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The McCarthy Chronicles: Coaching nearly cost Cowboys the game against Patriots

On the other hand, coaching was the reason Dallas was in this one to begin with.

Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

It’s awful generous of Mike McCarthy to keep giving us small plays here and there to dissect and debate, ad nauseam, despite the Cowboys looking at a five-game winning streak and being one missed offensive pass interference penalty away from undefeated. He must know we love that kind of stuff.

In all seriousness, the Cowboys’ overtime win against the Patriots on the road Sunday was, in many ways, a perfect summation of the Mike McCarthy era Cowboys. The team played well enough to win, overcoming injuries and a flurry of unfavorable calls from the officials, and did so despite being given plenty of opportunities to waive the white flag. Yet, despite showing their grit and mental fortitude, the Cowboys also came dangerously close to losing due in part to a couple poor - or at least questionable - decisions from the head coach.

We discussed Mike McCarthy among other things on the latest episode of The 75O with Tony Casillas and RJ Ochoa on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Listen above and make sure to subscribe to our network wherever you get your podcasts. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

Despite a general sentiment that the Cowboys would roll in this game, it was a tough battle and was always going to be that way. The Patriots aren’t what they used to be, but Bill Belichick’s teams are hard to beat regardless, and especially when they’re in their home stadium. They may be 2-4 on the year, but the Saints were the only team to beat them by more than one score and even that game was within one score until a late touchdown by New Orleans.

So it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that this game was so close. But what is a surprise is how well Dallas hung in throughout it all to pull off the win. Let’s briefly recap some of the things that went wrong and how this team responded:

  • The defense gave up touchdowns on their first two drives, but proceeded to force punts or takeaways on the Patriots’ next five drives, pitching a shut out for the whole second and third quarter.
  • The offense’s first four red zone trips yielded just 10 points and two turnovers, but that didn’t stop them from putting up 25 points in the second half and overtime, winning the game largely on Dak Prescott’s arm.
  • Trevon Diggs and Damontae Kazee got burned badly on a 75-yard touchdown play to give New England the lead back right after Diggs’ pick six. But the offense responded with a nine-play, 40-yard drive to tie the game and the defense forced a punt in overtime to set up the game winner.
  • Greg Zuerlein missed a go-ahead field goal with just under three minutes left in the game, but he came through on the critical tying field goal in the end.

That’s a lot to overcome in one game, let alone on the road. And in years past, this is the type of game the Cowboys have become all too accustomed to losing, and then spending the next week (rightfully) complaining about all of the reasons they lost. But after grinding out two tough road wins between the Chargers and Patriots, on top of blowing out teams at home, we’re starting to realize that the Cowboys have changed in a meaningful way under McCarthy.

Yet, the head coach is still not without his faults. It’s quickly becoming clear that McCarthy has done more good than bad since arriving in Dallas, but his faults are pretty hard to ignore. Decision making has oscillated between brilliant - remember his decision to go for two when he did against Atlanta last year? - to just outright confounding. McCarthy had a few moments of the latter on Sunday. There were three big ones that stood out to me.

The first was the decision to kick a field goal on fourth and ten at the Patriots’ 27-yard line. Dallas was up 17-14 at the time, so a field goal barely moves the needle for you. The Cowboys had been moving the ball fairly well all game, so a conversion here was entirely realistic. And a failure at that spot on the field would only be two yards different from a touchback on a kickoff. In McCarthy’s defense, the analytics suggested kicking it here, but taking a field goal up three doesn’t seem optimal to me.

The next two decisions were a little more obvious and go hand in hand. Facing a third and 25, Dak hit CeeDee Lamb for a 24-yard strike that was just short, and McCarthy called a timeout with 20 seconds left on the clock. Calling a timeout there only makes sense if you plan on going for it on fourth and one, which they should have done but didn’t. Dallas still had one more timeout, giving them the opportunity to stop the clock once more if such a conversion attempt succeeded.

Instead, they sent out Zuerlein to attempt nearly the same field goal he had missed a few minutes earlier - with 20 seconds still on the clock. If the plan was to go for it, the timeout makes sense. If the plan was to kick, then there’s no reason to call that timeout so early, especially considering the Patriots’ most recent possession took just 16 seconds to score a touchdown.

My guess is McCarthy hadn’t really thought ahead enough as to whether or not he was willing to go for it on fourth and short and he just took the timeout to evaluate the decision. That’s not a terrible rationale, but the ability to think a few plays ahead is what separates great coaches from good ones. As of right now, it appears that the Cowboys have themselves a good coach - which is admittedly a step up from what this team has had recently - but one wonders what will happen when a game, and possibly the season, end up hinging on the decision-making of a great coach.