When you have your first head coaching change in over a decade, you expect things to be different. That can extend to many things. For the Dallas Cowboys, however, the biggest change that most fans were hoping for was a more aggressive, pass-oriented offense. Rooted in a belief that former head coach Jason Garrett was holding back Dak Prescott and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore with his innate conservatism, we really wanted to see Mike McCarthy come in and turn them loose.
So far, a lot of people feel disappointed or at least a bit worried. The Cowboys are 1-2, and both losses were games they could have won. All three games this season have been one-score affairs as well. Dallas was dismal in those last season, and dropping a pair more to start this year is aggravating. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s defeat at the hand of the Seattle Seahawks, there were questions about anything really changing.
The evidence says things absolutely have.
At The Athletic, Mike Sando does a weekly column looking at some significant stories from around the league. In his latest, with the delightful phrase “Doug Pederson’s surrender” in the title, he includes his weekly look at the Cook index, defined as follows:
The Cook Index measures how frequently teams pass on early downs in the first 28 minutes of games, before time remaining and score differential influence play calling. Teams that lean toward the pass are letting their quarterbacks cook.
That is a very interesting metric to judge just how much a team favors the pass over the run on early downs. By only looking at the first 28 minutes of a game, it largely eliminates all catch-up/garbage time considerations. What you see before the two minute warning of the first half is the original game plan. Most teams will try and stick with that until they have a few minutes to discuss adjustments at halftime. Even when a team falls behind a lot early, they still often will make an attempt to stick with the original game plan until the second half. That is the point at which teams may start passing more to catch up. Conversely, those leading might shift to a more run-heavy game to burn clock and reduce the risk of turnovers to let the other team back into things. But that urge to stay with your carefully crafted blueprint for the game is strong, as this quote from the article supports.
Remarkably, the Rams stuck with their ground game even after falling behind Buffalo 28-3 on Sunday, and they somehow pulled into the lead before losing in the final seconds.
So, just how have the Cowboys, who had a reputation, at least, of really wanting to keep it on the ground to “establish the run” on early downs under Garrett, fared by this measurement? Well, here’s the first part of this week’s chart from the article.
Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Your Dallas Cowboys have been more likely to pass on first or second down than any other team in the NFL. The article notes that Dallas and Seattle, where Russell Wilson has finally been unleashed by Pete Carroll, have made the biggest jump in this since last season.
If you want hard evidence that there is a different approach to how the Cowboys’ offense runs, this is about as solid as you can get.
But wait, there’s more.
Here is a paraphrase of McCarthy from Monday’s press conference,
The Cowboys were trying to involve Ezekiel Elliott in the passing game on Sunday by way of screen pass utilization. McCarthy noted that Seattle was trying to stop the run so they wanted to try to get Zeke the ball in the air. He noted that the production wasn’t what you would like but that he thought it was a tough game for the running back in terms of the amount of focus put on him. He said the Seahawks played a lot 7-man fronts against 1-back personnel, a clear sign they were focused on stopping Zeke.
Nothing made some of us want to bang our heads against a wall in recent seasons more than seeing opponents get seven or even eight men in the box, and the Cowboys, well, banging their heads against a wall by running Elliott right into that. Garrett’s philosophy was apparently to run the offense through Elliott, especially when Dallas was “setting the tone” in the first half. Admittedly, McCarthy’s approach didn’t work out so well, with Elliott having some drops and the screen game in general just getting blown up by the Seahawks. But it was a completely different one from just handing the ball off to prove you can “impose your will” on the other team.
The failure of the screens may have been a function of Seattle’s defense just playing them very well, or it might just be a part of the game where the patchwork offensive line and the otherwise very talented receivers are just not proficient. It may require some real adjustments or tweaking the plays. With the current staff, that seems much more likely than a year ago. What is needed in the NFL, especially in such a highly abnormal year, is some flexibility and creativity. While not all of the coaches have done so well - we’re looking at you, Mike Nolan and John Fassel - the on-the-fly restructuring of the offensive line by Joe Philbin was a bit daring, and enough of a departure from conventional thinking that it is a bit doubtful that the old regime would have tried that, especially the move of Zack Martin out to tackle. But it was in no way a reckless thing, because reports have come out that Martin had been getting some practice reps there just in case. As McCarthy himself has said, he sees himself as aggressive, not a gambler. That early preparation for something you hoped would not be needed turned out to be a good example of how to go about such things.
I’m going to wrap up by quoting part of the conclusion to Bob Sturm’s Morning After post, also from the Athletic, because he seems to agree with me.
I will leave you with this today, and then we can deconstruct the mess all week: Mike McCarthy and his offense made massive offensive line adjustments on the fly yesterday that might have saved that game. This is something we haven’t seen recently around here. McCarthy was attacking yesterday, and that is something we haven’t seen recently around here. And the QB looked like he could exchange blows with Russell Wilson for most of the day. Also, Aldon Smith!