Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You are probably familiar with that saying. Since this is a Dallas Cowboys football blog, here’s how it applies. You should build your scheme and develop a game plan to maximize the performance of your players, which means you definitely want your stars to shine. But plans in football, like anywhere else, tend to be great right up until they are put into effect. Then the collision with a team trying to do the same thing, plus the dreaded chance of injuries, can quickly derail things. At that point, you better have a plan B ready to fall back on. Sometimes, plans C and D are needed.
Frankly, fallback plans are not a strength of the Cowboys. Just last season, we saw the team get off to a really effective start, with Dak Prescott throwing the ball well as he returned from his devastating 2020 injury and, once they got past the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ezekiel Elliott chewing up yards on the ground. But Elliott would suffer a PCL injury in week five, and Prescott would have a new if somewhat minor injury in week six. The offense became less dynamic. Dragging up another way of expressing the issue, once they got hit in the mouth, they were not nearly as impressive. Additionally, they had a lot of turmoil on the offensive line with injuries and other issues. Michael Gallup would also be lost in week nine, further hampering things.
The defense was in some ways greatly improved, although much of that was due to the league-leading turnover margin as Trevon Diggs had himself a year and Micah Parsons exceeded everyone’s expectations as a rookie. Heck, Parsons had a better year in his debut than most defensive players ever hope for. But when the playoffs rolled around, the defense came out looking flat and unprepared against the San Francisco 49ers, and we all know how that ended.
What can we diagnose as the cause of these problems? One obvious thing is coaching. Mike McCarthy has to shoulder a lot of this. He is responsible for setting the tone and the expectations for his coordinators. In a departure from how he ran things for most of his tenure with the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy has become a “walk around” head coach who doesn’t get very involved in the actual play-calling on game day. He does seem to be very present during the week when the overall game plan is developed, but on game day he mostly stays out of things until decisions about fourth downs come up or a play could be challenged.
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore seemed to get more conservative and less creative last year once he started to see those injury issues pile up. With Elliott hampered, it was puzzling to see so many early-down runs still prominent. Perhaps the calf strain Prescott was dealing with made relying more on early passes problematical. Still, Moore did not do a great job rising to the challenge. The lack of usage of Tony Pollard also continued to frustrate. Yet instead of digging deeper into the playbook, Moore gave the impression he was sticking to tried and true calls. Unfortunately, those standbys also relied on the starters more. With so many hurt, they failed too often. There is also the case of Amari Cooper, who seemed to fade badly as the season went on. The staff seems to think Cooper himself was a large part of this, but Moore did not find a way to sort things out well enough with the rest of his receivers.
If nothing else, Dan Quinn managed to instill some fight in a defense that had not shown enough in previous years. Still, that inexplicable failure in the playoffs looks to be largely on him. In his case, it was not injuries, but a revival of some softness that really hurt. Why this happened remains a real mystery. It just has to be avoided this year.
There is another important component here, roster depth. With the departures of Cooper, La’el Collins, and Connor Williams, that does not look to be improving any time soon. Additionally, Stephen Jones is still hoarding cap space rather than aggressively seeking ways to upgrade things. By largely sitting out free agency so far, he has allowed the available talent pool to shrink. There are still options out there that could help the team, but so far it is crickets on that front. Drafting and signing UDFAs seem to be the approach the team is using here. Being so one-dimensional in roster building is basically ignoring half the toolbox. Having competent replacements for the inevitable injuries of the long NFL season is clearly at risk. Defensively the team looks to be in better shape, but those down-roster battles on offense could be crucial when training camp starts.
It is interesting and perhaps pertinent that McCarthy decided to cut minicamp short. The team already had lost a day of OTAs due to an infraction last year. Based on McCarthy’s comments, it looked like the entire slate of offseason practices were geared more to installment than competition for roster spots.
Why did Mike McCarthy cut short the minicamp? “I think the biggest thing is you have a starting line and finish line and I just felt like we crossed the finish line, particularly with the veterans and really today’s focus was just really spending a final time with the rookies.”— Todd Archer (@toddarcher) June 16, 2022
That certainly sounds like there was a checklist for teaching and installation, and they got the boxes filled in early. A side benefit is that there was one less practice where a freak injury could occur. Focusing on maximum health when the team gets to camp late next month is a reasonable approach.
That also means figuring out those backup plans will happen then. Getting the starters locked in still has to be done. But the down-roster players have to be sorted and given enough work that they can step in if needed. Once again the onus falls on the staff. We have to hope they come up with something that can carry them into a more successful playoff run.