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What the Cowboys can expect from Mike McCarthy calling plays with Kellen Moore gone

Mike McCarthy has plenty of experience running an offense, but just how well will that translate to the Cowboys 2023 season?

Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

In a bit of a surprise move, the Cowboys have decided to part ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. At just 34-years-old, Moore leaves Dallas after five years as a coach and four seasons coordinating the offense. He had plenty of incredible moments in Dallas, but some grew frustrated with a seeming inability to perform in the biggest moments, punctuated by consecutive postseason trips in which Moore was stymied by the 49ers defense.

Taking his place, at least in terms of calling the plays, is head coach Mike McCarthy. That isn’t a big surprise, as McCarthy called plays for all but one of his 13 seasons as the head coach of the Packers. Not only did he won a ton of games there, but McCarthy won a Super Bowl as well.

Still, that doesn’t mean everyone will automatically approve of the decision. After all, one of the most common refrains after McCarthy was fired in Green Bay centered around the notion that his offense got stale and didn’t adapt much to the changing times. But with an in-depth evaluation of the offenses McCarthy ran, it seems that the head coach’s tendencies are actually quite similar to what made Moore so great at times. Unlike Moore, though, McCarthy comes with a significant advantage in terms of sheer experience.

West Coast roots

In terms of offensive philosophy, McCarthy cut his teeth in the West Coast offense. As a proud Pittsburgh native, McCarthy’s second coaching job ever was at the University of Pittsburgh as a graduate assistant. There, he caught on with offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, who had been with the 49ers when Bill Walsh popularized the offense. McCarthy was elevated to wide receivers coach when Hackett became the head coach at Pitt, and soon after he followed Hackett to the Chiefs when Hackett was hired there as the offensive coordinator.

The West Coast offense has gone through a ton of different permutations over the years, but the system at its roots is based on short, quick passing concepts designed to stretch defenses horizontally, therefore opening up for deep shots down the field. The West Coast was, at the time of its inception, known for being very pass heavy, which helped revolutionize offensive football during the 80’s and 90’s.

McCarthy always fully embraced those principles as a play-caller, often operating some of the most pass-happy offenses in the NFL. During coordinator stops at both New Orleans and San Francisco, McCarthy was an early adopter of play-action and pre-snap motion as well, though he limited each of those concepts in Green Bay at the request of Aaron Rodgers. Still, McCarthy remained an aggressive coach who liked to throw early and often.

Here, you can see how good McCarthy’s Packers teams were on early down pass rates. From 2010 (the farthest back this data goes) to 2014, the Packers were second in the league in early down pass rate, and they were first from 2016 to 2018; the 2015 season is excluded because McCarthy did not call plays that season.

Proven results

McCarthy rose fast through the coaching ranks thanks in large part to his skill as an offensive mind. It wasn’t all that surprising, then, to see his Packers teams consistently produce eye-popping results even with a quarterback change early in McCarthy’s head coaching tenure. Let’s check out the results.

Mike McCarthy’s Offensive Efficiency in Green Bay

Year Total offense DVOA rank Pass offense DVOA rank Run offense DVOA rank
Year Total offense DVOA rank Pass offense DVOA rank Run offense DVOA rank
2006 20 19 20
2007 5 7 13
2008 11 8 20
2009 5 7 6
2010 7 4 23
2011 1 1 12
2012 3 3 17
2013 10 13 2
2014 1 1 10
2016 3 3 2
2017 16 20 8
2018 7 10 7

As you can see, McCarthy’s offenses were among the very best in the league nearly every year. Of the years McCarthy called plays (remember, he did not do so in 2015), only three seasons saw the Packers not finish in the top 10 in offensive DVOA. One of those years was McCarthy’s first year on the job; another saw the team finish 11th in DVOA, just missing the top 10; and the third was 2017, a year where Rodgers missed half the season.

Let’s take a deeper look at the metrics for McCarthy’s individual drive statistics. Here we can see how often the Packers were moving the ball, scoring, their average field position, and other important factors like that. It all gets boiled down to one crucial figure: drive success rate. In simplest terms, drive success rate measures how often a given down series resulted in either a first down or touchdown.

Mike McCarthy’s Offensive Drive Success Rate in Green Bay

Year Yards per drive rank Points per drive rank Average starting field position rank Plays per drive rank Time of possesion per drive rank Drive success rate
Year Yards per drive rank Points per drive rank Average starting field position rank Plays per drive rank Time of possesion per drive rank Drive success rate
2006 18 26 22 11 24 23
2007 6 5 15 18 18 10
2008 11 11 27 10 10 13
2009 9 6 5 16 9 8
2010 7 8 18 13 8 9
2011 3 1 6 7 4 3
2012 12 8 6 10 15 8
2013 4 7 15 6 9 7
2014 3 1 11 5 5 2
2016 4 3 8 6 4 4
2017 16 15 29 11 12 11
2018 12 16 28 13 18 16

For eight of these 12 seasons with McCarthy running the offense, his units finished inside the top 10 in drive success rate. That’s something the Cowboys did each of the past two seasons and three times in Moore’s four years on the job. Between what the Cowboys currently have on offense and McCarthy’s penchant for successful drives as a play-caller, Dallas should be able to extend that streak of top 10 drive success rate finishes to three straight seasons.

Things certainly did not end well in Green Bay for McCarthy, and that’s made it easy to forget just how good his offenses were year in and year out. Some argue that McCarthy was aided by the presence of Rodgers, but he has a talented quarterback to work with in Prescott. In fact, Prescott is 10th in EPA/play among quarterbacks since he entered the league, and that includes now-retired players like Philip Rivers and Drew Brees. Among active quarterbacks since 2016, Prescott is actually eighth, though a retirement from Tom Brady would bump him up one more spot.

Speaking of Dak..

Relationship with the quarterback

The relationship between the offensive play-caller and quarterback is an essential one. The NFL is riddled with instances of quarterbacks failing on the field because they were not on the same page with the one calling plays for them. This area was arguably where Moore excelled the most as a coordinator, as he and Prescott had been teammates before Moore became a coach. Prescott actually advocated for Moore twice, both to be named his quarterbacks coach and later to become the coordinator.

Moore and Prescott’s bond was a critical piece of what made this offense go, and when things were clicking the result was beautiful. Moore knew exactly how much he could ask of his quarterback, and Prescott knew exactly what Moore was trying to do on every play. That kind of synergy is rare to find.

While everyone mostly associates McCarthy’s relationship with Rodgers for the bitter way it ended, the fact is that the two had a very special bond for the majority of their time together. Even this past year, when McCarthy faced Rodgers for the first time since being fired, both men spoke fondly of their memories together. After all, it would be hard to produce such incredible offenses without the two being able to work together.

That bodes well for McCarthy taking over the offense now, because he and Prescott have a strong relationship as well. It was only recently revealed just how close they are, but there is a strong respect between head coach and quarterback that should serve as a beautiful foundation with McCarthy taking over play-calling.

McCarthy is likely to install his own offense, meaning a complete change in the language that the offense has to know and understand. That means a lot of change for everyone, and Prescott in particular will have to essentially learn a whole new language. It’s a positive that he won’t also have to work on getting to know his new play-caller. McCarthy and Prescott already have three years together and know each other well enough; they can now focus just on making sure everyone is on the same page with the new playbook. That already gives the Cowboys an advantage over any other team welcoming in a new offensive coordinator.

Moving on from Moore is objectively a big risk. By nearly every meaningful metric, the Cowboys have been very good on offense under his watch, and they won 12 games each of the last two seasons. The most valid criticisms of Moore essentially boiled down to a handful of plays that just weren’t that great in specific situations. That’s a very small sample size to fire someone over, but thus is life in the NFL.

With McCarthy taking over the offense, though, the Cowboys are set up for about as smooth of a transition as they could hope. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some bumps along the way initially, but McCarthy is an experienced play-caller who knows offensive football inside and out. He’s done this before, and done so at a very high level. He’s also acutely aware of where this offense needs to get better after having watched Moore work for the past three years.

Perhaps the biggest development, though, is that McCarthy is betting on himself here. He knows the defense is in a good spot, especially after securing Dan Quinn for a third season in Dallas. But the offense has had too many moments in big games where they didn’t get the job done. By moving on from Moore and taking over that side of the ball, McCarthy is pulling a Frank Sinatra and doing it his way, for better or worse. If his lengthy history from his Green Bay days is anything to go off of, McCarthy should see plenty of success calling plays for the Cowboys going forward.

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