top-3 in just about all ballistic categories and are expected to be even better through the air here in 2020. So the 2000 Saints are basically apples to the 2020 Cowboys’ oranges.

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Also, McCarthy said, before he was even hired, he had been resting on his laurels and not changing with the times. He’s now embraced analytics and how they influence play-calling. All of which means a run-heavy approach is certainly not in the cards for Dallas Cowboys this year.

But he did show he knows how to work with a highly talented running back like Zeke. He showed he’s not afraid to lean on a player, regardless of position, if that player is talented and offers him the best chance at winning.

Some may say Ricky Williams was a bust and never lived up to his potential. But Ricky was far from a bust (a top-30 player in total yards despite not playing football in his prime years) and the ridiculously dumb trade Ditka made to get him, should not be held against him.

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Mike McCarthy has coached a running back of Ezekiel Elliott’s caliber. And he leaned on him heavily. He did what he had to do to give his team it’s best chance at winning and despite all the changes he’s made as a coach over the years, he’ll do it again in Dallas this season.