What a difference a year makes. Last season at this time, as the Dallas Cowboys were spiraling out of control, we asked with dismay how it could have all gone so wrong. Now we are in the bye week and the Cowboys sport a 5-1 record and have as many wins as the rest of the NFC East combined. They are threatening to have the division sewn up by Thanksgiving at this rate, and the games so far hint at much more than that being within their grasp.
There are two obvious components to that. The coaching has been excellent, helped greatly by the addition of Dan Quinn and several new defensive assistants. And the talent of the roster may be the best we have seen in years, even decades.
Those work hand in hand, but which is the thing most responsible for where the team stands? Our David Howman and Tom Ryle take a look.
Tom: I am going to go with the theory Jimmy Johnson stole from the college ranks. It’s the Jimmies and Joes, not the Xs and Os. Admittedly, that is probably much more evident in the NCAA, where the ability to recruit is usually the biggest determinant of success. But I will maintain that roster building is the more important aspect for the pros as well. It doesn’t matter how good your scheme and coaching is, if the talent on hand is just not up to the task, things do not usually go well. We have had excellent examples of late in Dallas. Jason Garrett had Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and a still effective offensive line, but was not able to do well enough to keep his job. Part of the reason was that the defense had far less talent, so the Cowboys were too often trying to keep up with a similarly talented offense, or being beat by an outstanding day from, say, Aaron Rodgers to pick a name totally at random.
The Kris Richard failure on the defensive staff was even more evident. Richard came from the legendary Legion of Boom days with the Seattle Seahawks, but with a much more pedestrian (as in some were basically off the street free agents at times) roster he was unable to even approach that kind of magic. Now, after some very impressive draft hauls the past couple of years and a surprisingly effective free agency in the offseason, Quinn has the horses he needs to run a good race.
All of this was reinforced by a recent Twitter discussion I had with John Williams and Michael Strawn. There are as many as 20 players on the team who have impressed this year, and that is still with Neville Gallimore not yet off IR from preseason and DeMarcus Lawrence, La’el Collins, and Michael Gallup only having played in the season opener. More importantly, there is almost no one who has seemed a disappointment this year. By this time most seasons, we already had multiple names that we were seeing as hurting the team on the field.
I will admit the coaching has been very good this year. But I will submit that with this much talent, almost any staff that was even average could have this team at 4-2 at a minimum.
David: I don’t think there’s any argument to be made that talent isn’t what reigns supreme, but the Cowboys have been a fairly talented team for a few years now and fallen short in large part due to coaching. From 2016 to 2018, Dallas had either an offense or a defense rank in the top ten in DVOA and they failed to reach a conference championship game. In 2019, they had the second-most efficient offense paired with an above-average defense and couldn’t even reach the postseason.
For much of the Jason Garrett era, Cowboys fans were able to talk themselves into believing this was a talented roster capable of winning just about any game on the schedule. But whether it was losing a win-and-you’re-in Week 17 game, losing to the winless Jets, or limping to a 3-5 start to the year due to hubris at the wide receiver spot, those lofty expectations never came to fruition.
All that’s changed under Mike McCarthy and this staff. They have talented players, yes, but so did Garrett’s group. If talent was all that’s necessary to win games then Garrett would still be the head coach. Ironically, the quote from Jimmy you referenced earlier is indicative of Garrett’s overall (and, I would argue, outdated) approach: letting everything rest on your superior talent instead of supplementing it with good scheme. Under McCarthy, there’s a clear combination of scheming things up to maximize the superior talent, and it’s been a big reason why the Cowboys are off to such a hot start.
Tom: I will grant you that the coaching has been much better this year, particularly in the aspect of putting the players in a position to succeed. But I argue that you have to have the quality on the field for even the best schemes to work. Would the Cowboys be so highly ranked in passing with almost any other quarterback in the league? Would the running game be so good without Elliott and Tony Pollard working behind a revitalized offensive line? Would the defense be getting the stops they need without players like Randy Gregory, Micah Parsons, and the reinforcements in the safety room? And Trevon Diggs is the biggest difference maker this team has seen in forever.
I think the Cowboys would have been improved due to what the staff has done this year. But not this much. Will McClay, as usual, is not getting the praise he deserves for building this roster, especially the past couple of years. They have been hitting all over day one and two of the draft, and for once McClay was able to find bargain free agents that actually worked out. There are times that it feels like the best thing the coaching staff has done is just get out of the way of their stars, as was alluded to earlier this season when a member of the defense said that Dan Quinn listened to his players in deciding what plays to call. That could be seen as an indication of coaching wisdom, but to me it is all about recognizing the talent on hand and letting it take the lead.
David: Will McClay definitely deserves credit, but the bargain bin free agents he’s hit on this year were hits because he listened to his coaching staff. Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal were obvious Dan Quinn guys, and Jayron Kearse had experience with George Edwards from his Vikings days. Even the likes of Tarell Basham, Brent Urban, and Carlos Watkins - all of whom have been quietly effective - fit the physical profiles Quinn seeks out in the trenches.
Perhaps the best indicator of how much coaching has affected this team comes from Terence Steele. It’s hard to give an undrafted rookie tackle too much blame for poor play when he was never expected to see the field last year, but Steele has made massive strides this year due in large part to his work with offensive line coach Joe Philbin and the willingness of Kellen Moore to scheme around the lack of La’el Collins with quicker passes and more pocket-moving plays. The 2017 season showed us what bad coaching looks like when key players get hurt. Now the 2021 season is showing us what good coaching looks like. They’ve lost the same caliber of players that made Dallas go 3-3 over a six-game stretch back then, and this staff has instead gone 5-1 over the same such stretch. That’s the difference good coaching makes.
Tom: I won’t quite concede the point, but it’s obvious the whole here may be greater than the sum of its parts. It is really a chicken or egg situation. And the best part of it all is that this is the thing we are going back and forth on at the bye.
It feels good.