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Breaking down new Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy’s offensive scheme

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Things are reportedly set to change, but these Mike McCarthy’s roots.

Green Bay Packers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

In case you missed it, Mike McCarthy is going to be the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. McCarthy is best known for his nearly 13 seasons spent as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, where he had both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers as his quarterbacks and compiled a 125-77-2 regular season record and a 10-8 postseason record, including one Super Bowl win.

During his time as head coach, McCarthy was the offensive play-caller for all but one season (which he later expressed regret over) and his offensive scheme has been one of key traits of his coaching tenure. While McCarthy has said he’s spent the 2019 season reinventing himself and finding a way to integrate analytics into football more, we don’t really know to what extent that changes his pre-established traits as a head coach. So in the meantime, get to know what McCarthy is known for at this point in time.

McCarthy brings a West Coast philosophy

Jason Garrett is out, and the Air Coryell offense has apparently followed him out the door. While Garrett was a longtime proponent of the offensive philosophy, broken down in depth here, McCarthy comes from the Bill Walsh school of offense. Although he began his NFL coaching career under Air Coryell disciples like Marty Schottenheimer, Al Saunders, and Paul Hackett, McCarthy sought inspiration from Walsh’s uber-successful West Coast offense that prioritizes quick, short passes.

This is quite a reversal from the Air Coryell philosophy and especially the aggressive offense Kellen Moore ran this year that was so successful. Of course, that doesn’t mean McCarthy was never aggressive, and he certainly incorporated vertical passing concepts into his offense, but the shorter completions were the first order of business. One of the common phrases used to oversimplify the West Coast offense is that you’re either throwing a check down or a touchdown.

As such, McCarthy’s offense has been predicated on moving the chains and limiting turnovers by not taking too many shots downfield. And it worked for a long time in Green Bay too, as their offense ranked in the top ten in total offensive DVOA 11 out of 13 total seasons; the lone seasons they ranked outside of the top ten were 2006, McCarthy’s first year in Green Bay, and 2017, when Rodgers missed half the season with injuries.

While it remains to be seen what changes McCarthy makes, it’s hard to think he would completely deviate from his West Coast philosophy, and the fit is obvious given McCarthy’s proclivity for a zone blocking scheme, which Dallas has had wild success with over the last few years.

McCarthy likes to throw early and often

While McCarthy has only recently professed his love for analytics, he was already (perhaps unknowingly) more or less in line with one set of football analytics that suggests running the ball on first down is more often than not a bad strategy. McCarthy had a tendency to call pass plays on first down almost twice as often as he’d call run plays on first down.

This likely wasn’t some adherence to analytics but more so a reflection of his preference to air it out. For McCarthy, running the ball has usually been seen as optional, not mandatory - another stark contrast to Garrett. Only five times in his 13 years calling plays did McCarthy have a running back with over 240 carries in a single season, and each of those running backs (Ahman Green, Ryan Grant twice, and Eddie Lacy twice) turned in 1,000+ rushing seasons and averaging at least four yards per carry.

One of the things that made McCarthy so successful calling plays was his desire to catch defenses off guard: he liked to throw it when teams weren’t expecting it, hence his frequency of first down pass plays, and run when defenses were spread out playing the pass. As a result, that meant sometimes having low yardage totals in the run game, but even then he made sure his running backs were involved in the passing game, often as a check down option.

This would seem to mesh well with what the Cowboys did this year; even though Ezekiel Elliott had 301 carries, it was the least amount of carries per game in his young career. Part of that was due to the emergence of rookie Tony Pollard, who was criminally underused, but it was more so due to Moore’s similar preference for airing it out more. To that end, McCarthy could fit well with this personnel group.

A little too dependent on hero ball

Even though McCarthy’s offenses ranked high in efficiency for most of his time in Green Bay, things took a serious downturn in his final two seasons, over which he went 11-16-1. Reports of friction between McCarthy and Rodgers crept to light and critics said McCarthy’s offense had become stale, as he relied too much on his players, Rodgers specifically, to make plays.

This is at least somewhat true. McCarthy’s playbook never really had a diverse route tree in the sense that he didn’t focus on combining route concepts to free up receivers. Instead, McCarthy had a tendency to rely on receivers to work themselves open and, when that didn’t happen, hoping Rodgers could improvise and find an open guy on the move.

This was in part what slowed the team down. As the receiving corps saw personnel turnover and Rodgers got older, the ability for both of those things to happen dropped off a bit. Of course, this reliance on receivers winning their matchups sounds familiar to Cowboys fans, who endured far too much of that under Scott Linehan. One of the reasons Moore was so successful in his first year as the offensive coordinator was his pairing of route concepts to better free up receivers, as well as a heavy dose of pre-snap motion.

Now, one of the more valuable analytics we have available to us these days is receiver separation measurements, which makes it easier to gauge how open guys are getting. So perhaps McCarthy has already used that tool to figure out better ways to scheme guys open. For what it’s worth, a potential pairing of Moore as the offensive coordinator and McCarthy calling plays could combine their strengths when it comes to offensive execution.

It obviously remains to be seen what changes McCarthy has and will make to his scheme, but based on what we know already, he seems to be a good fit in some respects. Who McCarthy hires (or chooses to retain) on his offensive staff will give more insight into his plans as well.