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The McCarthy Chronicles: Dak Prescott is back, but Cowboys coach needs to act like it

The lack of aggression from the Cowboys was concerning.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dak Prescott made his return to the football field and completed 76% of his passes for 207 yards and a touchdown en route to a 24-6 beatdown of the struggling Lions. The win bumped the Cowboys up to 5-2 on the year and has the team poised to start another run after losing to the Eagles a week ago.

So what’s with the negative headline?

Those who read these weekly McCarthy Chronicles with any regularity know that I’ve been a rather staunch supporter of Mike McCarthy, but the head coach is not without his flaws. One such flaw - a lack of appropriate aggression - reared its ugly head on Sunday.

First, though, let’s give McCarthy at least some flowers. The NFL is a hard league to win in, so any win deserves celebration, especially wins as convincing as the Cowboys’ most recent one. But the game was not like that the whole time, and that’s where McCarthy gets the most credit this week.

This year’s Cowboys team has routinely overcome adversity to jump out to a winning record despite the odds, a feat made all the more impressive given how bad the rest of the NFL looks right now. But they had to fight through things once again on Sunday after a rough start in the first half saw the Cowboys down 6-3 as they entered the locker room.

Coming out of the break, Dallas clearly responded to whatever McCarthy said. Trevon Diggs picked off a deep shot from Jared Goff, and the offense promptly moved 82 yards down the field to score a touchdown and take the lead. They never gave it back, and the Cowboys repeatedly stepped on the Lions’ throats in all three phases of the game. It was exactly the kind of performance this team needed.

However, it was not perfect. One of the biggest assets that McCarthy has as a coach is his aggressive mentality. According to, from 2014 to 2018 (2014 is as far back as the website goes) only two teams went for it on fourth down in optimal situations at a higher rate than McCarthy’s Packers. Those two teams were the Ravens and Eagles, two of the most analytics-friendly NFL organizations.

Unsurprisingly, McCarthy’s aggression didn’t change when he came to Dallas, after falling in love with analytics during his time out of football. In his first two seasons with the Cowboys, McCarthy went for it on fourth down in optimal situations at the sixth-highest rate in the league, ahead of both the Ravens and Eagles. In fact, the Cowboys had the second most fourth down attempts of any team in 2020.

It’s been a very different tune for the Cowboys this year, though. The Cowboys’ correct go-for-it rate is currently sitting at 26th in the league, well below the standard that McCarthy has set in his tenure as the head coach.

Now, the argument for much of the year has been that this sudden conservative nature was because Cooper Rush was under center. In other words, McCarthy likely tried to avoid putting too much on his backup quarterback’s plate by going for it a lot. It’s an understandable thought process, even if it’s inherently flawed; coaches should seek to create the kind of extra advantage of going for it on fourth down even more when missing a top quarterback. But at least the rationale made sense.

Well, Dak is back, and we’ve already seen how much better he makes the offense: they scored three touchdowns in a game for the first time all year and posted a team high single-game EPA per dropback in Prescott’s return. So, naturally, you’d expect the Cowboys to return to their willingness to go for it more aggressively, right?

Wrong. The Cowboys had four different fourth downs in the game that were not obvious punting situations. Here are those four downs and what the analytical models suggested:

The first three instances are labeled as a toss-up, which effectively means there isn’t a right or wrong answer because the Cowboys wouldn’t gain enough in terms of win probability to make it an urgent decision. But the Cowboys would definitely gain some added win probability from going for it in these situations. The decision a coach makes in these toss-up situations can usually tell you a lot about where they fall on the aggressive/conservative spectrum; in the past, McCarthy has had a tendency to go for it in these scenarios.

For whatever reason, though, he opted not to on all three of them Sunday. One of them saw the team line up to go for it on fourth down near the goal line, only for McCarthy to call a timeout and send out Brett Maher instead. Another saw the Cowboys intentionally take a delay of game penalty to get better positioning for the punt despite being in Lions territory.

The fourth such situation was very different in that it carried a strong recommendation to go for it, with a whopping 3.6 units of win probability (yes, that’s actually a lot) up for grabs. The Cowboys only needed one yard and had been successful moving the ball most of the day, but McCarthy opted to punt.

The Cowboys won the game, and they looked good doing it, but the best teams prioritize process over results. McCarthy’s decision making process in this game was poor and well below the standard he’s set for himself over 16 seasons as a head coach. His aggressive mentality has routinely helped put his team in a position to win games in the past.

With Prescott’s return potentially vaulting this Cowboys team into legitimate contender status, Dallas will need to get back to those winning ways in order to capitalize on their potential. With Dak back in the fold, this team can be as aggressive as they want to be. Somebody should let the head coach know that.

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