Mike McCarthy tries every week to answer reporters’ questions without giving anything away - only for Jerry Jones to inevitably spill all the beans a few hours later - but he’s never been shy about what he wants this Cowboys team to look like. Toughness, physicality, discipline, and an emphasis on complementary football.
When the season kicked off, and the Cowboys lost to the Buccaneers in embarrassing fashion, it sure looked like this team was very far away from embodying that identity. But this team is now four games into the 2022 season and they’re 3-1; only one other team in the league has a better record than McCarthy’s Cowboys.
To make that feat even more impressive, McCarthy has done it without Dak Prescott under center. On Sunday, Cooper Rush became the first quarterback in franchise history to win his first four career starts. The Cowboys have weathered this storm by becoming the team McCarthy wants them to be.
Complementary football has been the name of the game for Dallas on this three-game win streak. The offense has struggled with Rush, having some really good drives along with its fair share of duds. You expect that with a backup quarterback.
But the defense has played lights out, and they’ve yet to allow multiple touchdowns in a game. Special teams has also been stellar: KaVontae Turpin has set the offense up with great field position on more than one occasion, Bryan Anger picked up where he left off last year, and Brett Maher has missed just two kicks this year. Those two misses have consisted of a blocked extra point and a 59-yard field goal in the wind right before halftime.
The Cowboys have also looked noticeably more physical in the trenches. This offensive line had its share of struggles against a really good Commanders defensive front, but Dallas has had plenty of instances where they’ve bullied opponents on the line of scrimmage on both offense and defense. That’s been a welcome change of pace for this franchise.
Then there’s the matter of discipline, and it’s not something that’s come easily. Every Cowboys fan knows by now that they led the league in penalties last year, and McCarthy spent a lot of time in the offseason harping on it. Again, Week 1 suggested that McCarthy had failed to address the problem, as Dallas was flagged for 10 penalties and 73 total yards. Same ol’ Cowboys, right?
Well, in the three games the Cowboys have played since then, Dallas has been flagged just 17 times. Eight of those penalties came in the game against the Giants. Of course, the Giants also had eight penalties in the game, so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that the officiating crew for a nationally televised game was just calling things tight.
The more important factor in the penalty totals, though, is that the Cowboys have not been the more penalized team in any of their last three games. While McCarthy would obviously want the penalty totals to be at zero, but having less penalties than the opponent is still good. For context, the Cowboys had less penalties than their opponent in just four games last year. They’ve already done that three times this year.
Discipline is more than just avoiding penalties, though. The Cowboys haven’t made back-breaking mistakes that cost them a chance at victory. The offense has, of course, struggled at times this year, but they’ve rarely had blunders that put themselves into unmanageable third-down situations. Defensively, the Cowboys have avoided the mental mistakes that often result in big plays by the offense.
This can perhaps be best seen in the evolution of Trevon Diggs’ game. Diggs led the league in interceptions last year but he also led the league in passing yards allowed. While that led some to make scorching hot (read: very wrong) takes about whether or not Diggs was actually good, it was still an area that Diggs needed to clean up.
Diggs has done just that. Four games in and Diggs’ 156 yards allowed is 47th in the league despite being tied for 13th most targets. Diggs is allowing a 54.8 passer rating when targeted, 10th best among qualifying cornerbacks this year. Only four defenders have more interceptions than Diggs and he leads the league in passes defensed.
Overall, Diggs’ game is much more disciplined than it was last year, and that’s been a microcosm of this entire Cowboys team. McCarthy wants a team that doesn’t flinch, no matter what happens. Well, the Cowboys were punched in the mouth in Week 1 and lost their franchise quarterback. Three weeks later, it’s clear that this team didn’t flinch. That’s a credit to the head coach.