For months now, the big news about the Dallas Cowboys has been all about personnel. In free agency, they focused on positions that have been largely neglected over recent years and got more effective players than we usually see. The draft, of course, was just stunning. Aldon Smith has been reinstated, not only bolstering the defensive end talent but raising hopes that Randy Gregory will soon join him. The latest thing is a resurgence of hopes (however faint) that Jamal Adams may be acquired by trade. Even the one less than positive thing, the interminable wait for the team to come to terms with Dak Prescott, is roster related.
It’s mostly exciting, but it does distract us from perhaps the most important thing that happened this offseason. That is hiring Mike McCarthy to replace Jason Garrett as head coach.
The player signings and draft selections reflect the new leader’s influence. The Cowboys actually invested a lot in defensive tackle, safety, and backup quarterback, jobs that were consistently filled with bargain bin free agents, late-round gambles, or UDFAs in the past. However, it should be the way he coaches this team on the field that makes the biggest impact. Under Garrett, this team developed a deserved reputation for wasting talent, particularly on offense.
There have been All Pros and Pro Bowlers all over that side of the ball, yet only twice in Garrett’s tenure did the team come close to realizing its potential. Ironically, the only thing that stopped them in 2014 and 2016 from getting to at least the NFC championship was the team helmed by McCarthy, the Green Bay Packers. Oh, and Aaron Rodgers.
The success of the Cowboys will depend greatly on just how much McCarthy can change the things that seemed to hold the team back over the past decade. A new approach on defense is also a major factor, but all indications are that Mike Nolan will set the tone there. McCarthy is an offensive coach, and that is where he should have the greatest influence. Kellen Moore will be doing the main work of game-planning and play-calling, but he is going to build the offense to fit the overall plan McCarthy gives him.
Under Garrett, Dallas was seen to be far too conservative and predictable. Those are the areas where McCarthy needs to bring change. Yet he was at times seen to be a bit too conservative himself in Green Bay. Can we realistically expect him to be the breath of fresh air the Cowboys need?
It turns out that an answer to that may have been provided just days after the Cowboys announced their new hire. In early January, Bob Sturm of The Athletic took a look at a coach he knows very well. While Sturm has been analyzing the Cowboys very well for years, he has been a lifelong fan of the Packers, so he watched them, including during McCarthy’s time there, almost as closely as he follows Dallas. It means that while everyone else covering the Cowboys was delving into McCarthy’s history, Sturm was calling on his deep well of familiarity. In this early analysis, he pointed out two things that assure us that McCarthy will not make some of the mistakes Garrett did.
Going for it on fourth down
This ties into something else about McCarthy, his stated desire to incorporate more analytics into the coaching decisions. There has long been an argument from the analytics community on social media that one of the greatest inefficiencies in offensive play-calling happens on fourth down. One situation that illustrates this is when teams face a fourth down on the plus side of the 50, but not close enough to attempt a field goal. Despite the numbers indicating that going for it has the most benefit, almost all head coaches will send out the punter to try and pin the other team deep in their own territory.
McCarthy has clearly shown over time that he thinks a bit differently. Here is how Sturm analyzed this aspect.
Over his 13 seasons in Green Bay, McCarthy would certainly gain a label for being conservative. Part of it is warranted. But when it came to “going for it” on fourth down, especially in non-fourth-quarter situations, almost nobody would go for it more (Jason Garrett has certainly been just the opposite, as our previous studies would indicate). The Packers ranked fourth in most times they went for it, but only 26th in conversion rate. That actually suggests that despite poor results, McCarthy still saw the value in the gambles. On 4th-and-4+, they actually went for it the most times in the NFL during his tenure and converted with the ninth-best rate. So, in this regard, don’t call McCarthy conservative.
Why does Sturm only consider the first three quarters of the game? It’s because in the fourth quarter, the win probabilities are starting to tilt. Even if the score and situation have a roughly even split, the effect of converting a fourth down increases significantly. More importantly, in the fourth quarter, there are often situations where a team will feel compelled to go for it because of the specific circumstance, such as being down four points with few minutes left on the clock.
In the first three quarters, though, it is a more strategic choice. Across the league, coaches repeatedly take the “safe” way out and punt the ball or attempt a field goal if they are in range. Yet in many of those situations, going for it will increase the team’s probability of winning - regardless of the actual outcome, because this is about cumulative results over time.
Some may question this. The argument over fourth-down aggressiveness is too big for this article, but a good summation of the analytics view of this can be found in this article from Kevin Clark at The Ringer. For the tl;dr crowd, here is set of guidelines quoted that were derived from the New York Times’ Fourth Down Bot, which applies analytics to the fourth down decision.
On fourth-and-1, go for it any place on the field where that is possible, starting at your 9-yard line.
On fourth-and-2, go for it everywhere beyond your 28-yard line.
On fourth-and-3, go for it almost everywhere beyond your 40.
It’s pretty obvious that no one in the NFL is coming close to adhering to these guidelines, but it should be encouraging that McCarthy is demonstrably looking to be more aggressive. Furthermore, this is a call that the head coach almost always makes.
It is worth noting that the Cowboys under Garrett ranked 28th in the league, reinforcing his conservative nature.
An aggressive approach on fourth down is step in the right direction, but the whole idea of the offense is to not get to a fourth down at all. That, of course, depends on the success of the first three downs, which in turn is set up by how well you do on first. That is another place where a conservative and unimaginative approach from Garrett often frustrated us.
McCarthy’s approach to first downs
If you were among those who got tired of what seemed a predictable and stale offensive approach under Garrett, this next bit might be encouraging.
Another sign of conservatism would be running the ball on early downs. From 2016-2018 under Garrett and Scott Linehan, Dallas ran the ball more than any team in football on first down. They would not try to hide their intentions, but rather they would run the ball right at a defense — loaded box or not — at a 58.6 percent rate (first in the NFL). Well, Mike McCarthy opted for a run rate of 43.4 percent (32nd in the NFL). If you are tired of first-down runs, you might have come to the right place. Of course, you could also argue Garrett and McCarthy were both wrong in that the Cowboys ran on first down too often and the Packers didn’t run it enough. The Packers were a very strong running team, and it was curious to the league that they refused to run the ball. Some would accuse Aaron Rodgers of changing the plays, but keep in mind he barely even played in 2017. They passed heavily even with backup QBs.
After some extensive research and intricate calculations of my own, I have determined that you can’t make a more extreme shift than going from worst to first on first-down passing. This is going to be a very different approach for the Cowboys. And Sturm adds a bit more support to that.
It doesn’t just stop there. The Cowboys ran the ball the eighth-most on 2nd-and-10 situations. The Packers ran the ball the 25th-most. McCarthy and Garrett do not see the game the same way. Nobody believes in the “double-up” of deferring until the second half more than McCarthy. For years, nobody wanted to receive if they won the toss more so than Garrett.
McCarthy has won more challenges in replay (47 of 93) than Jason Garrett has challenged (24 of 45). Garrett has coached in roughly 76 percent of the games that McCarthy has and has only challenged 48 percent as many calls.
Fixing what has ailed Dallas for years is about more than discrete situational decisions. It is about establishing a philosophy and culture that goes out and attacks the other team, and does so in a way that keeps them off balance and confused. Everything about McCarthy’s history shows that he knows how to do this. All we need now is for it to show up in real games.
Despite the ultimate disappointment of Garrett’s final 8-8 campaign, there were actually multiple indications that Moore is fully capable of delivering exactly what McCarthy wants. It started the first game of the season, which sent our spirits soaring before they would slowly be drug down and crushed as we watched it all slip away. It was a against a pretty bad New York Giants team, but the offense was certainly clicking. Almost 500 yards of total offense, over 400 through the air, solid on third downs, perfect in the red zone, and five touchdowns. And it continued in every other win, where the Cowboys scored at least 30 points in all of them. In every loss, they put up 24 or less, including some single-digit embarrassments.
It is a mystery why Moore was able to score in bunches exactly half the games, and seemed incapable the rest. One theory is that the team played scared against better opponents, and also were more timid on the road. The results seem to bear that out.
If you put all this together, then McCarthy’s approach would appear exactly what the doctor would order to cure the unevenness of Dallas’ offense. The weapons are still there, and may be better despite the loss of Travis Frederick. Getting what may be the best wide receiver in the draft in CeeDee Lamb certainly helps.
Let’s just hope that the new head coach keeps the pedal to the metal and lets this offensive machine roar.