We are two years into The McCarthy Project with the Dallas Cowboys. You will recall that the specific verbiage of “The McCarthy Project” existed before the head coach ever wore the star.
About 27 months ago Mike McCarthy was readying to enter the coaching cycle after taking the 2019 season off. With a Super Bowl to his name McCarthy was an interesting candidate for teams that were in need of coaches (Cleveland, New York, Washington, and Carolina were also all looking for new leaders along with Dallas) and his case was made more fascinating when he launched a de facto PR campaign to put some positive spin on his name.
In a rare move for someone in McCarthy’s position, he sat down with one of the NFL’s most renowned journalists in Peter King and discussed everything that he had been doing since being dismissed by the Green Bay Packers. You can watch their entire conversation right here.
With morale around McCarthy being low following his team’s early playoff exit, we decided to take a look back at the things that the head coach said. He made it a point to outline how he wanted to approach his new team, things he vowed to be different, and what he expected to happen.
Let’s measure McCarthy against McCarthy.
McCarthy declined to take accountability for how his time in Green Bay ended
One of the biggest problems that people seem to have with McCarthy right now is the lack of accountability from his team and from him.
The head coach seems to have an excuse for every problem or difficulty that arises. We have yet to ever really hear him specifically say that he wasn’t good enough or that he did not do what was required.
Among the first things that King asked him was about how his time in Green Bay ended and the criticism about how his offense was getting stale near the end.
On criticism that things got stale at the end of his time in Green Bay:
“I think that’s a convenient criticism. I don’t agree with it. I think it’s like anything. When you are criticized you need to shine a light on it and look at it. This time with the other coaches has given me that opportunity, you have to be honest. We got away from motion and shifts and multiple personnel groups more than we’d done in the past. You look at the why. It’s cause at the end of the day you’re the one that’s really into why you did this and why you did that. You go back through those things and frankly you apply it to the next opportunity.”
It is definitely something that the first words McCarthy would say are that he disagrees with the criticism, but to his credit he goes on to note that his Packers teams got away from motion and shifts and multiple personnel groups. Those are legitimate things that he pointed to that could be fixed. But did he fix them?
According to Sharp Football Analysis the Cowboys ran out of 11 personnel 65% of the time in 2021. For perspective, the 2018 Packers (McCarthy’s last year with the club) worked out of it 77% of the time. There is legitimate proof that McCarthy mixed it up in his new gig.
Unfortunately, as Bob Sturm pointed out in the aftermath of Dallas’ Wildcard loss, the Cowboys were in 11 personnel a staggering 79.7% of the time against San Francisco. Change is good, but it means nothing if you don’t do it when it counts the most.
McCarthy has one song that he likes to play over and over again
When the Cowboys hired Mike McCarthy two years ago his biggest selling point was obviously that he had won a Super Bowl before. The fact that he did it in the very building that his new team plays their home games in (sun be damned) add to the prestige.
It is one thing for the Cowboys, or even Cowboys fans, to lay claim to McCarthy’s world championship as the thing with the biggest font on his résumé. It is another thing for McCarthy to bring it up as often as he is tending to do so.
You will recall that McCarthy noted during his season-ending press conference that he knows how to build a world championship team. He was sure to bring that up with Peter King as well.
On how he thinks he will be better and what he was preparing to tell a club president, general manager, or owner:
“Well I know how to build a world championship program. And my awareness and my instincts will be much sharper. That’s one thing I do know. And I feel very confident about because this process has given me that. And the opportunity to express that and how we’ll do different things and how you see the vision of the new opportunity is something I’m really looking forward to presenting.”
Mike McCarthy deserves all the credit in the world for winning the Super Bowl 11 years ago. It is a very difficult thing to do. Believe us, we know.
But constantly using it as this shield that is supposed to end any sort of question or probe into his line of thinking is starting to wear thin. Looking past that part of the answer though it isn’t like McCarthy’s awareness or instincts have been a hallmark point of success either. A huge reason for the Cowboys’ demise this season was because of how poor those were.
Mike McCarthy has totally handled offensive duties the way that he outlined
A big theme of the conversation McCarthy had with King was about change. With him having been fired it is obvious that he was committed to being different and improving. That makes total sense.
King specifically asked McCarthy how he was going to take what he was doing (all of the mock game-planning McCarthy did during his year off) into his new job, wherever that wound up being. He talked about the conviction required for an offensive play-caller and he has totally acted on that in every sense.
On an example of how he feels he is going to take something he learned into his new world:
“Well I think it’s like anything. When you have time to reflect, the brutal honest with yourself is where you’re going to get the most value. I’ve looked at every coaching staff, every decision, installation of offense, scheduling. We practiced on Fridays then we didn’t practice on Fridays. When you have a chance to look at all of those things it gives you a more distinct focus on exactly how you’ll approach that next one. So the one thing just to give you a direct answer to your question. If you’re going to call the offense, if you’re going to be the play-caller on Sunday, you need to be the major installer on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. That’s something that I got away from in the second half of my career there in Green Bay.”
We have seen McCarthy completely trust the Cowboys offense to Kellen Moore and while some people may have an issue with it doing so is what he pledged to do. Give him credit for living up to that promise of sorts.
He was also asked why he felt so passionately about this idea.
On why he thinks it’s important for the guy who’s installing to be the guy who’s calling the plays:
“I think it’s the same thing on defense, too. Because every player in that room needs to know why you’re calling that play. And he needs to hear it from you why he’s calling the play. You rely on a long-term relationship with your quarterback or your offensive coordinator or your offensive line coach... that’s not as good as if you’re in there installing it and doing it each and every day.”
Honestly this makes sense. The Cowboys don’t have results that will suggest it as a favorable way to operate, but McCarthy isn’t coming out of left field here. He planned from the jump to give full autonomy to his coordinator and lived up to that.
McCarthy has long been a fan of Kyle Shanahan
You might remember during his introduction press conference that McCarthy mentioned watching a lot of the San Francisco 49ers during the season that he was out. He missed the 2019 season which was a year that saw San Francisco win the NFC so it makes sense that McCarthy would find them to be good at football. Who didn’t?
Asked for a coach that he was particularly impressed by, McCarthy named the one who would defeat him in his first playoff game as the head coach of the Cowboys - Kyle Shanahan.
On a coach he watched during 2019 that he was impressed by:
“I think Kyle’s having a great year in San Francisco. The aggressiveness. Everybody has a style and approach. I’ve always liked the way he calls a game. It’s a relentless approach. And I think we can all get into a situational funk because you get so situational-specific of how you want to attack the opponent that sometimes you can take your foot off the gas a little bit. I think he does a great job of keeping his foot on the gas.”
One might read this and wonder how McCarthy could have been so unprepared for Kyle Shanahan’s team given that he has been an admirer of Shanahan’s for so long.
That is a very fair question.
McCarthy was already blaming officials
This is the answer that surprised me the most if I am being honest, mostly because it came out of nowhere.
Many have taken issue with how McCarthy and his players have deflected blame, particularly for the season-ending loss, and placed it at the hands of officials and referees. Again we are talking about a lack of accountability.
Peter King asked McCarthy if he thought that the game was changing in any way and Mike decided to note that he felt officials were impacting the game too much. He did specify that he was saying this from an outsider’s perspective.
When asked if the game was changing a lot every year over the last few years or if he felt like it was just getting sort of tweaked and there was not a lot of new under the sun:
“I would like to think it’s getting tweaked and a lot of it is new under the sun. But I think we’ve got to recognize the fact that the challenges of officiating have effected the game probably more than anything in recent history.”
“I think what the officials are asked to do, their responsibilities are a lot more, too. I think, like anything, the more responsibility an individual has, the decision-making process is a bigger challenge. Being on the outside looking in, you talk about trends, the definite trends of officiating has been really different this year and it really stems from the pass interference rule process. I think that has impacted the game as much as anything.”
For full context here, this interview happened in late 2019 and that was the season immediately following the NFC Championship Game between the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams that had everyone up in arms over the missed pass interference call. Sean Payton got his way and it was officiated in a manner that was awful throughout the year.
Still, it is strange that McCarthy would lean on officials being such a problem. At the very least it’s extremely coincidental given that he would go on to blame them multiple times during his new post with the Cowboys.
Funny, how things work.