Dallas Cowboys: Time to dissolve Mike McCarthy – Kellen Moore marriage

Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Texas. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images) /

As with many failed marriages, one person may not be solely to blame for the dysfunction. In the case of the Dallas Cowboys offensive mismanagement, that could very well be the case in this Mike McCarthy/Kellen Moore marriage.

On paper, the Dallas Cowboys finished the 2022 season as one of the most proficient offensive attacks in the NFL. But a little peak into the kimono reveals there’s far more to the story than just the gaudy cumulative yardage totals that flash across the TV screen.

As illustrated by Dallas’ most recent loss in the Wild Card round, points weren’t always easy to come by when the quality of defense increased. And when the Dallas Cowboys offense has scored against adequately-rated defenses, it was often in spite of play design, rather than because of it.

It’s clear the Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore brain trust did not work for the Dallas Cowboys offense.

When Mike McCarthy first came on board in the offseason of 2020, he was tasked with invigorating an otherwise stagnant offense. Under the leadership of Jason Garrett (head coach 2011-2019), the Dallas Cowboys had grown into one of the most consistent offenses in the NFL. Sadly, they had also become dated, predictable, and ultra conservative. As our old friend Joseph Randle would say, they “left a lot of meat on the bone.”

Bringing in an offensive pedigree like Mike McCarthy looked like a quick way to inject new schemes and concepts into a young and talented roster. The catch was, he had to do it with the previous offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore, still on staff.

At the time, many praised the retention of Moore.  Dubbed, “the boy genius” by many, Kellen Moore seemed to bring fresh ideas and creative designs to Garrett’s Air Coryell offense. Perhaps he could be the bridge to Mike McCarthy’s West Coast scheme and take the Cowboys attack to unprecedented levels…

As it turns out, quite the opposite happened and in many ways the McCarthy-Moore offense took a step back from the Garrett-Moore era and drifted even further into that “dated” and “predictable” label it aggressively tried to escape.

Seth Galina from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) offered a postmortem of sorts on the Dallas Cowboys playoff run. In an effort to properly divide blame between Dak Prescott (who played poorly in the playoff loss) and Kellen Moore (who, as a play-caller, didn’t seem to perform at all), Seth was able to unearth a multitude of concerns that make the McCarthy-Moore marriage somewhat untenable.

Note: While the player grades at PFF are questionable at best, their stat tracking and analytics are elite. And when their top math scientists and their top football minds actually merge, the product is hard to match. Don’t discount Seth’s findings just because you don’t like the arbitrary grading from a handful of ill-equipped staff writers.

The Cowboys declined

The Dallas Cowboys average depth of target in non-blowout situations dropped from 9.2 yards under the Garrett-Moore era to 6.9 yards under the McCarthy-Moore era. As Cowboys Stats and Graphics points out, that ranked 7th and 29th respectively.

Despite having weapons like Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Tony Pollard, and Dalton Schultz, the Cowboys were 29th in average depth of target downfield.

Something we spoke about incessantly this past season was early down play-calling. Since Week 9, the Dallas Cowboys were one of the least efficient running teams in the NFL, posting a success rate well below 40% and net negative in expected points (it hurt the offenses scoring probability more than helped). Yet, the Cowboys repeatedly called early-down run after early-down run, despite all evidence pointing to the other method of attack (a forward pass).

This all sets up for far too many 3rd downs, when we all know, the best way score points is avoid third downs altogether. In other words: manageable third downs shouldn’t be your goal. Increasing scoring probability should be the goal. That was clearly lost on this 2021 Cowboys offense.

Cowboys play design

Another important point Seth made in the article linked above is in play design. It’s the offensive coordinator’s job to make things easy for his offense. He needs to convince a defense to do one thing so his offense can do another. Misdirection and deceit is an important part of the job.

Yet, the Dallas Cowboys offense was one of the most transparent attacks in the NFL. They avoided motion (before and especially during-snap) allowing defenses to hone in, and they telegraphed their intentions by way of formations and personnel packages (For instance: Dallas had a 63/37% split in their run/pass calls out of 12 personnel).

Scheming players open and finding ways to unload the ball quickly to top play-makers is just as important. But Dallas seemed adverse to making things easy and/or getting the ball into the best players’ hands quickly.

In other words, an OC wants to take the burden off his QB. The more a QB is forced to stand in the pocket and go through his progressions, the worse the OC is probably doing. Let’s just say Dak had to go through his progressions an awful lot this season.

On passes delivered in under 3 seconds (which is the goal of most play design), Dak graded 7th in the NFL this past year. The problem is, he usually needed to take longer than three seconds because the play didn’t unfold as planned.

This isn’t an indictment on Dak’s ability to go through progressions either. He’s actually one of the best in the NFL when he has to look at Plan B, C, and D.

But it’s an OC’s job to minimize those situations as much as as possible and this Dallas Cowboys offense seemed to rely on it. That’s a recipe for disaster even if you have Tom Brady sitting back there.

it’s clear defenses are fooling Dallas with their scheme rather than the other way around.

Something I seem to point out every Tuesday after my All-22 film review are the route combinations these Cowboys receivers are asked to run. Whether it’s errors on their part or a flaw in design, I can’t say, but they repeatedly run non-complementary routes that either cancel out their effectiveness or make things harder for Dak Prescott to see openings.

Cowboys pass catchers routinely run into the strengths of the coverage and it’s clear defenses are fooling Dallas with their scheme rather than the other way around.

Who’s fault?

Who’s to say? Is it Kellen Moore holding Mike McCarthy back or McCarthy holding Kellen back? What we know is this isn’t working. There’s no reason for one of the most talented offenses in the NFL to look like this and it goes a lot farther than just simple player execution (although, we need to have a tough conversation about this O-line).

The marriage simply isn’t working.

Must Read. Cowboys 7-round mock draft (v1.1). light

dark. Next. Top-5 draft needs for the Dallas Cowboys

Whether it’s a change at OC or change at HC, it’s a topic for another day. But it’s clear this Mike McCarthy – Kellen Moore duo is not working as it should and a loaded offense like this shouldn’t have to struggle like they are.