The Dallas Cowboys just went to Foxboro and got a thrilling win over the New England Patriots. It was a game full of frustrations and some very questionable happenings such as the third-down QB sneak where Dak Prescott appeared to have been halfway into the end zone, but was called short. Still, Dallas got out with a win and a 5-1 record through grit and determination, plus some amazing performances on the field. We now have the bye in which all is rainbows and unicorns in Cowboys Nation.
If you think that is the case, you haven’t been around this team very long. Unless everything goes absolutely perfectly or the team romps to a huge win, there will be criticisms leveled against something. For this game, it is an already well-established theme. In national and local media, as well as among some fans, Mike McCarthy is taking a beating. Despite having his team clearly in command of the NFC East and harboring not unrealistic hopes of contending for the number one seed in the NFC, he is seen as a really bad head coach.
We discussed Mike McCarthy and a lot of myths surrounding him on the latest BTB Roundtable on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. You can listen to the episode above, but make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
There was a pretty typical critique on radio Monday. Paraphrasing, it said that he once again showed really poor clock management during the game. According to the “personality” slamming McCarthy, that is pretty much the only job he has to do. With Kellen Moore, Dan Quinn, and John Fassel handling the bulk of game planning and play-calling, there really isn’t much else for McCarthy to do, and he just keeps messing that up. Dire predictions abound about how he is inevitably going to cost the team wins down the road.
There are certainly some signs of confusion as well as puzzling uses, or non-uses, of timeouts in the waning minute or two of halves. In McCarthy’s defense, one of the times he struggled with the situation against the Patriots also had the announcers, including Tony Romo, mixed up as well. It involved two penalties against the Cowboys. New England declined the one that would have repeated the down and accepted the post-play foul. That was not well communicated by the referees, which was rather on par for how the game was officiated. Nonetheless, that clock management is certainly something McCarthy needs to figure out.
However, the attitude that his only job is clock management during the two minute warnings is itself erroneous. McCarthy also has the final decision on going for it on fourth down. During the Patriots game, he made several of those decisions. Every week, the site EdjSports looks at the best and worst coaching decisions in the NFL. By their metric, McCarthy did have the worst one of the weekend, electing to have Greg Zuerlein attempt a field goal with 2:47 to go in the game. According to the EdjSports metrics, going for it would have been the better decision. Zuerlein missed the kick, which set up the nerve-wracking end of the game.
EdjSports also lists the best coaching decisions. And this week there is some cognitive dissonance. Because they have McCarthy making two of the best decisions. Having Prescott attempt the QB sneak following the missed touchdown was the fourth best one, and having Ezekiel Elliott go for it on fourth and one with 2:30 left in the first quarter from the Dallas 47 was the fifth. It is important to note that the grading of the calls is based on what is the best thing to do to try and win the game, not the outcome. The Prescott sneak notoriously failed as he lost the ball before breaking the plane. Elliott’s run succeeded and extended the drive.
The bad decision by McCarthy was also an uncharacteristic one for him. The good ones showed the aggressiveness that he normally exhibits, while the field goal attempt was much more timid. But overall, he was doing a good job. No one gets them all right.
There is an even more important fallacy involved here. By the logic applied to McCarthy’s performance, all that is considered is what happens during the three and a half or so hours it takes to play a game each week. The head coach’s job is much, much more than that. It is the other 164 hours or so each week where he really does his work.
McCarthy sits in on the offensive game-planning sessions with Moore and Prescott, plus others. He has input during these, even if he wisely defers a lot to his OC and QB. It is reasonable to assume he also makes inputs to Quinn and Fassel each week about how he wants to handle their facets of the game. And he runs the practices. That assertion is based on the three training camp sessions I was privileged to attend in Oxnard. McCarthy was obviously in charge. He enforced the schedule of the practice, and was directly in charge of all team portions of the practices. It is safe to say he does things the same way during the regular season practices. Final responsibility for getting his team ready for each game falls squarely on him. If wins are indeed a head coach stat, then it is time to give him credit for that nice 5-1 record.
Beyond that, the head coach is the architect and engineer for the philosophy and attitude of the team. One of the biggest criticisms of his predecessor Jason Garrett was a stubborn insistence on doing things his way without adjustment to the opponent. He wanted to line up his guys and beat their guys. That was most evident in the predictability of the running game. If it did not go well early, the Cowboys would just line up and try it again. The offense would too often wind up behind schedule on failed early down runs and pay the price.
From the beginning of this season, that was clearly not the case. The game plan against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sought to obviate their fierce run defense, and it very nearly worked. Since then, they have followed what Kellen Moore describes as aggressively taking what the defense gave them. That is diametrically opposed to the Garrett approach. While such a stance is probably natural for Moore, it took McCarthy and his own lean to aggression to Moore to do so.
This is not something that was always a part of McCarthy’s makeup. His supposed year off to study himself has been mocked, but this is one key area where he may have well really changed his approach. Our Aiden Davis put this together to show just how the head coach has evolved in fourth down situations.
He isn’t just going for it more often, according to the analytics bunch he is doing it more correctly than the majority of other coaches.
McCarthy is not perfect. No coach is, as was evidenced by Bill Belichick’s calling the defense to stop the run that let Prescott find a wide open CeeDee Lamb for the winning touchdown on Sunday. But overall McCarthy has done a very good job this year in preparing his team and setting the tone for games. It has led to Dallas vaulting to the top of the NFC East and being seen as one of this year’s powers in the league.
It is fine to hold him accountable when things go wrong. But it is only fair to give him credit for the things that go well. Sometimes you are what your record says you are. 5-1 says McCarthy is a much better head coach than so many think he is.