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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Mulling Mike McCarthy

This has been quite the week for Mike McCarthy discussion.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers
Going repeatedly to Michael Gallup on Monday is part of this discussion.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With the extra time on our hands during the bye week, we can sit back and look at some bigger pictures. The Dallas Cowboys are in good, but not great, shape at 4-2. The time to get things like the offensive line and the Texas Coast offense in general working better is very welcome. And of course, the players, who came out of the Los Angeles Chargers win in pretty good shape, always appreciate an extra week to heal up.

Our David Howman and Tom Ryle used their extra time to wonder just how much of an asset or liability head coach Mike McCarthy is for the Cowboys.

Tom: There are a couple of different ways to look at things. One is the largely unseen aspect of team building and motivation. I am not too down on that part of McCarthy’s performance, but I have serious concerns about the other, his design, preparation, and execution of the offense. For weeks now, there have been some serious flaws. The red zone is where Dallas drives go to die, the running game has become conspicuous in its absence, and the play-calling itself seems inefficient and at times disconnected from the skill sets of the players.

David: I just have a hard time really changing my opinion of McCarthy one way or the other based on this season’s results so far. As you said, the Cowboys are 4-2, but three of those games were blowout wins and two were blowout losses. It’s very hard to make any sort of determination about this offense when the majority of the time it has featured McCarthy either trying to run the clock out with a run-heavy approach or desperately trying to throw his way back in it. The Chargers game was the first time where we really saw McCarthy calling this offense in a normal setting, and even then his quarterback was getting pressured at an abnormally high rate.

Tom: Ah, but one thing has certainly been consistent, at least since the second week against the New York Jets, and that is red zone futility. They were two for six against the green-clad team from the Big Apple, one for five in the sad showing at the Arizona Cardinals, and one for four in the thrashing of the New England Patriots. You can’t cite the humiliation at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, because the Cowboys didn’t take a single snap inside the SF 20. Then on Monday night, they managed to get to two out of four, which is still too low.

I have to assign a big part of that to McCarthy’s play-calling and offensive scheme. For crying out loud, the West Coast offense, the basis for the Texas Coast, is supposed to excel at getting short completions and running the ball. That should lead to a very high rate of conversions. Yet this team mostly gets two yard runs and incompletetions. Down there, your tight ends should be a potent weapon, but against the Chargers, Prescott only threw two passes all game to tight ends.

It isn’t working, and I think it is really keeping the team from reaching their potential on offense.

David: I’ve been of the opinion that these red zone issues are overblown all season, and nothing has changed my mind yet. Against the Jets, they were in clock-killing mode for all of those failed red zone trips. Against the Cardinals, they were missing three starters on the offensive line and it was glaringly apparent that it affected the play-calling. Against the Patriots, there were some boneheaded mistakes, like Tony Pollard just running the wrong direction on a run play.

It’s funny you mention the Chargers game, because that was actually positive in the red zone. They hit on 50% of their trips, which is a big upgrade for them this year. The Chargers also came into the game giving up touchdowns on 50% of their red zone trips, so the Cowboys did just as well there as the other teams Los Angeles has faced. And the two failures in that game consisted of the turnover on downs, with a tush push where there wasn’t enough push, and the field goal Dallas kicked right before halftime. One of those is very clearly a matter of poor execution, while the other gave the Cowboys a lead at halftime.

The other two possessions Dallas had in the red zone, though, went off without a hitch. In fact, they didn’t have a single negative play inside the red zone in that game; all of their red zone plays either gained yards or, in the case of the tush push, went for no gain. And those two touchdown drives were, contextually speaking, much more normal red zone appearances than the ones Dallas failed on in that game. Of course, that won’t stop nits from being picked, I guess.

Tom: I’ll still throw some shade on McCarthy for those two failures. Don’t try and imitate the Philadelphia Eagles when your quarterback is much more effective when used otherwise plus you have a big, strong running back in Hunter Luepke, and that field goal seemed a case of poor clock management, since they had a timeout available and could have taken a quick shot at the end zone.

But those are not my only “nits.” I get frustrated by a lot of other decisions he makes. For a few weeks, he has been calling early down runs that are both too frequent and too ineffective. The line is struggling despite the return of all the injured starters, and after one or two runs hit a wall, he needs to do something different either in the specific runs he dials up or going to Dak Prescott’s arm to move the ball. In that game, CeeDee Lamb just went off, and we started to see Brandin Cooks make some serious contributions, with only one Cooks incompletion between the two of them. But Michael Gallup had more targets than either of them, ten, almost as many as both put together despite only catching three of them. It looked like McCarthy was trying to get the ball to Gallup to break him out of his slump this year. That is a good objective, but a nearly must-win game seems an odd time to do it.

And what happened to the rest of the receiving corps? I’ve mentioned the disappearance of the tight ends, but KaVontae Turpin and Jalen Tolbert were even harder to find, because they mostly weren’t there. With one of your top three WRs just not bringing the ball in, why is he not trying other options?

I think this is a sign of stubbornness, a trait that we criticized his predecessors calling the plays for extensively.

David: It’s interesting that you bring up the early down runs. I, too, was frustrated with what felt like too many runs on second and long, but the fact of the matter is that McCarthy called an early down pass on 56.1% of plays, which was the 10th highest rate in Week 6. On the year, McCarthy is passing on early downs 56.7% of the time, ranking the Cowboys 11th in the league. Last year, with Kellen Moore calling plays, they were 26th in early down pass rate. There may be singular instances of questionable decisions, but McCarthy on the whole has been a clear upgrade over Moore when discussing early down pass rates.

As for the receiver usage, I once again have a hard time making any definitive statements this early. Michael Gallup has had two really bad games in a row, but do we so quickly forget how good he was in Weeks 3 and 4? He caught 11 of his 13 targets for 152 yards, with six of them going for a first down. It’s not like he’s been terrible all year, and I think it’s a good thing that the coach isn’t prone to kneejerk reactions or recency bias. Gallup has had two great games and two pretty bad games in the last month. Where does that leave us?

I’d like to see more Tolbert sprinkled in, sure, but I don’t think it makes sense to completely bench Gallup. And Turpin’s lack of usage Monday night is almost certainly due to his ankle injury from the week prior, but McCarthy has already way surpassed Moore in terms of utilizing Turpin. I mean, Turpin had more touches in the season opener this year than he did all of last year. It’s clear that McCarthy cares about getting him the ball, but criticizing him for not feeding Turpin the ball when he’s hurt...I just can’t go there with you.

Tom: I can see some of that, but my complaints were more about McCarthy not making adjustments in game. If the run is failing, lean even more into first and second down passes. If a player is cold, look for a hotter hand. I just am not seeing McCarthy use his players effectively enough, and that may extend to the entire Texas Coast offense. They are relying far too much on Prescott’s ability to create when things start to fall apart, and that is not sustainable, at least in my opinion.

Head coaches are, in a sense, working to keep their job every season and every game. I’m not saying McCarthy is on a red-hot seat, but he could see that change if he doesn’t do better. The results don’t seem in line with the talent on offense. Either we are very wrong about the talent, or McCarthy is just not using it properly. If it is the latter, he has to make his own corrections during the bye week or this might be a very rocky road ahead.

David: That’s where I’m at right now. This bye week comes at a critical time, because McCarthy has had several games to get into a groove calling plays and put up some film with these players in this offense. Now, he gets a chance to review it all and identify what’s working, what isn’t, and what needs to change. We know from his very lengthy time calling plays in Green Bay that McCarthy is more than capable of coordinating great offenses, and I have to trust that he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments.

If he doesn’t, though, and we’re still seeing some of these issues throughout the rest of the season, then it’ll really be time to start talking about whether or not McCarthy should be running this offense. But right now, it’s still way too early to make bold declarations one way or the other.

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