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The McCarthy Chronicles: Cowboys failed their first test of the year vs Buccaneers

And that was before Dak Prescott got hurt

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Mike McCarthy was brought to Dallas for one reason: to win a Super Bowl. He had already done that in Green Bay, actually winning the big game in AT&T Stadium. He has a street named after him outside of Lambeau Field to this day, and to this day only Curly Lambeau himself has more wins as the Packers head coach.

McCarthy replaced Jason Garrett, the golden son of the franchise. He had gone from trusted backup quarterback during the 90’s dynasty to an up-and-coming offensive coordinator to an interim head coach who turned the culture around enough to remove the interim tag from his title.

Where it seemed like Garrett was constantly learning on the job, McCarthy brought experience and a championship pedigree. He brought a tough, workmanlike culture that prioritizes winning over all else, a much-needed changeup from Garrett’s approach by the end.

McCarthy’s first year in Dallas amounted to a bit of a mulligan, since he lost his star quarterback for the year just five games in. McCarthy redeemed himself that offseason by replacing embattled defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with Dan Quinn, who immediately turned the group around. Quinn’s unit, paired with a high powered offense featuring a resurgent Dak Prescott, led the Cowboys to their best record since Prescott’s rookie year.

The problem is that they fell apart in the playoffs and got steamrolled by the 49ers in their own stadium.

That kicked off a series of events over the offseason in which it very much appeared that the Cowboys were trying to acquire players that embodied McCarthy’s culture and ship out anyone that didn’t.

Gone were Amari Cooper and La’el Collins, both of whom had trouble staying on the field when Dallas needed them most. So, too, was Connor Williams, the guard whose lack of discipline led to him being the most penalized player in the NFL last year.

Coming into the building were James Washington, Anthony Barr, and Dante Fowler, players who had made an impact on teams with similar cultures to what McCarthy envisions. Dallas also drafted players such as Tyler Smith, Sam Williams, Matt Waletzko, John Ridgeway, DaRon Bland, and Jake Ferguson, all of whom were known for their physicality and toughness in college.

The Cowboys’ conservative approach to free agency, and roster building in general, inherently meant that there would never be any Von Miller signing or a Tyreek Hill trade. Instead, Dallas seemingly doubled down on their coach’s desired culture, betting that McCarthy would create a physical, determined football team that could win in spite of their lack of talent, not unlike the 49ers team that big boy’d the Cowboys in the playoffs.

If, indeed, that was the goal, then the Cowboys did everything they set out to do this offseason. That meant the Week 1 matchup against the Buccaneers would be their first true test of this new approach. Could Dallas out-physical the Buccaneers in the trenches, something that just didn’t happen last year against the same team? Could this team become the first in franchise history to beat Tom Brady despite being the clear underdog?

We got our answer: a resounding no. Not only did the Cowboys lose, but they hardly put up a fight. The defense performed admirably, bending but never breaking. But the defense also bent far too much, frequently finding themselves out of place against the run. Leonard Fournette ran all over the place behind a patchwork interior offensive line and put up the best performance of his brief career with the Buccaneers.

Maybe the defense seemed better than they actually were because of just how putrid the offense looked for the Cowboys. To their credit, Dallas did generate some very real push in the run game. But they were unable to stick with that approach because they kept drawing penalties that dug a hole.

The Cowboys faced 16 different third-down attempts, and just four of them came with less than five yards to go for a first down. Six of those third down attempts came with 10 or more yards to go. In total, Dallas converted just three third-down attempts.

There is a pretty big caveat here, which is that the Buccaneers are just that good defensively. They’ve finished top ten in the league in defensive DVOA each of the last three years, something that only three other teams have managed to do in that same span. There’s a very real chance that this ends up being the best defense Dallas faces all year long, making it all the worse that this was the team they had to unveil their new-look offense against.

Then Prescott got hurt. The general expectation is somewhere between four to six weeks. The Cowboys are gearing up to ride with Cooper Rush in the interim, amounting to another massive setback for this offense. While Prescott played objectively awful before his injury, he’s still very much the kind of quarterback that teams cannot easily replace, and especially not for an extended period of time.

Last year, the Cowboys won a game on the road when Rush made his first career start. The game seemed to be an endorsement of the win-by-any-means-necessary culture McCarthy was installing. But with the Cowboys now one game in to their Full McCarthy experiment in 2022, it’s certainly looking like the wrong decision to have made.

Maybe this team will prove us all wrong and play competitively enough with Rush under center to give Prescott a team worth coming back to. That would certainly be huge for McCarthy, especially as he entered this season on one of the hottest seats in the NFL. But the Cowboys just had their first test - their first shot at proving they knew what they were doing this offseason - and they failed in spectacular fashion.

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