It’s all just talk so far, but so much of what new Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy is saying about how he is going to do his job has been absolute music to many of us. His recent talk with the media laid out a lot of things that not only look like just what the team needs, the points he made may have broken some of the worst habits many head coaches stick to throughout the league.
Now, before digging into the specifics, a disclaimer. This is the pinned tweet on my Twitter account:
This is now a Mike McCarthy stan account.— Tom Ryle, upgraded (@TomRyleBTB) January 6, 2020
I freely admit to being predisposed to looking for the positive about his hire. Having said that, I also am trying not to be a blind loyalist. These things go beyond that.
No change just for change’s sake
Here is something that many of you can relate to. When a new boss comes in, not matter what the field or organization, said boss often will make some changes just to assert his or her authority. These can be major or minor. What is significant is that the changes are more a reflection of the new person’s personal view and preferences rather than any real attempt to actually make things better. Often there is no real attempt to figure out just how the changes will improve the operation, and little consideration is given to what was going well under the prior regime.
It is a hard thing to overcome, especially when it deals with the core of the role involved. In the NFL head coaching ranks, the most obvious way a new one will assert himself is to install “his” scheme. After all, he was probably hired because his predecessor failed, and believes his changes are what were desired.
McCarthy, like Jason Garrett, is an offensive-oriented guy. He was the play-caller for all but one year since becoming an offensive coordinator in 2000, and stated that the exception did not work out well and had to be reversed. Yet one of the biggest things to come out of his discussion of where the Cowboys are going was that Kellen Moore, the most significant holdover from 2019, will continue to call plays. It is almost like Elon Musk were to suddenly announce that Tesla was going to switch from electric cars to hydrogen fuel cells.
It indicates that he really liked what he saw from Moore’s offense last season. A lot.
Just as importantly, he also said he is going to learn Moore’s terminology, or the language of the current Dallas offense. Here’s the pertinent quote, taken from Jon Machota’s piece on what is changing and what isn’t at The Athletic.
“This is the first language change that I’ve had to go through since 1989,” McCarthy said. “But this will be good for me, and frankly, it’s not about me.”
That is rather remarkable. It also implies a genuine understanding of just how important Dak Prescott is to the future of the team, and an admirable focus on making things work for him rather than forcing a lot of new stuff on the quarterback. Everyone else who returns on offense will also benefit from not having to absorb a lot of new information, concentrating instead on how to do better. Given the productivity the offense managed at times last season, and the overall volume production, that seems very wise.
Recognizing where change is essential
Obviously, everything was not rosy for Dallas last year. Some things have to be fixed. And McCarthy seems to have a very clear and accurate perception of that.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy: “The defensive system is going to change, some of the terminology, so there’s gonna be a big change there. The special teams is another change. The offense was the one I wanted to build off what’s been established.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) January 17, 2020
This is very gratifying to see. Admittedly, the warm fuzzies it engenders reflect a bit of confirmation bias. The frustration with the defense was palpable last season. They seemed far too vulnerable to the running game and big plays at times. There was a sense of confusion with the muddled coaching structure under Kris Richard and Rod Marinelli. Special teams was a personal bugaboo for me all year, as well as statistically being the worst unit in the league.
McCarthy’s approach is refreshing in the clarity regarding the challenges the Cowboys face, as well as the strengths to build upon. And with Mike Nolan and John Fassel in particular, as well as Moore’s retention, he has taken major, and likely effective, steps to successfully move forward. It also shows that he is willing to make the focus for improvement the two phases of the game that are not his comfort zone. That is rather brave.
The use of talent
This ties into the ways that McCarthy is at least talking the right talk about how he is coming into the job. Again, quoting from Machota’s article:
“I feel like player acquisition and coaching instruction is a two-way street,” McCarthy said. “I think if you have a system of defense where you need a certain player to fit your scheme, you’re limiting your personnel department. We know what a Dallas Cowboys football player looks like; the length, the athletic ability. Let’s get as many good football players as we possibly can. It’s our job as coaches to make sure our scheme boundaries are plenty wide enough to fit any excellent football player into our program. That’s always been a philosophy of mine on offense and that’ll continue to be so on defense.”
Here, he is promising to get away from one of the great sources of angst in recent years, having the coaches win over the scouting department to take players they saw as scheme fits rather than higher-graded players in positions that were not valued as much. This has been most evident with the defensive side of the ball, where we saw the team forgo players like T.J. Watt to our regret because he didn’t fit a certain physical profile, and others like Trysten Hill selected because better players happened to be safeties, which the old coaching regime did not value highly enough. There is already very concrete evidence that McCarthy is willing to let the scouting department do their job without undue interference.
Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff won’t attend Senior Bowl next week in Mobile, he said. Too much work to do at home. Also the ability to evaluate practices on film has improved.— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) January 16, 2020
That is an admirable set of priorities and division of labor. It recognizes that he can’t do it all, and needs to rely on others to do what they do best. That extends to bringing in so many experienced coaches to help with the major tasks ahead.
Still, to try and maintain appropriate objectivity it must be acknowledged that things are still in the nascent stage, with so much to accomplish and many potential pitfalls on the road ahead. But it is hard to see how things could have gone much better to this point. McCarthy and his staff still has to walk the walk.
The talk, at least, has been pretty much dead on point.