Mike McCarthy didn’t do the things he said he was going to do in his first game as coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
It’s not that the Dallas Cowboys dropped their first game and are 0-1 in the Mike McCarthy era. It’s not that the offense only mustered 17 points against a fairly pedestrian defense. It’s how it all went down that’s cause for concern.
After all, growing pains are expected for any team with a new coaching staff. Considering the circumstances surrounding the 2020 NFL season, struggles were basically guaranteed. But this isn’t about the existence of struggles, it’s about the way in which the team struggled. Play-calling, creativity, lack of motion, and adaptability were just a handful of things that we thought would be improved under Mike McCarthy.
No, this isn’t a sky is falling article. It’s not a “reeeeeeellllaaaaaxxxx (said in Aaron Rodgers-ese)” kinda article either. It’s article that says the things we thought we knew about McCarthy might not actually be true. And the McCarthy he sold us is on last winter is not the McCarthy we have right now.
When Mike McCarthy was dismissed from Green Bay he embarked on a noble voyage of self-reflection and growth. He studied all the up and coming offenses and play-callers around the NFL. Guys like Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Eric Bienemy, and even Kellen Moore.
In this well documented period of growth, he did the unthinkable – he opened his mind and changed his ways of thinking based on facts and figures. I don’t have to tell you how rare that is. Think about the last time you’ve been in a debate (political, sports, etc..) and changed your mind or had someone else change their mind based on the arguments made.
Most established minds just dig in, and through the evil power of cognitive dissonance, fight to support their priors rather than try to find the truth. McCarthy’s embrace of facts, figures, trends and overall analytics said he defied the odds and did just that. The old school embraced the new school. At least that’s what he told us…
Looking at how things played out on Sunday, it doesn’t seem like much changed.
Motion is a staple in any analytic-based offense. It exposes coverage, identifies defensive weaknesses, and helps quarterbacks. It doesn’t just make sense on an intuitive basis, but also by the numbers. Teams are universally more successful when they use pre-snap and during snap motion than when they don’t. That’s why Kellen Moore used it so much last season.
Yet, motion was absent from the Dallas Cowboys offense in Week 1. And McCarthy just went on the radio this week saying motion is not a staple in his game strategy and will only be leaned on in a game-by-game basis.
When the best football minds in the league are all leaning on the same thing, it’s worth taking notice. So how much motion did the Dallas Cowboys employ in Week 1? Try four percent. That’s not very analytically minded.
An area we never thought would be an issue for him is play-calling on first downs. Mike McCarthy has always operated in Andy Reid territory when it comes to passing early and often on first downs. Yet, Week 1 showed the Dallas Cowboys overwhelmingly leaned on the running game.
Adaptability is another area we thought McCarthy was going to improve. His statements regarding building a scheme around his players rather than forcing his players to conform to his scheme was comforting to hear after 10 years of Jason Garrett. But we didn’t see that philosophy implemented on Sunday.
The Cowboys rolled into LA with two obvious liabilities on the offensive line: Joe Looney has always been seen as a below-average stopgap and Terence Steele, Dallas’ undrafted rookie swing tackle, was shock to make the team, let alone start at RT. Instead of adapting the Cowboys tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.
Dak Prescott’s average time in the pocket was top-5 longest in the league on Sunday. So while the Cowboys O-line ranked bottom 3 in pass protection on Sunday, the team asked Dak to stand in the pocket an abnormally long time. That’s a problem.
Look to the other sideline to see how a smart and adaptive coach handles protection concerns. Sean McVay designed his passing offense to get the ball out early. Almost all of Jared Goff’s passes were delivered before Dallas pass-rushers even had a chance. He racked up over 100 yards passing before he even threw the ball past the sticks.
Why didn’t the Cowboys foresee pass protection being a problem? And why, once they saw it, didn’t they adapt their attack to get the ball out sooner?
It’s clear, what we thought we were getting in Mike McCarthy did not come to be in Week 1.
Reason for optimism?
It wasn’t all bad news on Week 1 with the “New McCarthy”. The 4th down attempt may not have worked out, but most models which measure win probability and decision-making will say it was still the smart move. It stands to reason, if you play the odds long enough they’ll start working in your favor once the sample size reaches acceptable levels. That’s how probabilities work.
It’s also worth pointing out the Dallas Cowboys used play-action frequently. Just like motion, play-action has been found to be universally helpful in adding to the expected points of a play. It doesn’t even matter if your team has been successfully running the ball, play-action inherently works. That’s another good thing to see.
With no preseason games this was the first time Mike McCarthy and staff had a chance to see their players in real action. They saw the undisciplined gap responsibility and overaggressive play on defense. They can address that now. They saw their O-line Chaz-Greening their way through the game’s most critical passing downs. They can adapt now.
They saw all the best teams in the league successfully use motion to mislead, expose, and spread out defenses. Now they can mimic that. They saw their first down passes succeed and their first down runs fail. Now they can correct their play-calling.
If Mike McCarthy really is open to the new school ways of thinking, things will look decidedly different in Week 2. But if that was all just lip service to get a job, then this season could be a bumpy road. Let’s hope and pray for the former.
We might have inferred a lot about McCarthy’s plans for this season but he also implied an awful lot. And the changes he said he was going to make didn’t manifest in Week 1.