Football season felt like it took forever to get here. Criticism for Mike McCarthy did not. Being the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys is hardly an easy gig. America’s Team is America’s Team and the standard, as cliche as it sounds, is the standard. Cowboys fans
have grown to expect want more than anything to win world championships. Jason Garrett didn’t deliver after a decade of trying and the stink hasn’t worn off of his efforts, as evidenced by many Cowboys fans ridiculing his new offense all over Twitter on Monday night.
Mike McCarthy obviously knows the deal here. He spent over a decade with one of the NFL’s crown jewels in the Green Bay Packers. Titletown is hardly Dallas, but it’s right up there as far as professional football is concerned.
It’s been one week (forever shout out to BNL) and all of the optimism that surrounded what we thought were McCarthy’s new-look Cowboys has dissipated. All that’s left in the fallout is doubt and a whole bunch of pointing fingers.
Where were all of the analytics?!
There are five NFL teams that entered the 2020 season with new head coaches, amazingly three of them, including our Cowboys, are in the NFC East. 60%, baby.
Of all the new people under the main headset only one of them had a project named after them. Mike McCarthy was touted as someone who had experienced an analytical awakening while sitting out all of last season. He visited Pro Football Focus and all of a sudden seemed like one of your favorite Twitter follows as far as the things he was speaking about in terms of what his vision was. This was (and could very well still be) a victory for many.
There are plenty of foundational pillars of the world of football analytics, and minds in that space tend to value a lot of things. One of them (there are many) is the idea of pre-snap motion.
What is it about pre-snap motion, anyway? To be blunt here, the idea of incorporating it is that you are (speaking primitively) reading the defense and sometimes confusing the defense. Theoretically this creates a potential advantage for you which you can then theoretically take advantage of. Consider the way that PFF head honcho Cris Collinsworth spoke about play-action last year as a different sort of example.
Cris Collinsworth on Wednesday's NFL Total Access talking play action and the Dallas Cowboys: “Play action is effective regardless of how you’re running the football. Now it took me a lifetime to get to where that became a fact in my brain."pic.twitter.com/C7xvhZYBB7— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) December 5, 2019
Old heads will argue that you have to #EstablishTheRun in order for play-action to be effective, and the disagreement between the two ideas is one of the biggest forks in the road you can be presented when it comes to looking at the game of football in modern times. This particular writer happens to agree with the former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver (also I realize this is an unpopular opinion, but Collinsworth is the best color analyst on television... no disrespect to numero nueve).
Speaking broadly here, adopting this type of thinking leads people to believing in something like pre-snap motion. You would think that someone like Mike McCarthy, someone who has talked more about data and spreadsheets than your accountant, would be a core believer in this idea, right? This is why people are concerned after last week’s performance against the Los Angeles Rams. Dallas was near the bottom of the league in this particular category. Interestingly enough Jason Garrett’s New York Giants offense was even lower, by the way.
How often did each team use motion in Week 1? First column is motion at the snap, second column is all pre-snap motion.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) September 16, 2020
Shoutout to our video trackers who make this stat possible. pic.twitter.com/mDf6aPEgyI
It is worth repeating many times that there were no minicamps, OTAs, or preseason games. This was true for every team in the NFL as well as the Cowboys, but it is certainly fair to include as a potential factor for why things weren’t humming along at warp speed.
Still, though, if you check social media right now you will see Cowboys fans who are worried that Mike McCarthy might not be as analytically-inclined as we were all originally led to believe. To have any concerns like these isn’t exactly unfair given the data that exists, but the sample size is obviously far too small to jump to any legitimate conclusions.
Mike McCarthy’s thoughts on pre-snap motion don’t even seem to be clear yet
We know that Mike McCarthy likes to play his cards close to the vest for fear of anyone gaining any bit of potential knowledge that can be used against him. He has certainly been more entertaining than his predecessor as far as normal press conferences and interviews go, but he is similarly skilled in the art of speaking at a high volume without saying a lot.
One of the more interesting comments about McCarthy’s thoughts on pre-snap motion this week didn’t even come from anywhere within The Star but his former stomping grounds instead. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was speaking about how they utilized it during their Week 1 win over the Minnesota Vikings and noted that neither he nor McCarthy used to be big fans of the idea.
Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers said on Wednesday that pre-snap motion was something that he didn't want for a long time and that Mike McCarthy didn't like a lot of motion either.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 17, 2020
(via @packers) https://t.co/x0Pk9YyF94 pic.twitter.com/rUmT75Qjia
Rodgers didn’t specify exactly when he and/or McCarthy were opposed to the idea of incorporating motion on offense. The two were together in a serious capacity from 2008 to part of 2018 and obviously the NFL changed a lot over that time. What one or both of them may have preferred one or two decades ago is hardly completely indicative of how they feel in the here and now.
Mike McCarthy was asked specifically about Rodgers’ comments during his own Thursday media session. Again, he managed to talk for almost two minutes without really shedding any light on what exactly he thinks.
Mike McCarthy was asked about this on Thursday. He gave credit to Rodgers and said that the most important thing is that you have to have both and can't tilt too far to one end. Here's his full answer.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 17, 2020
(via @dallascowboys) https://t.co/pZBfCJ0xKm pic.twitter.com/Iy17S1oExF
In some sense you might feel that people are focusing far too intently on one potential detail of how Mike McCarthy is operating as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. You would have a point if you did indeed feel that way, but again it is worth stressing that in some ways how McCarthy feels about pre-snap motion could be emblematic of how he feels about a lot of things. That’s why it is important.
Some of the more descriptive comments of McCarthy’s stance on this matter happened on Friday during an appearance on ESPN San Antonio. McCarthy explained in his own words that there are in fact advantages to the idea of pre-snap motion but he also joked about how big of a talking point this has become after his first game with the team.
“I mean there’s a place for it. At the end of the day motion, what you gain from motion is a potential, a leverage point that you’re trying to create for a player. Also there’s information that you can gather from the defense. There’s definitely a place for it.”
“How much you use really is more personal preference, game plan-specific. There’s a time in my career that I used a ton of it and there’s a time in my career that I didn’t use a whole lot of it. A lot of it depends on just where you are as an offense. If you can gain those leverage points without doing all of that... there’s definitely a benefit there.”
“It’s a great criticism to deal with after one week of playing though, I will say that. I got a real kick out of that.”
Nobody needs to sound the alarms quite yet. In no world was Mike McCarthy ever going to win every single game with the Cowboys and they weren’t going to drop 40-burgers week in and week out.
This idea merits watching, though. The Cowboys are clearly invested heavily in their new head coach and the primes of a lot of careers are now married to whatever philosophies he may or may not be in. Hopefully whatever they are they are of a winning variety.
Did I mention that it’s been one week?