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The McCarthy Chronicles: Cowboys have a winning culture under Mike McCarthy

A gritty win over the Chargers should speak volumes about this team.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Cowboys had plenty of excuses to lose this game. Michael Gallup, out. La’el Collins, suspended. Randy Gregory, COVID. DeMarcus Lawrence breaks his foot three days before the game, forcing Micah Parsons to play a position he hasn’t played since high school. Donovan Wilson is ruled out before kickoff.

The Cowboys easily could have lost this game and chalked it up to all these absences. It happened last year, and happened plenty of times before as well. Add in that the Chargers featured a young, electric quarterback in Justin Herbert and are a popular pick to make the playoffs as a Wild Card team. This was a game the Cowboys usually lose, but when the final whistle blew it was Dallas who celebrated the victory.

There are many reasons why the Cowboys won on Sunday, but Mike McCarthy deserves a good chunk of credit. He’s taken a ton of criticism for losses in the past, so if he was responsible enough for the team’s failures, he’s equally responsible for their successes. And the Cowboys’ win on Sunday was a major endorsement of the mentality McCarthy has tried to instill in Dallas since he showed up.

The thing that made last year’s Buccaneers so rare was how little injuries they endured. That’s rare, and adversity comes to every NFL team. The mark of a good team is whether or not they can overcome it and win anyway. Last year’s Cowboys were decidedly not a good team. So far, this year looks different.

McCarthy wants this team to have the Pittsburgh tough mentality he lives his own life with. For McCarthy, the priority is doing whatever it takes to win. Last year, taking over for Jason Garrett and having little time to see his players face-to-face before the season started, it was a massive culture shock. When players started dropping and losses started accumulating, things got bad. So far this year, the Cowboys look to have acclimated appropriately to McCarthy’s culture.

Think about it. Week 1 and they draw a road game against the reigning Super Bowl champions, a team that brought back every single one of their starters. That may be the best team Dallas sees all year, and they went toe-to-toe with them and darn near won the thing. A week later, the Cowboys lose several impact players while playing on the opposite end of the country against a very good team, and they eke out a gritty win.

Perhaps the Cowboys have finally found a way to overcome adversity. But that doesn’t make them particularly special. Good teams do this all the time. Just look at this season. The Saints set up camp in Dallas and played their first “home” game in Jacksonville, and still demolished the Packers. The Ravens have lost about 12 different running backs already, as well as their top cornerback, and just handed Patrick Mahomes his first loss ever in the month of September. Good teams do this all the time, so while the Cowboys’ gritty team doesn’t mean they deserve extra kudos, it does mean they’re a good team. And that’s new.

McCarthy gets credit for bringing this mindset and mentality to the locker room. But he also gets credit for hiring great coordinators and trusting them to do their thing. Kellen Moore drew up a brilliant game plan against the Buccaneers that mitigated their strengths, and then did the exact same thing against the Chargers. Both weeks saw the Cowboys offense have success, but in radically different ways. Dan Quinn’s defense bent but never broke, allowing just one touchdown all game despite five of the Chargers’ seven possessions lasting at least five minutes. And John Fassel’s special teams - the same special teams that looked horrid against Tampa Bay - won the game, with Greg Zuerlein easily drilling the 56-yard field goal to win as time expired.

Cowboys fans were sweating that one for sure. Zuerlein missed two field goals and an extra point the week before, and the Garrett regime conditioned fans to expect the worst when relying on a kicker. But McCarthy trusts Fassel, and Fassel trusts Zuerlein. For good reason too. As Bob Sturm pointed out, no other kicker in the NFL has made more kicks over 55 yards in the past decade.

To put it simply, the Cowboys - led by Mike McCarthy - brought in the people they trust to win them these kinds of games, and on Sunday they won exactly that type of game. It won’t make them a contender overnight, but it’s a sign that this team is headed in the right direction under McCarthy.