There has been a major sea change for the Dallas Cowboys. No, that is not another reference to Jerry Jones working from his yacht during the NFL Draft, although that event is certainly part of the evidence. This is about how the team changed its head coach, and got a clearly evident shift in philosophy about building the roster and employing the players.
There has been one surprise after another. The fact that so many times we found our jaws dropping a little or a lot reflects just how great the departure has been from business as usual during Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach. Nine seasons can build a certain set of expectations, especially when things are being led by someone who values continuity and steadiness as much as the current offensive coordinator of the New York Giants does. In a bit less than four months, those expectations have been pretty much shredded.
It all started with Mike McCarthy, who was not on many radars as the top head coach choice for the Jones family until he got to the Star and never left. Not since Bill Parcells has there been a hire with a pedigree like McCarthy’s. It was really an about face from the promotion from within that put his predecessor in charge. That constantly looking within the organization extended to many assistant coaching hires. That is not always a bad thing, as Kellen Moore and Leon Lett certainly worked out. But it also was how Dallas wound up with Keith O’Quinn as the special teams coordinator, and that was less than optimal decision, to put it gently.
Outside of the reassignment of Doug Nussmeier to be the quarterbacks coach, the rest of the staff is composed of McCarthy’s choices. That alone will lead to some significant changes, especially on defense, but the most significant new hire may turn out to be O’Quinn’s replacement, John Fassel. “Bones” (I love that nickname) is a completely different approach to filling the job, with twelve years experience and a lot of success in that role for other teams. It is the most obvious example of how McCarthy wanted real change. That is pretty much normal for new head coaches - but the ability to do it the HC’s way hasn’t been the case in recent Cowboys history. We remember how Jason Garrett was hired to be the offensive coordinator before Wade Phillips got the head coaching nod, and there seemed to be a lot of influence on Garrett’s own staff from the Jones family, especially early on. All indications are that McCarthy had free rein in assembling his staff, including the decision to retain Moore in his position. It is not unlikely that the admiration McCarthy expressed for Moore’s offense before the hiring process even began played a part in him floating to the top of the list when the decision to move on from Garrett was made. Once he got the job, though, he seems to have been full discretion in his hires.
There is clear evidence that Garrett eventually came to have great power in the organization, but it was gained over time. McCarthy walks into the job with just as much control and influence as Garrett had at his peak. We still don’t know how this story will play out, but the limited indications we have so far are that could go very well, indeed.
The next evidence of change came in free agency. While Dallas continued to avoid big dollar signings, they went after much bigger names than they have in the recent past. Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix bring some impressive careers. They are older players (specifically McCoy and Poe), which played a big part in the very affordable contracts that made them good acquisitions in the eyes of the front office. Their extensive experience is also something of a deviation from the past for this team.
More significant than the name recognition for the three are the positions involved. The Cowboys have been averse to investing much in interior defensive linemen and safeties. To come out of the gate in free agency with players that addressed those positions is about as clear a sign that things have changed as you could want. Poe is the most telling, because under Garrett and his defensive staffs, Dallas just did not see value in big, run-stuffing nose tackles. Listed at 346 pounds, Poe is exactly that, with some ability to push the pocket as well.
Then came the draft. If you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of praise over the major shift in how the team approached it this year. I won’t go over the details of how the selections were high value and avoided completely the positions with the least return on investment for draft capital, since that was dissected in detail in the linked post. Suffice it to say, this was not a draft that conformed to any of the tendencies of the past. There were times in the last regime that the objective seemed to build a roster designed to win - in 1995. The 2020 crop fits the current and likely future blueprint for NFL success.
And CeeDee Lamb alone arguably made this a successful draft. Just sayin’. The rest of the picks just piled the goodness up.
With the draft and a very highly-regarded crop of UDFAs coming aboard, we were resigned to having to wait for football things to resume, whenever they do. No one really expected any big surprises during the looming drought.
Well, hello there, Andy Dalton.
True story. I had taken some time for Netflix Saturday night, and after turning the flatscreen off, picked up my smartphone to play a game. Then a notice from R.J. Ochoa about the Dalton news flashed. I stared at my device for a minute and wondered if I had just imagined that.
Logging into Twitter quickly confirmed that it was not a bizarre hallucination. The Cowboys had not just pulled another major surprise, they once again confirmed that this is not the old way of doing things. While Dallas has signed some well known names as backup QBs in recent memory, such as Kyle Orton, Mark Sanchez, and Brandon Weeden, they certainly didn’t come with the body of work that Dalton does. None of them exactly came through in the clutch when needed, either. As has been noted, Dalton is the best backup QB on the roster since some UDFA named Tony Romo.
The earlier free agency moves by the Cowboys showed more aggressiveness than we are accustomed to, and this took it to another level. Dalton was on the streets for only about 48 hours after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals to give their starting job to number one overall pick Joe Burrow.
There are other, more subtle ways that this reflects the McCarthy influence. While there were those veteran quarterbacks brought in, for the most part, Garrett seemed quite content to roll with UDFAs or late-round flyers as the main backup for his starter. The one exception recently was actually drafting Dak Prescott (after missing on Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook). The team was looking for a new backup because Romo was recovering from injury, and of course we all know how he would go down in the preseason and force Garrett into making Prescott into the starter. The fact that it was wildly successful does not change how the team had been comfortable with players like Kellen Moore and Cooper Rush as Prescott’s backup.
The speed with which the Cowboys got Dalton on board shows that McCarthy is hardly comfortable with unproven backups, even if he did wind up with Ben DiNucci in the seventh round. The small school product is clearly a developmental project. Rush would have been the number two going into camp, but McCarthy clearly was not ready to settle for that. Not only does Dalton give Dallas a truly reliable backup, he is also a great player to mentor DiNucci, the way Sanchez did Prescott his rookie year. Make no mistake, the Red Rifle was a McCarthy play all the way.
The change has been evident to any who look. It makes the wait for football stuff to return that much harder, because this is legitimately exciting stuff. After a few years of increasingly obvious stagnation, there are strong new currents flowing through the Star.