It feels like ages ago, but you really only have to go back two weeks to find when the general sentiment around the Cowboys was that it was already time to think about who to spend that top five draft pick on.
Yet here the Cowboys stand, having won two in a row since losing Dak Prescott. First, they upset the reigning AFC champion Bengals; then, they handed the Giants their first loss of the season. Now, Dallas is 2-1 and 1-0 in the division. All with Cooper Rush at quarterback.
Obviously, rattling off back-to-back wins with a backup quarterback is a feat that requires a whole lot of things to go right, and it’s unquestionably a team effort that’s gotten the Cowboys to this point. But if there is one person who deserves the most credit for this small win streak, it just might be the head man who seemingly never gets credit when things go right: Mike McCarthy.
It’s hard to think of another head coach with a Lombardi trophy on his bookshelf who gets less credit for his ability to do his job than McCarthy. Bring up McCarthy to nearly anyone and it won’t be long before you hear some variation of “You know he’s a bad coach because he only won one ring with Aaron Rodgers, one of the greatest quarterbacks ever!”
But Rodgers is entering his fourth season in Green Bay without McCarthy “holding him back” and has reached the NFC Championship Game twice (McCarthy got there four times with the Packers), but more than that, Rodgers has failed to advance to the Super Bowl in any of those years. That’s strange considering how much we’ve been told that McCarthy was the reason for Rodgers having just one ring on his finger.
Then you consider McCarthy’s record with backup quarterbacks. Obviously he’s been blessed with three phenomenal quarterbacks in his career; Brett Favre was in Green Bay when McCarthy took that job, and then the team transitioned to Rodgers, and McCarthy now has Dak Prescott in Dallas. But McCarthy has also had to coach more than a few games without his starter, and he’s consistently managed to get by in those situations.
Mike McCarthy’s backup QBs:— Eric Eager (@ericeager_) September 27, 2022
Cooper Rush 3-0
Matt Flynn 3-3
Andy Dalton 4-5
Brett Hundley 3-6
Scott Tolzien 0-1-1
“Tower of” Seneca Wallace 0-1
Ben DiNucci 0-1
Garrett Gilbert 0-1
Of the five backups who started multiple games under McCarthy, four of them won at least three games and McCarthy’s overall record with those five is 13-15-1. Compare that to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, who repeatedly gets showered with praise as an offensive mastermind; he is 8-30 in games without Jimmy Garoppolo under center. Even Bill Belichick, widely regarded as the best head coach in football history, is 34-34 without Tom Brady.
Then consider McCarthy’s achievements in Dallas compared to his predecessor. While McCarthy inherited a great quarterback in Prescott, he has yet to go a full season without his star quarterback missing any games. Yet he’s now 7-7 without Prescott. Jason Garrett, in his nine full seasons as head coach, went 1-13 without Prescott or Tony Romo. If you count Garrett’s run as an interim head coach, that goes all the way up to 6-16. Quite the difference.
Many have often wondered what McCarthy actually brings to the table. In Green Bay, he was initially billed as an offensive wunderkind who called the plays for Favre and Rodgers. But he doesn’t do that in Dallas, giving complete control to Kellen Moore. It’s a fair question, but one that has been answered in full by now.
McCarthy brings leadership and experience. He’s been in every situation you could think of and come out the other end. He won a Super Bowl with 18 players on the injured reserve; he’s run the table with a 15-1 regular season record; he’s managed to make the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record. Unlike his predecessor, McCarthy knows how to handle adversity when it comes his way.
But the most important part, and the reason for the Cowboys sitting at 2-1 right now, is because that experience has started to soak in on this roster. The Cowboys got beat in every way imaginable in Week 1, and McCarthy was as much to blame - if not more so - as anyone else.
Dallas responded by pushing through the adversity and doing what it took to win. Two weeks in a row, there were moments where earlier iterations of these Cowboys would fold. When Joe Burrow led a nine-minute drive and got the two-point conversion to tie things up in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys held tight; Trevon Diggs had a clutch tackle on third down and Rush led a drive to set up Brett Maher for the game winner. When Saquon Barkley broke a tackle and cut it back for a touchdown, Dallas scored 17 unanswered points while forcing consecutive three-and-out’s for the Giants.
We saw glimpses of this last year too, with gutsy wins over the Patriots in Foxborough and Rush beating the Vikings in Minnesota. But the Cowboys spent much of the offseason doubling down on McCarthy’s culture with this team, adding players like Tyler Smith, Anthony Barr, DaRon Bland, Jake Ferguson, and eventually Jason Peters. While it got off to a very rough start in Week 1, it looks like this team is finding itself now.
Of course, none of this will ultimately matter if McCarthy isn’t able to win when it counts, in the playoffs. But the Cowboys have to get there first, and two weeks ago it seemed as if Dallas had nonexistent odds to do so this year. But the team buckled up and has themselves right back in the thick of things. And that is a testament to the leadership of the head coach.