This has been a frustrating season for the Dallas Cowboys. They have faced numerous obstacles that clearly have become too difficult to overcome. Right out of the gate, the entire league was hit with new restrictions as the league tried to work through the COVID-19 pandemic. This is hard for every team, but it’s especially difficult when a team has just overhauled their coaching staff.
Things went from bad to worse when they suffered an insurmountable laundry list of injuries that took out many of their top players. Most notable is their offensive centerpiece, Dak Prescott, whose departure caused the offense to go from 33 points a game to a dismal 15 points a game. When you combine Prescott’s absence with the revolving door of injuries to the offensive line, that presents quite the hurdle for the offense.
While the hand this team was dealt was not a great one, the situation is exasperated by some very questionable coaching. The point has been beaten into the ground about how hard it is to evaluate these new coaches considering all the adversity they’ve been hit with, so it’s important to only look at things that they control. Nobody expects this Cowboys team to be in the running for one of the top records in the league under the current circumstances, but it’s fair to ask the question - should things really be this bad?
The answer seems pretty obvious. This Cowboys team doesn’t have the health to be Super Bowl contenders, but there is no excuse for them to be playing this poorly, and there are some glaring elements that point the finger at an inept coaching staff.
The players don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing
One of my favorite sports quotes comes from Peyton Manning who once said,
“Pressure is something you feel when you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.”
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear something like that from Manning as he was so detailed in his approach. He had a feel for how the play was going to go down before the ball was snapped.
When you look at this Cowboys team, there is so much disorder that it’s easy to see why certain areas struggle on a regular basis. On defense, this chaos exists in spades. To be fair on the coaches, this does not include instances where the opponent slips through the hands of a would-be tackler or times when a ball-carrier simply outruns a defensive back to the corner of the end zone. Those are talent issues. You want those problems fixed, find better talent.
What is more concerning are the mental lapses this team exhibits time and time again. The defense has been abused in the running game repeatedly because linebackers don’t know what gaps they’re supposed to be filling. And heaven forbid the opposing offense sends a guy in motion, as now they’ve completely perplexed the defense. The Cowboys might as well have Jaylon Smith follow him in motion and just run completely off the field over to the sideline because we already know he’s been taken out of the play.
The degree of which this team is being outsmarted was heavily emphasized in the Washington game. To Washington’s credit, they were crafty in their play designs, but we all expected that. It’s really disheartening to just watch the Cowboys lose the play before the ball is snapped, but it happened over and over again on Thursday. It’s as if the team continuously falls for the “gotcher nose” trick, which is a sure sign that something is not right upstairs. We want to believe this is part of the growing pains of the changes within the coaching, but we have to leave ourselves open to the possibility that the coaching itself is not good.
McCarthy has no feel for the flow of the game
We were all promised a head coach with a feel for analytics, but it’s hard to remember seeing a team go against the statistical grain as much as Mike McCarthy has so far this year. It’s important to acknowledge that despite the love for analytics, there is no black and white number that is the end-all, be-all for making a decision. Analytics don’t tell you how tired your left guard is or the drop-off in coverage skills of a corner who’s just replaced an injured starter. That is where the feel for the game trumps all.
There have been numerous examples where it doesn’t seem like McCarthy has a good feel for the flow of the game. Looking back to the season-opener when the Cowboys lost to the Rams by three points, it was perplexing why McCarthy gambled on 4th-and-3 at the 11-yard yard line in the fourth quarter when he had a chance to tie the game. While the aggressiveness seemed like a nice change of pace for this team, it showed a lack of understanding of what was transpiring in the game. In particular, the defense was having success against the Rams offense as the final three second half possessions for Los Angeles resulted in punts.
McCarthy’s propensity for taking risks has shown up ad nauseam. We hear that saying all the time about how teams get “too cute” sometimes, but this coaching staff has reached a sickening degree, and it’s hard to watch. While the fourth down call against the Rams falls in line with what the analytics say to do, there are others that are so ridiculously absurd, it makes absolutely no sense. The fourth down plays against Washington on Thursday are microcosms for what’s been transpiring all year. All show and no substance.
It goes deeper than McCarthy
Head coaches are only as good as their assistants, and we see it all the time when coaches move on and take other positions. The Eagles really miss Frank Reich and the Falcons have been hurting without Kyle Shanahan.
While there was some initial excitement when McCarthy brought with him a lot of experienced coaches, that didn’t guarantee the success that these guys once had would automatically follow. In fact, they were available for a reason and in some cases those reasons included lack of success in recent years. What’s even more unsettling is that all of the former teams of the Cowboys new coaches are having success with their new replacements. Not some. All.
McCarthy is offensive minded, but it’s Matt LaFleur’s Packers who are third in the league in points scored. Mike Nolan was the linebacker coach in New Orleans, who currently have allowed the third-fewest yards in the league, which includes the second-best run defense. And we can’t ignore that Jim Tomsula’s former team has the second-highest sack percentage, trailing only the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers.
There are other attributing factors, so we can’t just do a straight across-the-board comparison to frame how good these coaches really are, but it’s not a warm feeling to see the Cowboys struggle while all of these former teams show improvements.
Regardless of what you thought of the McCarthy hire, we all should be pulling for it to work out. A failure here will likely result in a more years of disappointment, and squander a window where this team has some pretty good talent. None of us want that. Will things eventually work out? Maybe. We don’t know, and only time will tell. But what we do know is that while we all certainly want this to go well, early signs are not favorable.