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Cowboys Mike McCarthy’s tendency to become timid with the lead could hurt Dallas down the road

Time to look a little deeper into some of the puzzling decision making.

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Dallas Cowboys
Aggression seems lacking.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys once again had a convincing win, this time by a score of 36-28 over the Carolina Panthers. The opponent came into the game undefeated. Now they have their first loss. For the second week in a row, the game was not really as close as the final score would indicate.

And that is a problem. While the previous 41-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles still was dominant despite the late, meaningless score at the end by the beloved NFC East rival, the Panthers actually got to within one score of tying the game. With just four seconds gone in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had built a 36-14 lead. They did it with a pounding, big-play running game, almost surgical passing by Dak Prescott which yielded only 188 yards but four touchdowns, winning the turnover battle on the strength of two Trevon Diggs interceptions while not giving the ball up, and five sacks of Sam Darnold as the pass rush finally started to get home. The referees did aid them a great deal with a quick call on what should have been a fumble by Dalton Schultz in the first half. Despite that, Dallas completely outplayed the Panthers, especially their vaunted run defense.

But the Cowboys did not finish them until a third-down conversion on a brilliant, but also somewhat risky, option play with Ezekiel Ellliott lateraling the ball to Tony Pollard to allow them to run out the clock. It seemed to lack a killer instinct that should have had the margin of victory at least two scores, and could have been more.

Last week, many worked themselves into a lather over the clock management of Mike McCarthy at the end of the first half. In a way, it presaged what seemed much more evident in the win over the Panthers. When he has a lead, McCarthy becomes timid. It could be characterized as caution, but however you wish to shade it, he plays things conservatively when, in his mind, they are in control of the game.

The problem with that is how rapidly that control can slip from your grasp. You would think McCarthy would have a better understanding of this given what his own team did to the Atlanta Falcons in 2020. Dan Quinn certainly should as well. The Falcons had built a 15 point lead with only 7:57 left in the game. Dallas mounted a furious charge and scored three times, the last one after the now famous watermelon kick to set up the game-winning field goal with no time left. While the best thing to come out of that game was how it contributed to Quinn being fired as the Atlanta head coach to become the architect of a greatly improved Cowboys defense, it was an object lesson in how unpredictable the game can be. It is a lesson that McCarthy seems to have completely missed.

That clock management against the Eagles was explained by McCarthy as wanting to avoid giving the Eagles a chance at a “double dip” since they would receive the second half kickoff. But Prescott and the running game were clicking along, and had he used the timeouts to preserve time, he could have gotten the ball back with a chance to increase the lead beyond 13 points. It became somewhat irrelevant when Diggs got the pick six on Philadelphia’s first drive after halftime, but the principle still stands.

This overly cautious approach happened again at the end of the third quarter against the Panthers. The Cowboys had just failed to convert a third-down play and faced fourth and one at the Carolina 20. At this point, the running game had made a mockery of the Panthers supposedly stout run defense. This was a place where putting the faith in his offense to get that yard could have easily led to a touchdown and the 40 burger we would have enjoyed even more. But instead, after using a challenge to see if he could get the play overturned, McCarthy sent the kicking team out. The resulting Greg Zuerlein field goal instead gave Dallas a 22-point lead. Had they gotten the extra four points, it would have been 26, and the game would have indeed been all but over.

Instead, it was still a three score game, and the Panthers managed to rally enough to rather quickly get two touchdowns. The Cowboys’ defense certainly had its highs in the game, but the worst of the several lows they also experienced was a 55-yard pass play to Brandon Zylstra to set up their last score of the game. While that left Dallas nursing an eight-point lead that would have forced a two-point conversion to tie things up, it was still closer than it should have been. The team was also being very cautious with their own duo of double dippers, Diggs and two-sack man Randy Gregory. Both were on the sidelines for the fourth quarter nursing what were reported to be minor issues. It is understandable to want to protect such valued pieces on the defense, but both said they could have come back in. Perhaps the team was right to trust in the backups to slow things enough and the offense to put it away with the time consuming last drive. However, that last possession to eat the clock up would likely have had to be longer had the Panthers not burned up all their time outs before then.

McCarthy has shown he can get aggressive, and even did so earlier in the game when he opted to go for two after a penalty on an extra point. That failed, however, as Prescott was just a bit behind Schultz with his throw and the tight end was not quite able to get the ball across the goal line. Maybe that put a damper on the head coach’s daring.

In the end, this all did not matter much as the Cowboys got a win over a 3-0 team and still sits alone atop the NFC East. More importantly, their only loss was against the defending league champions and they now have two quality wins if you include the one over the Los Angeles Chargers. That team still has to play the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football, which could go a long way toward determining the balance of power in the AFC West. Meanwhile, the next few games for Dallas are not exactly intimidating.

But this team needs to show some of that killer instinct, as Elliott alluded to after the game. That starts with the head coach. So far, he has not shown much. That is at odds with how he can show some real aggressiveness when trying to get a lead or overcome a deficit. He still seems far too willing to sit on a lead and expect it to hold up. That may win some games. But it may not be enough to win in the postseason. With this start, that looks more and more a legitimate hope for the Cowboys. It would be a shame to see that squandered by timidity.