It has been both exciting and surprising to see the way that the Dallas Cowboys have responded to Dak Prescott’s absence after his hand injury. With Cooper Rush behind center, an offensive line that has come together much faster than expected, and a defense that has been everything we hoped and maybe a little more, they have strung together two wins and remained in the thick of the race to win the NFC East. Many players are getting praise for the way they have stepped up. Dan Quinn remains highly regarded, and Kellen Moore came in for some deserved praise after the way the offense came to life in the second half against the New York Giants. But quietly, another important member of the organization has taken steps to silence some critics and cool off what was considered a very hot seat since the end of last season.
Head coach Mike McCarthy may be in the process of saving his job.
The stretch of games without his starting quarterback, however soon it ends, is the strongest argument possible that McCarthy is a better head coach than almost anyone gives him credit for being. Keeping a franchise competitive without your QB1 is one of the most difficult things to do in the NFL. It requires an ability to adapt and adjust, as well as having built a strong roster around the backup to ease the load. In past seasons, we saw the Cowboys flounder when the starting QB was out. Now, things have changed.
Mike McCarthy in Dallas Cowboys games without Dak Prescott: 6-7 (.462)— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) September 19, 2022
Jason Garrett in Dallas Cowboys games without Tony Romo or Dak Prescott: 1-13 (.071)
That record for McCarthy is now 7-7, of course. That cannot be discounted in evaluating his performance. Jason Garrett lost the support of most, in large part due to his failure to make exactly the kinds of adaptations that McCarthy is doing. He was also very cautious in his approach to in-game decisions. McCarthy is fully ready to go for it on fourth downs, something he demonstrated on the go-ahead touchdown drive. Facing a fourth and four just a few yards inside New York territory, he took the aggressive approach rather than punting and trying to pin the Giants deep to trust the defense, which was playing very well, to get the ball back. Not only did the team go for it, they went to CeeDee Lamb, who until that point was doing poorly with a couple of bad drops. Lamb is the WR1, and instead of going away from him, they expected him to come through at a crucial juncture. He did so, and came up with a tough catch as he was hit right at the mark to gain. Lamb would go on to have two more big receptions on the drive, including the one-handed touchdown grab that is going on all the highlight reels.
That was partly on Moore, but you have to see the hand of McCarthy influencing things. It was reported that the head coach became more involved in the offensive meetings during the week after the dismal performance in the season opener. The way the team has responded, with Rush leading comeback wins in both his starts, reflects on what McCarthy has done during the bit of a crisis without Prescott. He also has been without the expected starting left tackle, Tyron Smith, his number two receiver, Michael Gallup, defensive quarterback Jayron Kearse, starting left guard Connor McGovern. and was missing star tight end Dalton Schultz against the Giants. While New York may have been more of a paper tiger coming into the game, the Cowboys still hung the first loss of the year on them despite those injury problems, which were the worst in the league by one metric.
Current WAR missing from each team because of injury designation. Note Tua is questionable, Dak is doubtful and Herbert isn't even on the injury report ♂️ pic.twitter.com/fPbIeYPG9G— Benjamin Brown (@PFF_BenBrown) September 27, 2022
McCarthy still has a lot of work to do. First up, the team cannot afford a letdown against the Washington Commanders this week. They have the most sacked quarterback in the league in Carson Wentz (tied with Joe Burrow, whom Dallas has already exploited) and their fierce pass rush should feast. The offense made noticeable strides from Rush’s first game to the second. In the past, Dallas has been prone to letdowns in similar situations. If McCarthy can avoid that, he will continue to fortify the case for remaining in his job.
Then, after Prescott returns, he will need to make sure the team remembers how well things work when you don’t force the quarterback to play hero ball to save the day. He also still has an issue with his team’s high number of penalties. Those could well be stumbling blocks. But if he keeps the team focused and cleans up some of the mental issues, all those dreaming about Sean Payton or whatever flavor of the month to replace him will have to live with disappointment.
Many people have never liked the McCarthy hire and still don’t. Winning is the only important factor. It is still early in the season, but McCarthy has shown he can lead his team to do so under very trying conditions. With reinforcements coming as the injured heal, the team could just get stronger. And with that, the seat would just keep cooling for the head coach.