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Impartial source now ranks Mike McCarthy the number one head coach in the league for certain in-game decisions

The Cowboys head coach receives more praise for his work in 2021.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Dallas Cowboys
He even won a challenge.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Just a week ago, the first 2021 ranking of NFL head coaches by EdjSports came out, and it was surprising. Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was viewed as the second best in the league, based on the EdjSports methodology that uses both individual in-game decisions and the overall success of their team. (See this article for an explanation of how that works.) This was pleasing to some and viewed with skepticism by others, as there has been a decidedly mixed view of his performance in his second year with the team. It’s now the second week for this ranking. It’s hard to do much better than number two, especially when NFL darling Brandon Staley of the Los Angeles Chargers was sitting ahead of him.

Well, McCarthy did better.

EdjSports also put out a video breaking down their reasoning, and it is very informative. In particular, they talk about how the fourth down calls from the past two games against the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons played into this. In the former, of course, McCarthy elected to go for it four times. All were failures. But by the metric used here, they were all the right decisions at the time. Against Atlanta, the Cowboys fared much better, of course. They went for it three times and converted all three. Again, they were seen as the right move to make. Most importantly, though, McCarthy was not at all dissuaded by the results the prior game.

That is a key factor here. Many, if not most, head coaches will let recency bias creep in. If they failed on the last one, much less more than one, they get cautious and make “safe” decisions. McCarthy has the short memory that is necessary in the NFL. He is so far fearless in staying aggressive.

This also is an argument that he has indeed embraced analytics. There were many who thought he just paid lip service to them in his campaign to get hired as the head coach after the departure of Jason Garrett. But fourth downs are one place where analytics reveal a market inefficiency that most teams and head coaches are not properly exploiting. Perhaps it is more that previously mentioned aggressiveness that really drives his decisions. Nonetheless, the models so often cited in social media all argue that teams need to go for it more often, because over time, that leads to better outcomes. For instance:

With a 7-2 record, it is certainly working out for Dallas. And wins are definitely a head coaching stat, since they ultimately decide if they stay or go. McCarthy wants to go for the win, not avoid a loss. That is paying dividends.

The lingering dissatisfaction over McCarthy is in large part due to some bad decisions and clock management early in the season, which EdjSports noted at the time. He has cleaned that up. Or perhaps that is just due to the Cowboys not facing many situations late in halves when those come into play. In any case, what he is doing is certainly working now, and he has not cost them games as so many feared would happen.

Add to all that how the unity of the team and clarity of purpose is something he has had a large influence on, and this ranking is not hard to understand. We will see if he continues to stay atop this rating. If he does, Dallas may just find itself in a great position for the playoffs.