The 2022 season is seen by many, perhaps most, as being a make-or-break case for Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy. Despite getting his team to a 12-5 record in his second year, the rapid exit from the playoffs just created more frustration. Keeping his job past this year may well depend on stacking a couple of playoff wins. That assumes he will still get the team to the postseason in a division where the other three teams are perceived to have made some major strides forward while the Cowboys may have lost ground in the offseason. Ironically, what happens with the team this year is not going to be determined by what McCarthy does. Due to his chosen role as a walk-around head coach, that is mostly in the hands of his coordinators and assistants.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn does not seem to be a concern to observers. He engineered a noticeable turnaround in his first year with the team. However, there is a potential pitfall there. The improvement was driven largely by the emergence of three stars on defense. The first was the revelation that was Micah Parsons. The rookie hit the NFL looking like a veteran All-Pro, excelling both in his nominal linebacker position as a linebacker and as a part-time pass rusher. Trevon Diggs ran away with the lead in interceptions last season. Those takeaways were often key in stopping opponent drives and setting up the offense. Perhaps the biggest surprise was Jayron Kearse. Playing as a hybrid safety/linebacker, he led the team in tackles and also contributed two interceptions. That far exceeded expectations for what was seen as a journeyman safety. Now he anchors what is the best safety group Dallas has had in recent memory.
The problem is that defensive performance is much less stable year-to-year than for the offense. It is entirely likely that Diggs had the best season he ever will in interceptions, especially as offenses are likely to be more leery of throwing his way. Parsons should be at least as good as last year. The fact he played with a hyperextended knee that never got a chance to heal until after the season argues he will be better. But again, opponents now know what a threat he is and should take steps to try and neutralize him with their plays and formations. Kearse also may see a bit of a decline in performance just because he hit such a high mark last year.
All that means the defense may not look as good as it did. There were certainly some warts that were covered up by the picks and sacks. The run defense was not as good, especially up the middle. The team also gave up too many big plays, with Diggs often cited as particularly egregious in this when he failed to come away with the ball. The Cowboys led the league in interceptions, driven by Diggs. That is almost certainly not going to be the case this year, just based on history. Without the takeaways to lean on, the team has to get fundamentally better in run defense. Further, while Parsons was so outstanding at getting to the passer, the team is trying to shore up the pass rush since Randy Gregory was lost in the offseason. They have some possible answers, but that has to be proven in games. Regression in points allowed, where Dallas was seventh in the league last year, could be very damaging.
All that is Quinn’s responsibility. He has been given full authority over the defense. If he does not get a suitable performance from his players, that truly harms McCarthy’s prospects despite him having so little influence over that phase of the game.
McCarthy is an offensive-minded coach, but there, too, he has handed the reins over to his offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore. McCarthy’s main influence there is in the planning before the game. But it is Moore who calls the plays. His situation is much more difficult than Quinn’s.
It starts with the foundation, the offensive line. The Cowboys are looking to first-round pick Tyler Smith to step in as the new left guard. Not only is he making the jump from college to the pros, he is switching from left tackle where he played at Tulsa. That is not exactly a powerhouse school, adding to the uncertainty. And that is just one of the issues facing the team. The guy just to the left of Tyler Smith is Tyron Smith. When Tyron is healthy, he is one of the elite offensive tackles in the league. That, as they say, is the rub. He has not played a complete season since 2015, missing at least three games every year since then. He missed six games last year after playing in just two in 2020. There is a big question about who will be the backup. That is a bit scary given how likely they are to play. On the opposite side of the line, Terence Steele became more than serviceable at RT by the end of last year. He is not one of the top RTs however. Moving on from La’el Collins and making Steele the presumptive starter also deprived the team of a very effective swing tackle.
Meanwhile, center Tyler Biadasz has been a bit lackluster in his first two years. Team EVP Stephen Jones has hinted his job may not be secure. Only Zack Martin has no issues, being both outstanding at his job and missing very few games over his career. This is his ninth year, however, and that alone adds a bit of concern. RG is a position that sees impact every play. No one is invulnerable.
As if that wasn’t enough, wide receiver is in flux. CeeDee Lamb is the WR1, but who fills out the rest of the position group is very much to be determined. Michael Gallup would be the presumed WR2. He is coming off an injury and his status for training camp and the start of the regular season is in doubt. Third-round pick Jalen Tolbert is expected to fill that hole. Still, the same issues making the jump to the NFL apply for him. Being a small-school product just makes it worse. The remainder of the position group will have to be filled from the journeyman veterans and UDFAs currently on the roster. If things don’t pan out with them, the team will likely have to dip into the depleted free agent pool to try and bolster things.
Moore does have a fully healthy Dak Prescott at quarterback. We are seeing those “best shape of his life” reports about Ezekiel Elliott. A grain or two of salt is always advisable about those. Dalton Schultz gives them a very good tight end for at least this season. What raises concern is how Moore uses his tools. The main exhibit here is Tony Pollard. Almost everyone agrees he is underutilized. That is on Moore. The OC also seems to grow more conservative and predictable as the season progresses. He always seems to rely too much on Elliott on early downs. Should he not correct his tendencies, the offense could let McCarthy down.
Let’s not leave out special teams coordinator John Fassel. He has done an excellent job in almost all aspects of ST performance. The glaring exception last year was kicker Greg Zuerlein. He was hand-picked by Fassel, and often disappointed. The team moved on from The Leg, but are looking to fill the position with a competition between UDFA Jonathan Garribay and former CFL kicker Lirim Hajrullahu. If they don’t get that right, it could cost them a game or more. That would just add to the blame that falls, somewhat unfairly, on McCarthy.
This does not absolve McCarthy of responsibility. He agreed, reportedly by choice, with keeping Moore as his OC when he was hired. Quinn was his choice to try and right the defense. There is no evidence his hands-off approach was forced on him, so he is on the hood for that. Moreover, he is responsible for having the team ready and the plan in place each game. If the coordinators are not doing their job, it is up to him to motivate or as a last resort intervene. The buck stops with him. In this case, though, he may be paying a bill others ran up.