Sometimes when you examine a team like the Dallas Cowboys, you want to zoom in on the details. But that can lead to conclusions that are quite different from what you draw when you step back and take in the whole picture. I think I have been guilty of this with some of my own criticisms of head coach Mike McCarthy. His offensive and defensive coordinators have been getting nothing but praise, and deservedly so. If we are being honest about things, however, some of that needs to be heaped on McCarthy as well.
Head coaching is one of those “buck stops here” things, at least in well-run organizations. Even though Jerry Jones takes far more credit or blame for things in Dallas than any other owner, the parting of ways with Jason Garrett is clear evidence that at some point it all falls on the head coach. And the unaccustomed circumspection from Jones this may indicate he is trying to get out of the way a bit. McCarthy’s hire was criticized by many and the disgruntlement just grew when 2020 ran swiftly off the tracks. There was an argument made that we needed to give McCarthy another year with the lack of an offseason last year, as well as the swift decision that Mike Nolan was not the defensive coordinator they were looking for.
Somewhat surprisingly, that argument looks a lot stronger than even those making it thought it would be four weeks into the 2021 season. The Cowboys sit at 3-1, are on a three-game win streak, and have the early lead in the NFC East. Only one team in all the NFL has a 4-0 record, the Arizona Cardinals. There are a couple of other franchises, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Carolina Panthers, who could have been in the undefeated club as well. But unfortunately for them, they both had to play Dallas and take the L. If you see what is floating around the circus part of NFL media, you know that people are saying that the Cowboys have had a soft schedule. Oh, really? Three of the opponents they have faced so far are 3-1 and leading or tied for the lead in their divisions. According to the Power Rankings Guru site, Dallas has faced the third-toughest strength of schedule so far based on games played. Yet they are simply on a roll, going from a narrow loss to the defending league champs, to a narrow win over those Chargers, to back-to-back domination. And now, the remaining schedule for them is only the 19th most challenging, according to that same site.
How much credit does McCarthy deserve for the strong start in 2021? A lot. He assembled the staff. While he definitely whiffed on Nolan for his initial staff, he wisely accepted the retention of Kellen Moore as his offensive coordinator. It matters not how enthusiastic McCarthy was about it at the time, he is all in on the idea now as Moore has done nothing but dissect opponents with a healthy Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, as well as 80% of the projected starters on the offensive line. Moore also has gotten a big assist from Joe Philbin in handling some shuffles on that line, the most important being the very significant jump by Terence Steele from the struggles of 2020 as he was forced onto the field far before he was ready. It can’t be denied that Moore’s play-calling and game-planning have been superb. It’s safe to assume that McCarthy with his offensive background has a decent input to things, and that McCarthy is doing what effective leaders should. He sets some goals and guidelines, and gets out of the way.
We already had a very good idea of what Moore was capable of when he had a more intact offensive roster than he did last year, although it must also be noted to his credit that he still is dealing with a couple of missing players in La’el Collins and Michael Gallup. But Dan Quinn’s hiring to replace Nolan was another hire that initially met with some skepticism. Things did not go so well in his own head coaching gig. His previous defensive approach just did not seem to fit well with the roster. Much to our very pleasant surprise, Quinn is doing things very differently than he has in the past. Most obviously, he is dialing up blitzes very effectively. He is also finding success while missing DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Keanu Neal, and Donovan Wilson. That is four starters. Additionally, second-round pick Kelvin Joseph has yet to take the field.
But with outstanding play from second-year player Trevon Diggs, and rookies Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, and even, though he has only been on the field for two games, Chauncey Golston, plus strong performances from free agents acquisitions Damontae Kazee, Tarell Basham, and Jayron Kearse, Quinn has engineered a quantum leap in performance. That is particularly evident in their ‘second best in the league’ takeaway number. With much better ball security on offense in the early going than last year, they are also tied for the best turnover margin. They are getting more stops. There remains an issue with giving up big plays, but a lot of those have come in the two dominant wins where they did not affect the final outcome.
The rookie class is shaping up to be one of the strongest defensive groups anywhere. Will McClay and his scouting staff are another strong part of the big picture. The coaches still get a bit of credit here as well for communicating clearly what they wanted in the groceries. Stack the 2020 class which included CeeDee Lamb, Diggs, and Gallimore with this year’s, and the roster has also taken a major leap forward, and gotten younger.
You will notice that special teams coordinator John Fassel has not been mentioned. That is solely due to the misses by placekicker Greg Zuerlein so far. He was hand-picked by Fassel. For the most part, the rest of the teams unit has been carrying their weight, but with how a better performance by Zuerlein could possibly have put Dallas at 4-0, Fassel takes a big ding.
Still, we are dealing with a bit of culture shock here.
It's been a long time since Dallas has had a good coaching staff and people don't know what to think.— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) October 4, 2021
This team has been prepared every game so far. The game plans have been spot on. Both Moore and Quinn have adapted to the situation rather than stick doggedly to “their way” of doing things.
And it all starts at the top of the staff. There is a winning culture building in Dallas. McCarthy is the architect of that. So give him an occasional bad time out or fourth-down decision. He and his assistants deserve nothing but praise for how things are going once you take that step back and absorb it all.