A recurring theme throughout this season has been the Cowboys’ preparedness each and every game. They were ready for knock-down, drag-out fights on the road against the Buccaneers and Chargers, even if they split those games. Ditto for the Patriots game. Against lesser competition, they made sure everyone knew how much better they were. And McCarthy even had his team ready to win on the road with a backup quarterback just last week.
That’s why it was so surprising to see this same team get demolished by the 4-4 Broncos. Not only that, but the Broncos had won just one of their last five games and traded away their biggest star player in the week leading up to this.
McCarthy didn’t mince words, either:
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy: “We were outcoached, we were outplayed all the way through. This is the first time I felt our energy didn’t exceed our opponent’s, and that was disappointing. …We weren’t the most physical team today.”— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) November 7, 2021
Outplayed. Outcoached. Outclassed. That’s exactly what happened. And even though the final score showed a two-score game, Dak Prescott’s two touchdowns to Malik Turner were the definition of garbage time stats. It doesn’t hide the fact that McCarthy’s team got their lunch handed to them by a team whose front office is already thinking about the next draft.
So how does this happen? How does a team go from six straight wins and seven straight weeks of playing great football to being unable to do even the little things?
The easy answer is that luck just wasn’t on their side this time. Luck is an inherent part of this sport, and it’s pretty hard to argue that it didn’t play at least a part in the Cowboys’ loss Sunday. I mean, they blocked a punt and the Broncos still kept the ball. The odds of that happening are so incredibly low that it can really only be chalked up to bad luck.
However, luck doesn’t excuse how bad the Cowboys were from a top-down standpoint. The truthful answer is likely that this team just got high on themselves and believed they’d win simply by showing up. Consider Sunday a much-needed wakeup call, then.
Bob Sturm of The Athletic has pointed out several times how McCarthy has instilled a complementary football approach to this team. When the offense is scoring a lot, the defense plays more aggressive with man coverage and blitzes. When the offense is struggling - as they did against Minnesota last week - the defense plays a little safer and shows more zone concepts. What one side does feeds into what the other side does. It’s a common ingredient in championship teams.
So we can take solace in the fact that this identity remained intact Sunday, because the Cowboys were just bad across the board. It was extremely uncharacteristic for them in a lot of ways. Let’s count them up:
- Dak Prescott played his worst game of his career, missing wide open guys and failing to make adjustments at the line.
- Amari Cooper dropped a pass. On third down for a first-down conversion, no less.
- Tony Pollard - one of the league leaders in Next Gen Stats’ rushing efficiency metric - dropped a similar pass while also struggling to get anything going on the ground.
- Until the garbage time touchdown drives, Kellen Moore’s offense - the best in the NFL at moving the chains on first and second down - only did so once.
- Randy Gregory felt invisible most of the game.
- Trevon Diggs got toasted by multiple receivers and made several business decisions as a tackler.
- The defense, which was bottom 10 in the league in missed tackles coming into the game, tallied 12 (!) missed tackles in the game. Seven of those came in the first half, with the other five in the second half, so it’s not like the tackling issues were isolated to one or two bad drives.
The easiest way to sum this game up is that everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong for the Cowboys. How much of that is on McCarthy and the coaching staff for a lack of preparation isn’t clear. But with an eight game sample size to look at right now, the data suggests it’ll get corrected.
It’ll need to be corrected, too. Every good team loses, and even loses bad. Last year’s Buccaneers lost 38-3 to the Saints. The 2018 Patriots (that season’s Super Bowl champion) lost 26-10 to the 0-2 Lions. It happens, but it needs to just happen once. The 2019 Cowboys know how quickly a promising start to the year can deteriorate.
As for McCarthy’s actual in-game decisions, it was one of his better efforts. Some will question the decision to go for it on fourth down on the two opening drives, but it was an analytically sound decision that reflects the aggressive mentality of this team.
Plenty will also question the decision to put Terence Steele at left tackle instead of La’el Collins. The decision making process there was also sound, as well as simple: Steele is a swing tackle, and unlike Collins he’s actually played the position at the NFL level. That Steele turned in his worst performance of the year playing over there doesn’t automatically mean Collins should be forced to learn a new position on the fly.
All in all, this loss was a catastrophic failure of both the coaches and the players. It’s the first real cause for concern this year, and how the team responds will reveal a whole lot about whether or not this Cowboys squad can be a real contender. If McCarthy really has instilled the championship culture we’ve been led to believe he has, then this Broncos loss will soon be a distant memory.