Perhaps there should have been some heavy-handed tempering of expectations for this Cowboys team. But it’s hard to do that when the new head coach has a Lombardi Trophy sitting on his bookshelf and the team adds electric players like CeeDee Lamb and Everson Griffen in the offseason.
The reality was that Mike McCarthy and his almost-entirely new coaching staff was going to need at least some time to adjust. Every new coaching staff has some learning curve. While McCarthy’s experience would have helped overcome that in a normal offseason, this was no normal offseason, so mistakes should have been expected.
The mistakes have certainly come. The Cowboys couldn’t overcome them in Week 1, but they did this week in a thriller over the Falcons. That the team managed to overcome their self-inflicted wounds when they couldn’t the week prior showed growth, but it showed something else, too.
This Cowboys team is different from the ones we’ve become accustomed to.
The results have been pretty ugly to date. A narrow loss in a winnable game and a win in a game in which Dallas held the lead for exactly zero seconds of game time does not inspire confidence, but the decision-making processes these coaches are displaying should give hope to fans.
Last week, McCarthy was lambasted for his decision to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal to tie the game. The analytics said that going for it was the right move, but the play itself didn’t work out. This week, McCarthy made a head-scratching move to go for two before he absolutely had to. But in the post-game presser, McCarthy revealed his analytics-driven thinking behind it:
“I think it’s the wrong call to take the extra point,” McCarthy said. “The decision to go for two there is simple mathematics where you’d rather know if it’s a two-score game at the earliest time instead of taking all the way it down to the end and playing for two points at the end. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve been involved in about this particular situation. To go for two there is just to make it clear with a little over four minutes left if we were going to be in a one-score game or a two-score game was the thinking.”
Once again, the play itself didn’t work, but the reasoning behind it made the Cowboys’ path to victory more clear. Unlike last week, the Cowboys were able to use that to actually get the win. This combination of analytics and aggressiveness makes McCarthy a dangerous coach, especially once those gambits start paying off.
Think of the two punt fakes. The first such play came on fourth and three, and in theory should have worked. The Falcons were completely caught off guard, but Chris Jones threw a poor pass and C.J. Goodwin fell down while trying to catch it. If Jones doesn’t sink the ball or Goodwin loses his balance, that’s a conversion.
The other fake, on fourth and five, just seemed like a bad play call. Running it up the middle with Darian Thompson isn’t bad in a vacuum - the play actually picked up three yards - but it’s not the ideal call with five yards to go. These are both decisions that would have paid off had the execution been there. The actual decision of going for it on fourth down was correct, even if the ensuing play call wasn’t.
Of course, special teams coordinator John Fassel is known for his love of fake punts, but he’s also known for being an incredible special teams coach in general. So when it came time for the onside kick, Fassel drew up a kick that was so unique it even had the commentators confused.
After the game, Greg Zuerlein admitted he’s never tried that in a game before, and they had only been working on it in practice recently, but Fassel knew it was the right time to try it, and it paid off in a big way. Considering how much the Cowboys have been hurt by poor special teams performances the past two seasons, Fassel’s presence made a big difference on Sunday.
Then there’s the decisions offensive line coach Joe Philbin has been making. He started off by losing Travis Frederick to retirement, and then La’el Collins to the injured reserve for three weeks. Then, Tyron Smith was a late scratch for this game. The Cowboys have managed to survive through two games, and on Sunday with two backups each making just their second career starts Dak managed to only be sacked once.
Part of it was using the tight end or running back as a chip blocker on the edges, but there was also a concerted effort to get the ball out of Prescott’s hands quicker. In Week 1, Dak had an average of 2.82 seconds to throw, the eighth highest mark that week. On Sunday, he had 2.58 seconds to throw, which was the seventh lowest (Monday Night Football results pending).
The conscious decision to focus on quicker passes and more chip blocking helped mitigate the effects of starting two inexperienced backup tackles, especially in a game that ended up relying on Dak Prescott’s arm to win it. These may all seem like fairly straightforward suggestions, but it’s the little things that Dallas failed to do under the Jason Garrett era.
This is a different Cowboys team. And while they’ve suffered from sloppiness and general bad luck, this new approach will start paying off sooner rather than later. And when it does... watch out.