Every week this season, we’ve been taking out time to keep an eye on Mike McCarthy and how his performance has gone in his second year at the helm of the Dallas Cowboys. For a while, things were going great and even the most skeptical Cowboys fans were being forced to come around on the Super Bowl-winning head coach.
Then Dallas hit a snag that really started with that loss to the Broncos. They responded well the next week, and we referenced how McCarthy’s workmanlike culture was reinforced in that win by proving the Broncos loss was a mere anomaly. Then they lost to the Chiefs and Raiders back-to-back, their first time doing so all year. Granted the Cowboys were without their top two receivers, playing a banged-up Ezekiel Elliott, and in the case of the Raiders game battling an onslaught of questionable penalties. Still, the ship needed to be righted, especially with Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb returning against the Saints.
Unfortunately, McCarthy didn’t get to be there when the ship was righted. He tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week, making him one of 11 Cowboys players or coaches to do so in the last two weeks. McCarthy still handled his regular weekly duties virtually, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was the guy in charge on Thursday night in New Orleans. Quinn, of course, had plenty of experience coaching in the Superdome from his time as the Falcons head coach.
So how did he do? Well, Dallas won the game. It was an ugly win, for sure, but it was a win. Given the circumstances, one could even argue it was a well-earned win, even with New Orleans playing Taysom Hill at quarterback and missing their star running back and both offensive tackles.
Perhaps the most striking detail from Quinn’s interim head coach debut was how little distinction there was from an in-game decision making standpoint between Quinn and his boss. McCarthy has enjoyed success in his aggressiveness on fourth downs in Dallas, ranking near the top of the NFL in optimal fourth down decisions and leading the league in actual plays where he correctly went for it on fourth down.
McCarthy has wisely delegated much of the actual play-calling process to his three accomplished coordinators - two of whom have been head coaches in the past, and the other is could get interviewed to be one this offseason. Instead, McCarthy focuses on making the optimal decisions on fourth downs and occasionally two-point conversion opportunities that give Dallas a slight edge towards winning.
Quinn, on the other hand, didn’t have a history of doing so when he was a head coach. Looking at the NFL’s fourth-down decision making from 2015 to 2019 (discounting the 2020 season when Quinn only coached five games), the Falcons ranked 16th out of 32 teams in terms of making the correct call on fourth down.
It was fair to wonder whether that might come into play on Thursday or if Quinn would continue to lean on the analytical models and established trends McCarthy had built during his short time here already. The answer is encouraging, as Quinn ended up with a perfect score on fourth down calls in the game.
Most of the Cowboys’ fourth downs resulted in punts - a symptom of a larger problem with the offense - but the analytical models either suggested a punt or labeled the decision a toss-up on each one of the Cowboys’ punts. There were two moments that stood out though, and Quinn aced each of them.
---> DAL (0) @ NO (0) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) December 3, 2021
DAL has 4th & 2 at the NO 34
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+1.9 WP)
Actual play: D.Prescott pass incomplete short right to C.Lamb. pic.twitter.com/k7NDS8p5jB
The first one came early on in the game, and involved the Cowboys going for it on fourth and two in Saints territory. The model showed a 5% edge in win probability from successfully getting a first down as opposed to kicking a field goal. Dallas went for it, and Dak Prescott missed Lamb on what would have been an easy touchdown had the two connected. The call was correct, but the execution was lacking.
---> DAL (7) @ NO (7) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) December 3, 2021
DAL has 4th & 5 at the NO 37
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Field goal attempt (+1 WP)
Actual play: G.Zuerlein 55 yard field goal is GOOD, Center-J.McQuaide, Holder-B.Anger. pic.twitter.com/vHoU2GUDIH
The second decision came not too much later in the game, and was perhaps the most criticized decision Quinn made that night. However, it didn’t deserve such criticism. With fourth and five at the New Orleans 37-yard line, Quinn opted to kick a 55-yard field goal. Some people took issue with the call, thinking it a proper go-for-it situation. In fact, the model suggested with a medium confidence interval that kicking the field goal was the right move. And again, Quinn aced it.
After the win, Quinn mentioned that his biggest concern in his interim head coach debut was not letting McCarthy down. He should feel pretty good about the result. It’s also encouraging that McCarthy’s fingerprints are so ingrained in this team and their operations that the decision-making process - easily the biggest value-add McCarthy has brought to Dallas - didn’t suddenly fall apart without him.
Obviously, you want your head coach out there all the time, but this serves as a bit of evidence that McCarthy’s overall culture is deeply rooted and not just surface level. That could prove to be an important factor as this team prepares to enter the final stretch of the season.