Remember a week ago when the sky was falling in Dallas? That was fun. The Dallas Cowboys aren’t out of the woods yet, but Sunday’s win over the Bengals went a long way towards gaining back some trust in the 2022 version of the Cowboys.
Before we dive into it, let’s revisit some thoughts from last week’ McCarthy Chronicles:
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.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Cowboys fan who didn’t agree with that sentiment. The Cowboys seemingly spent all offseason trying to become the most physical football team out there, only to get rolled over by the Buccaneers on national television. It was an early test for Mike McCarthy, in a perceived make-or-break year for the Super Bowl-winning head coach, and the Cowboys failed.
So it was incredibly encouraging to see the Cowboys pass their next test with flying colors. The Bengals were in the Super Bowl a year ago and spent a lot of money in free agency addressing their biggest flaw - the offensive line. Needless to say, the Cowboys were expected to get boat raced, especially without Dak Prescott.
As it turns out, the roles were reversed. The Cowboys got the ball first and promptly marched down the field before Cooper Rush tossed a touchdown on the move to Noah Brown. Of course, that drive came courtesy of a gutsy but correct decision to go for it on fourth down. Then, the Dallas defense yielded just a field goal on the ensuing drive, and a big play from Tony Pollard helped up the Cowboys’ lead to 14-3. Brett “Money” Maher drilled a 54-yard field goal right before halftime to increase the lead to 17-3.
The Cowboys came out in the first half, without their star quarterback and coming off a terrible performance a week ago, and absolutely punched the reigning AFC champions in the mouth. And for 30 minutes, the Bengals were unable to get back up.
Well, they found their footing during the break. This is the important part, what makes the win all the more encouraging. Part of the reason the Cowboys front office decided to double down on McCarthy’s idea of embracing physicality over finesse was this idea that far too often in the past the Cowboys have wilted when their opponent tried to bully them.
The Bengals came out in the second half and tried to do exactly that. After running the ball just six times in the first half, Cincinnati ran it 16 times in the second half. They were trying to do what Leonard Fournette did to this defense a week ago. To an extent, they succeeded: three of the Bengals’ five second half possessions lasted at least seven plays and resulted in points as they tied the game up.
But the Cowboys did not wilt when Cincinnati tried to bully them. The defense didn’t surrender a single play of 20 yards or more, something this Bengals offense excelled at last year. Instead, they made Joe Burrow and company earn their scoring drives, bit by bit.
Furthermore, the final two possessions in this game fully embodied what McCarthy’s style of football looks like. Cincinnati, backed up inside their own 20-yard line, needed to convert on third and three. Burrow threw a quick out to Tyler Boyd, and Trevon Diggs - the least physical member of this defense - came out of nowhere to immediately drop him short of the first down marker. He stepped up when his team needed him.
On the ensuing drive, Rush delivered two strikes to CeeDee Lamb and another to Brown that totaled 30 yards of offense. That, combined with the good starting field position thanks to a 14-yard punt return from KaVontae Turpin, put Dallas in field goal range. Then, as time expired, prodigal son Maher sent the ball between the uprights to secure the win.
This was a gutsy, physical game from the Cowboys all around. This was complementary football, all three phases in sync with one another. This was the Cowboys’ best players stepping up when they needed them most, and backup Rush once again coming through when called upon, leading his second game winning drive in as many career starts to go 2-0 as a starter. Simply put, this was McCarthy football.
The next few weeks will reveal whether or not it’s a solid foundation for winning games consistently, and even that isn’t the standard for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations year in and year out. But after watching this team get steamrolled in every aspect a week ago, this was exactly the kind of response that McCarthy needed his team to deliver. And he got exactly what he asked for.