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Mike McCarthy’s offense “playing to the defense” could be worst case scenario for 2023 season

The Dallas Cowboys are still searching for answers after their 42-10 loss at the 49ers on Sunday night. Mike McCarthy’s job will depend on the answers.

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones doesn’t take well to being embarrassed. Fit whatever adjective you like into describing the 42-10 beatdown his team took from the 49ers on Sunday night, but it certainly was embarrassing for the road team that came in talking a big game about their readiness for this exact moment, only to get run off the field by a workmanlike 49ers team that has locked down the top spot in power rankings around the league.

Sure, the Cowboys could recover to make this week five loss a footnote on an otherwise successful season. Sure, by the time December rolls around we all may forget this ongoing ten-game regular season win streak 49ers QB Brock Purdy has been on dating back to last season. Both of these potential outcomes hinge on the premise that the NFL season is rarely one fluid story, but a collection of chapters with each having a different level of importance towards the conclusion of the playoffs. The Cowboys now have two blemishes in the early-going of a 2023 season that’s seen them quickly lose ground in the division to the Eagles, with a pair of road losses to NFC West opponents. Perhaps an even bigger storyline to monitor though is how far they’ve fallen short on things the front office specifically worked to improve, and what it could mean if not turned around quickly.

The Cowboys may not have made the splashiest move to reinvigorate an offense that seemingly reached its potential under Kellen Moore, but changing play-callers to Mike McCarthy was a step above the baby steps this team has normally taken in this department - going from Jason Garrett, to Scott Linehan, to Moore. A scheme change to the West Coast offense was supposed to be much more than a veteran coach like McCarthy making sure he got a chance to do things his way as the temperature under the hot seat rises, the Cowboys have the personnel makings to be much more productive on offense. A frustrated CeeDee Lamb has yet to be featured as the middle of the field target that should be seeing a high volume of run after the catch opportunities.

Lamb is surrounded by talent the team either drafted with a premium pick, or uncharacteristically traded for in the case of Brandin Cooks, yet the head coach tasked with making this all work says after a 32-point defeat with eight first downs all night that, “this team is about defense”. The strength of the team being “playing to the defense” does make sense given the continuity Dallas has built with coordinator Dan Quinn, a perennial head coaching candidate each offseason that’s chosen to build a special defense in Big D instead. Moves like drafting Mazi Smith in the first round this year and trading away a future pick for CB Eric Scott Jr. only add to how this team has bought into a defensive identity, but one that reasonably still expects more help from the offense.

The run game is always considered the most direct help an offense can give a strong defense, combining the two to form a hard-nosed identity that keeps the defense rested. Many of the throws in the West Coast offense that should be mere extensions of this run game with a QB like Dak Prescott have been off the mark, with Prescott not having many clean looks against the 49ers once his offense was reduced to only having receivers in the pattern and protecting with the backs and tight ends.

Prescott’s accuracy has always been better on intermediate to deep throws compared to true line of scrimmage plays that the Cowboys are still trying to work through, but far too many plays in Sunday’s loss looked eerily similar to the Divisional playoff game on this same field a year ago, where the San Francisco defense also gave him nowhere to throw the ball in a 19-12 win.

Lead back Tony Pollard has seen 41 carries with the Cowboys either tied or trailing this season, gaining just 4.2 yards per carry with ten first downs. Dallas is missing the power game in the backfield to truly rest their defense in a traditional way, but also aren’t built on the defensive side to play very traditional either.

Dallas is hardly the only defense around the league that plays more sub packages than base, with nickel defense being a staple against passing sets. The Cowboys regularly take this a step further with dime packages, star pass rusher Micah Parsons lining up over centers, and safeties all but replacing stand up linebackers (especially coming out of the 49ers loss with Leighton Vander Esch expected to miss time). When the Cowboys offense can’t roll together points like they’re built to, opposing run games see opportunity to get downhill against Quinn’s defense, and the results are the 196 rushing yards per game they’ve allowed in two losses compared to 75 in wins over the lowly Giants, Jets, and Patriots.

The balance between Christian McCaffrey on the ground and George Kittle running free in the middle of the field had the Cowboys defense more than just a step behind all night, conceding three touchdowns to Kittle. It was the type of efficient game from Purdy, never asked to put the ball in harm's way, that adds to the backdrop of the Cowboys own offense failing to accomplish these things for Prescott. The tight end by committee approach to replace Dalton Schultz hasn’t matched the same dependability, also hurting a run game that needs more behind Pollard than just Rico Dowdle.

Dallas Cowboys v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

McCarthy has been very open about the experience both he and Quinn have as coaches with skins on the wall, putting any egos aside to give the Cowboys their best possible chance at a return to the Super Bowl. It’s McCarthy that has to directly wear the head coaching badge though, answer more questions under fire from the media, and attach his name to this team’s results more than anyone else currently. Although it’s never been the public perception that he has the job security to continue building a team he’s taken to the playoffs with 12 wins the past two years, some of the current shortcomings with this Cowboys team warrant impatience.

When the front office brought in a receiver like Brandin Cooks, they were likely expecting more than nine catches through four games, the longest being 27 yards against the Patriots the week prior to a one catch for seven yard game at the 49ers. McCarthy can say all he wants about the Kellen Moore offense that “lit up scoreboards” not being the best sustainable way for this Cowboys team to win, but wasting talent is hardly something they have time for. The makings of a team that can win in a variety of ways is still very much in place, and restricting this game plan to a tighter path is the opposite of what McCarthy should be doing.

It’s been over two decades since talking about any Cowboys team as an actual champion or bust squad has carried any merit, and doing so in a league with so much parity today is even sillier. Is asking for something more than the same tired sell job from Jerry that “we can do better than we did Sunday night” really too much however? It’s a legitimate question as to how this team feels all the way up to the highest level internally, having suffered their worst of three straight defeats to a 49ers team that currently has the edge on them across the board.

The Cowboys certainly have enough important games left to erase the terrible taste left in the mouths of fans everywhere after Sunday, with an extra day before a Monday night game at the Chargers, both meetings with the undefeated Eagles still to come, and late-season road tests against AFC playoff contenders Buffalo and Miami. Believing this team is actually destined for greatness after each win will be just a little bit harder to believe for a while, no matter what any coach, executive, or player says. The story of the 2023 Cowboys is far from written, but when it comes time to look back, we may very well be saying we saw the ending coming from the makings of the team McCarthy fielded against a team that ultimately handed him his worst loss since his very first with the Packers.

The problem isn’t just the talk and false sense of hope this team has provided thus far, it’s how they’re built with a specific style and image in mind, one conducive to winning by having stars like Prescott, Lamb, Zack Martin, and Micah Parsons continuing to be held back by the style of play.

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