Early in the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad first quarter of the Dallas Cowboys’ home opener against the Atlanta Falcons, a certain sentiment began to crop up on social media. Here is just one (frequently duplicated) sample:
Cowboys with Jason Garrett vs Cowboys with Mike McCarthy pic.twitter.com/Nhm4mjhmMN— carstavis (@lilcossie) September 20, 2020
To state things with a little less “trying to be clever and original by using one of the most overused memes in the universe”, the big hole the Cowboys dug for themselves, plus the disappointing loss a week earlier to the Los Angeles Rams, had many wondering if things had really changed that much with the hiring of Mike McCarthy to replace Jason Garrett. The concern extended to the entire staff. So many watched the growing debacle on Sunday and felt like they had all seen this play out so many times over the past decade.
In a hugely surprising twist, many of those concerns would be answered by the time Greg Zuerlein’s 46-yard field goal sealed one of the most improbable and memorable comebacks ever. However, since memories can be very short, it is time to delve a bit deeper into the subject and examine just where and how this coaching staff is different - as well as some ways it may not be.
The two-point attempt
The decision, made when the Cowboys had cut the deficit to nine points with less than five minutes remaining in the game, has been the source of considerable debate, with many arguments coming down on both sides. Some seem rather emphatic about their take.
Mike McCarthy was right to go for two. Fight me! pic.twitter.com/Un0uWAjmuH— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) September 21, 2020
This is not about whether it was the right or wrong choice, however. It is about whether this was something different, involving a call that the head coach usually is responsible for. That is easy to answer, because this a clearly binary situation, and one where it would almost certainly have been done differently under the old regime - because Garrett was all about getting to a one-score (eight points) game first, and then going for the two-point conversion to tie. It was part of his conservative DNA, and he repeatedly played for the tie in close games.
McCarthy has a different outlook. Given the uncertainty involved in trying a two-point conversion, he prefers getting that bit of chance out of the way first, and knowing what you will then have to do to win or tie while you still have time enough to do it. Admittedly, it hardly appeared that there was any realistic chance to pull it off on Sunday when he made his decision - until reality intervened in the form of a spinning onside kick.
This is not to indicate that the Cowboys are now a reckless, go-for-broke team. They proved they can still be appropriately cautious on the game-winning drive, when they got within what they felt was Zuerlein’s range and then played to run down the clock before making the kick. But it is one clear example of how things have changed.
This is a case of things not working out, but still providing some strong evidence of change. On two occasions, both on their own side of the 50, the Cowboys went for it on fourth, with fake punts. Neither paid off, and frankly, the second one really had little to no chance, but the first one would have been a big gainer with a better pass from punter Chris Jones.
Admittedly, the team was already in a bit of desperation mode as a result of the ugly play in the first quarter. Still, Garrett was always highly averse to taking those kinds of risks until the team was on the plus side of the field - and even then, did not like going for it on fourth as much as the analytics crowd would have it. We now have some evidence this has truly changed, with John Fassel a much more creative and daring special teams coordinator. Now, if they will just leave the offense on the field to convert those fourth downs instead of relying on trickeration.
Change has a big role in the defensive struggles
There is a great air of discontent about the lack of success from the pass rush and some badly blown coverages in the secondary. However, this is also makes a strong case that the coaching has changed. Part of the issue is that the starters on defense have also changed greatly, with only five of the starters at the beginning of the Atlanta game having regularly been in that role last season in Dallas. The other part can be traced back to the major turnover in defensive coaches, where only Leon Lett was retained.
One thing is quickly evident on video. The defensive ends are often, or even mostly, standing up rather than putting a hand on the ground. This is totally different from the Rod Marinelli defense. It sometimes gives a 3-4 look to the defense, but is more about having some unpredictability and complicating things for the offense. The payoff has been lacking, but it takes time to adjust to these things. Time was something that was stolen from the Cowboys under the pandemic adjustments. It applied to all teams, but obviously had a bigger effect on those teams that had a lot of changeover in the staff.
More specifically, this has likely been a problem for DeMarcus Lawrence, who is having trouble adjusting to the new style.
If there's one area where DeMarcus Lawrence needs some technical refinement, it's his get-off from a 2-point stance.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) September 17, 2020
Note the false step (right foot) and how it affects his get-off. He & Crawford move at the same time, but DLaw's false step enables Crawford to break the LOS 1st. pic.twitter.com/1xXeSfSRrW
Hopefully he will get better, but change can be difficult. On the other side of this ledger, the fact that Aldon Smith has been one of the best players on this defense may be attributable to his experience with the technique.
The changes also probably play a major role in the secondary struggles, which saw far too many wide open receivers. And “wide open” is putting it kindly.
Hayden Hurst. WIDE OPEN pic.twitter.com/cRxn2RpAcQ— Pub Sports Radio ™ (@PubSportsRadio) September 20, 2020
Confusion, with some new faces out there, is another strong argument that the lack of preparation time before the season is the culprit. Fortunately, it is something that can be improved as more practice and game experience accumulate, but the new secondary staff and scheme changes under Mike Nolan have to be a major component. Hopefully in the long run it will work out.
Some of the song remains the same
There was one very important retention on the staff, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Our hope is that, without the influence of Garrett, he will bring more creativity and efficiency to the talented offense. But this may give us pause.
"In a perfect world, you want to be heavy run, play action world [on] first and second down. Get that, mix in a couple quick gains, those sorts of things." — Kellen Moore https://t.co/3iS7uyUG34— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) September 22, 2020
That has disturbing echoes from the Scott Linehan days. We were hopeful that things like leaning to the ground game on early downs and “establishing the run” were things of the past, but this is not encouraging.
The great fear is that Moore will not fully utilize what Dak Prescott can do with players like Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and the surprising Dalton Schultz, catching his passes. We saw just how potent that can be in the 450-yard performance Prescott put up in leading his team to a seemingly impossible victory.
In previous years, Ezekiel Elliott seemed to be too much of a security blanket for the team. He can be an effective part of the offense, but that is actually increased when Moore picks his spots rather than using him as a go-to on early downs. Hopefully, that 40-burger will get his attention, and McCarthy will encourage him to look more to the pass to set up second and third downs rather than sticking with the run to get to “manageable” third downs.
On balance, though, the changes outweigh what has been carried over. The initial reactions that this was just more of the same with different faces on the sidelines were mostly just panicked overreactions. Now we have the rest of the season to see what kind of fruit the new coaches bear. Fortunately, thanks to that miracle win, the Cowboys are in good shape to contend for the playoffs while things ripen.