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The McCarthy Chronicles: Cowboys left with plenty of questions despite the win

Mike McCarthy nearly blew this one, and here is how.

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The first order of business is to reiterate that we should never complain about winning, and especially not against a bitter rival like the Eagles. Winning games is hard in the NFL - just ask the reigning Super Bowl champion Rams - so getting a W is always worthy of celebration no matter how big the margin or who the opponent was.

That said, there is a difference between complaining and analyzing a game, and closer analysis of the Cowboys’ win over the Eagles offers plenty to be concerned about moving forward. And perhaps the most concerning part is how much of it has to do with the coaching.

Mike McCarthy received plenty of praise for much of the season, as the Cowboys survived with Dak Prescott injured and then went on a roll once he came back. McCarthy is now the first Cowboys coach this century to go to the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and Dallas is 7-2 since Prescott returned from injury with both losses coming in overtime. So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s the way those two losses occurred. Both the Packers and Jaguars were down by at least two touchdowns in the second half, and the Cowboys - who had seemingly developed a killer instinct under McCarthy this year - allowed them to claw their way back into it and force overtime, where entire games can be changed in just one play.

Also prompting concerns about this team were their performances against two of the worst teams in the league, the Colts and Texans. We all forget about the Colts game because of a dominant 33-0 fourth quarter, but Dallas was leading by just two points heading into that final frame. And, of course, the Cowboys needed a 98-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes to beat the Texans, who just upset a Ryan Tannehill-less Titans team and is still in possession of the worst record in the NFL.

All of these things reared their heads again on Sunday. The Dallas defense, which has been elite for most of the year but has struggled in recent games, was utterly abused by Gardner Minshew, who was making his first start all season. Minshew threw for 355 yards and - pending Monday Night Football results - ranked third in EPA/play and fourth in CPOE among all quarterbacks in Week 16. Dan Quinn and this defense had no answer for Minshew, and the Eagles punter never even saw the field.

The defense did get some breaks in the form of four takeaways, which was the only way they were able to get Minshew and that offense off the field. But the final takeaway - a fumble forced by Carlos Watkins - felt all too similar to Micah Parsons’ fumble recovery a week ago against the Jaguars. Both were instances of the defense making a play that should’ve iced the game. And both instances saw the Cowboys coaches fail to do that.

This time, the fumble gave Dallas the ball at the Philadelphia 21. Holding a 37-34 lead with two minutes and seven seconds left in the game, the Cowboys really just needed to get two first downs in order to seal the win. Furthermore, a touchdown would put it out of reach entirely.

On the first play of the drive, Prescott ended up keeping the ball on an option play and running for 16 yards to get it into a goal-to-go situation. However, Prescott went out of bounds, stopping the clock, before the two minute warning had hit. On the very next play, a play-action pass that was well defended, Prescott took a sack instead of throwing it away. Both of these were big mental mistakes by Prescott, but also another example of Kellen Moore struggling with situational play-calling. On first and goal with one second until the two minute warning, just run the ball. But because Prescott took the sack, now it was second and goal from 14 yards out instead of just five.

Another run from Prescott brought up fourth and goal at the Eagles seven-yard line. This was perhaps the most obvious go-for-it situation that any team playing with a lead can ever have. If Dallas goes for it and gets the touchdown, the game is effectively over. If they go for it and don’t get it, then an Eagles offense that had turned it over on their last two drives now has to start in the shadow of their own goalpost and drive down the field with roughly 100 seconds remaining and just one timeout. It was an obvious decision, and it was backed up by the analytics:

Analytics aside, though, this is just the kind of decision that a team with a killer instinct makes. McCarthy has often talked about wanting his team to be the ones who refuse to let opponents hang around longer than they should. He’s failed to do that in four of the last six games, and he failed to do so again in this one.

In fact, the Eagles were able to move the ball inside the red zone without even having to use their one remaining timeout before they came up short on fourth down. They were just 19 yards away from winning the game by one point. That final drive wouldn’t have even mattered if McCarthy lets his offense bury the Eagles on fourth and goal.

He’s lucky that it worked out this time, but McCarthy has embraced a concerning trend towards scared coaching lately. He’s also stood by while Moore continues to make errors in the most critical situations and Quinn is unable to stop the bleeding on defense. This is the time of year where you want to be playing your best football, but for McCarthy and the Cowboys, they’re left with more questions than answers.

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