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Mike McCarthy’s approach to analytics in football was perhaps his biggest change over the last year

This is refreshing to hear from the Cowboys head coach.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Coach Mike McCarthy Press Conference Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday morning, Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was welcomed to part of the routine that he’ll go through in his new job - he had a couple of radio interviews to do. America’s Team, and all of that jazz.

McCarthy took the airwaves of the home of the Dallas Cowboys, 105.3 The Fan, and as you can imagine he was asked a lot of things about his philosophies and approach to coaching as they will impact the way that the Cowboys are run and coached.

Much has been said and written about how McCarthy dove into the world of analytics during his year away from the game; he took it upon himself to learn from the guys at PFF and other third-party outlets. When asked what his biggest takeaway was from his time away from the NFL in 2019, he answered in a way that seemed to note just how much analytics will drive his decision-making.

“I used to have a saying and I probably shouldn’t say it, but it was an old thought process. But it was not out of disrespect, but I think it was really to kind of keep the analytics component of it in check. And I used to talk to our team about it, and I even talked about it in public.”

“I used to say ‘statistics are for losers’ because the only statistic was that really mattered was the wins and loss. I think you have to be smart about the analytics. You have to have, and I think it’s very important, but the reality of it is how it is applied to your every day operation.”

“Because we don’t play football in an air conditioned-room, well AT&T has air condition, so I’m going to have to change that process there. Change my words. But we don’t sit in an air conditioned-room with, drinking coffee and making those kinds of decisions and there’s also the human element that you have to evolve in your decision-making.”

“I think analytics gives you the ability to sharpen your edge in preparation and anticipate those decisions at a higher level and gives you the ability to maybe be a little bit quicker with your decision-makings during a game. But there is an instinct and an awareness component that you definitely have to tap into on when you push the envelop and when you pull back.”

A lot of this sounds great (and vague too for what it’s worth) but until the results are in people aren’t going to totally buy in. McCarthy has high expectations, and whether through the usage of analytics or not, he is going to have to deliver on them to make Cowboys fans happy.

The reality of Mike McCarthy though is that he is clearly capable of embracing help in decision-making and particularly in terms of how it can expedite decisions during a game. FiveThirtyEight did an analysis of McCarthy’s situational awareness while in Green Bay, before his analytics awakening, and found that even then he was more successful than Jason Garrett. That’s encouraging.

“He tended to be very conservative when it came to running out [the] clock too early in games,” Schatz told me, “but aggressive on fourth downs.” In fact, over McCarthy’s last five seasons in Green Bay, he was consistently one of the most aggressive play-callers in the NFL — and significantly moreso than Garrett.

And what about challenges? It turns out that McCarthy’s 13-season average hid a dramatic change in his approach to challenging officials’ calls. Late in the 2017 season, The Comeback’s Brad Gagnon noted that McCarthy had the second-best challenge success rate of any head coach from 2015 to 2017. Including his sole challenge in 2018, he went 12-of-18 (.667), a significant improvement from 35-of-75 (.467) from 2006 to 2014.

How did McCarthy get so much better at situational awareness? It might be because he “got away from” focusing on midweek X-and-O gameplanning, as he told King, and instead focused on “staff development.” This is supposed to be the job of head coach: Don’t micromanage every aspect of the game plan, but coach the coaches. It may be that his stale offensive game plans were a direct result of trying to level up as an overall strategist.

All data points to the fact that McCarthy was already a more aggressive and aware head coach than Jason Garrett. Him taking a year away from the game to sharpen those tools should theoretically only make him all the more better, right?

That’s our hope, and hope is starting to rise these days.

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