There’s nothing quite like eviscerating a bitter rival on national television. That was the deal for the Cowboys after their 41-21 win over the Eagles on Monday night. Dak Prescott once again looked unbothered by his ankle or shoulder, the defense continued taking the ball away, and there was nothing the Eagles players or coaches could do to stop them. Truly nothing like it.
Well, except for winning the Super Bowl. After all, that’s the reason Dallas was so quick to secure Mike McCarthy’s services before he could even think about going to the Carolina Panthers, who coincidentally are up next on the schedule. McCarthy already has a ring from his days in Green Bay, and after spending a decade watching Jason Garrett go through the growing pains of being an NFL head coach, Jerry Jones opted to replace him with someone who already had an idea of what they wanted to do.
And that’s the ultimate goal for McCarthy in Dallas. Anything short of a Super Bowl will be a complete failure for his tenure. The odds are against him - no head coach in NFL history has won a Super Bowl with two different teams - but it’s what he must do. So, with last year being a wash for many reasons, this is effectively our first good look at McCarthy in Dallas. Through three games, and following the blowout divisional victory, here’s the good, bad, and ugly that’s defined McCarthy’s tenure thus far.
As a warning, this is the longest section, as McCarthy has done a lot of good since he got here. For starters, he followed through on his promise to integrate analytics into the organization. And he’s used the analytics too, frequently going for it on fourth downs and introducing an offensive plan of attack that features more passes on early downs, thus maximizing their potential on each play.
But let’s just take a step back and think about how this year has started. The first two games are on the road and on opposite sides of the country. One is against the reigning Super Bowl champions, who returned all 22 starters, and the other is against a trendy playoff pick with the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys come excruciatingly close to beating the former, and beat the latter while holding the offense to just 17 points.
Neither of those games were easy, and much less so when you consider how many players were missing on both sides of the ball. Then, they host a divisional team and deliver a nationally televised mollywhop while still being down six starters on offense and defense. And, sure, the Eagles are a bad team and they were especially bad on Monday. But the way in which the Cowboys dismantled them, especially coming off of a hard-fought win on the road and with so many players out, is special.
Also, remember when the Cowboys routinely struggled to get things going in games under Garrett? Well, Dallas has scored a touchdown on the opening drive in each of the last two games, and they have 35 first-quarter points in those games. Defensively, they’ve been shot out of a cannon as well. They forced a three-and-out on the first drive of the Buccaneers game and picked off the quarterback on the first drive of the last two games. Moreover, the Cowboys are allowing just 10 points in the first quarter so far this year.
Now, a big part of the Cowboys’ success on offense and defense is due to the brilliance of coordinators Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn, respectively. But you know what McCarthy deserves credit for? Hiring the right people and getting out of the way. It sounds simple, but so few head coaches are willing to do just that. Look at Adam Gase, Joe Judge, or embattled Bears head coach Matt Nagy. It’s often overlooked just how hard it is for head coaches to give up control.
When McCarthy arrived in Dallas, he had always been the primary play-caller in Green Bay. Well, almost always. There was one year he ceded play-calling duties before vowing to never do it again. But in Moore, McCarthy saw a bright, young coach whose offense just finished second in DVOA and first in yardage in just his first year calling plays. McCarthy went back on his own word and kept Moore, a holdover from the previous regime, and let him run the offense his way.
Defensively, McCarthy hired his longtime friend Mike Nolan to run the defense. Nolan had a good track record and came from a good system in New Orleans, but things never worked out for him in Dallas. McCarthy made the difficult decision to fire his friend - again, something coaches in this league rarely do - and went after Quinn, whom he had no real connection with. And now, through three games, Dallas looks promising on both ends. Credit to McCarthy for getting the right people in the door.
There hasn’t been much bad to cover with the 2021 Cowboys so far, especially as it relates to McCarthy. But one thing that’s gone mostly unnoticed thus far is discipline. Through the first two games, Dallas was the ninth-most penalized team in the NFL. Their two opponents, the Buccaneers and Chargers, were both more penalized, while the Eagles led the league in penalties. Philadelphia still holds that lead after committing 13 penalties Monday night, while the Bucs and Chargers are right behind them.
The Cowboys played fairly clean against Philadelphia, with just four penalties. But that trend will have to continue if this team is really going to make a run at the Super Bowl. Sloppy teams don’t get far in January, and discipline is often a direct reflection of the guy in charge.
Some of McCarthy’s in-game decisions this year have been downright bizarre. First, there was the decision to let Greg Zuerlein kick a 60-yarder right before halftime, which gave Tom Brady the ball at the 50-yard line with 15 seconds left. It didn’t result in anything, but that’s usually a recipe for disaster when Brady is under center. The Chargers game brought us the mystery of the disappearing clock, which again didn’t hurt the Cowboys.
And then Monday night, right before halftime, featured some bizarre clock management tactics that were almost universally panned. Even the official came up to McCarthy to ask him if he wanted a timeout, and McCarthy declined. For what it’s worth, Joey Ickes gave a valid and extremely plausible explanation of the logic behind McCarthy’s decision to hold onto his two timeouts (you have to read the full Twitter thread).
I thought about this ALOT last night after the game and I’ll take my best shot at explaining my theory.— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) September 28, 2021
Doesn’t mean I agree, but I can follow the logic. Join me, and yell at me at the end about how it was still dumb. https://t.co/sIREaeJiJq
You can make a somewhat sensible argument, but the clock management there at the end of the first half is still mind-boggling. Again, it ended up not mattering in the grand scheme of things but that’s three straight games where the Cowboys have gotten lucky to not be burned by a poor decision from McCarthy. The coach has undoubtedly done a lot of good for this team so far, but if he wants to make history as the first head coach to win a Super Bowl with two different teams, he will have to get better as the season progresses.