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The McCarthy Chronicles: What’s good, and what needs to change, for Cowboys offense after bye

It is time for the Cowboys to fix their offensive woes.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Cowboys made it to their bye week with a 4-2 record, but the overall vibes around this team feel like those numbers should be flipped. That really has to do with the two losses - an upset loss to the Cardinals and a controlled demolition at the hands of the 49ers - and the extremely negative effects they had on morale.

As is often the case, much of the angst around the Cowboys is getting directed at the man in charge, Mike McCarthy. Unlike previous seasons, McCarthy is a little more deserving of blame given that he now calls the plays on offense in addition to being the guy at the top of the coaching food chain. McCarthy took over play-calling from Kellen Moore in the offseason and ushered in the Texas Coast offense in an effort to boost efficiency for an offense that played well enough under Moore, but seemingly came up short in big moments.

So far, the results have been mixed. The Cowboys are 20th in yards per play but fifth in points per game. They’re scoring points on 43.5% of their offensive drives, the seventh best rate in the NFL, but they’re 26th in red zone scoring offense. They have the seventh-lowest turnover rate and are fourth in third down conversion rate. And the advanced analytics paint a similarly murky picture: 18th in offensive DVOA but 10th in EPA/play.

To say that this offense is a disaster, or even just bad, is simply not based in reality. But it’s more than fair to say that McCarthy’s turn calling the plays hasn’t been a smashing success either. Of course, it’s only six games into a new play-caller and somewhat new scheme, and it’s not a surprise to have some bumps along the way. In that respect, the bye week came at the perfect time, and offers us a chance to break down the good and the bad from this offense thus far and where changes need to be made.

The Good

Optimal early down pass rates

One of the biggest weaknesses of last year’s offense, and something that had become a developing trend under Moore, was the heavy use of running plays on early downs. It’s widely known by now that running the ball on first down, and most second downs, is inefficient; on the flip side, letting your quarterback throw on early downs helps them get more favorable looks against a defense that is generally expecting a run.

Through the first six weeks of the season, the Cowboys are throwing the ball on 56.7% of their early downs, good for 11th in the league. Last year, they were 26th in early down pass rate. The highest early down pass rate that Moore’s offense ever had came in 2021, with a 56.3% rate, so the Cowboys are already making strides in that area.

It could be argued, still, that 56.7% is too low. In fact, the Cowboys are seeing success on their early down throws, ranking 11th in early down EPA/dropback. On the flip side, they’re dead last in early down EPA/rush. Some of that has to do with the larger issues in the run game, but the Cowboys have still been significantly better throwing on early downs than running.

Dak Prescott’s return to efficient play

Speaking of, the higher early down pass rates have made life a little easier for Dak Prescott. The quarterback has returned to form this year, at least as far as his turnover tendencies go. Prescott has four picks on the year, with three of them coming late in the 49ers loss when San Francisco’s win probability was already over 98%. In a world where Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts are getting all their interceptions endlessly explained away, Prescott’s interceptions this year are almost completely meaningless.

Prescott has largely benefited from the West Coast principles that McCarthy has introduced. He’s completing 69.5% of his passes, fourth among all starters, and is currently seventh in EPA/play. Prescott is averaging 2.63 seconds per throw, eighth-fastest among all starters. And, crucially, Prescott’s 2.2% turnover worthy play rate is the fourth-lowest in the NFL.

Prescott was always likely to cut down on those interceptions after an uncharacteristic 2022 season, but the changes implemented by McCarthy have specifically targeted that issue effectively.

CeeDee Lamb getting fed

The Cowboys entered this season with an upgraded receiver corps by virtue of trading for Brandin Cooks and the anticipated improvements for both Michael Gallup (healthier) and Jalen Tolbert (more comfortable in the system). But that hasn’t meant fewer opportunities for CeeDee Lamb.

In fact, Lamb is off to a great start this year. Lamb is being fed each week, with 42 targets on the year, equaling a 22% target rate. Lamb has done nothing to dissuade Prescott or McCarthy from changing that formula, either, as he’s hauled in 81% of those targets; that’s the second-best rate among qualifying receivers.

Lamb has been great in all facets. Nearly two thirds of his catches are going for a first down, and Lamb ranks 11th in both yards after the catch (YAC) per reception and yards per route run. Good things happen when Prescott throws to Lamb, and if anything he should be getting even more targets, perhaps inside the red zone.

Playing at a good pace

One underrated change that McCarthy made in the offseason was switching up the language of the offense a bit. His stated goal was to get the calls in as fast as possible, get players lined up, and give Prescott time to read the defense and make changes where necessary. So far, that’s been working.

The raw numbers are a little misleading, since the majority of the Cowboys’ offensive possessions have come with a huge lead and the offense trying to kill the clock. In neutral game states, though, the Cowboys are running a play every 29.65 seconds, which ranks 13th in the league. Specifically when the game is tied - a rare occurrence for this year’s team, with the majority of the sample size consisting of scores being 0-0 - they’re operating at the seventh-fastest rate, averaging a play every 28 seconds.

Of course, this isn’t directly indicative of how fast McCarthy is getting the play called; for example, against the Chargers, Prescott made a lot of adjustments prior to the snap due to the nature of the Chargers’ defensive disguises. But he had plenty of time to do so because of the uptick in play-calling pace from McCarthy.

Overall success of drives

The Cowboys offense is lacking in several areas, many of which we’ll get to soon enough, but they do largely succeed in moving the ball. Their 47.7% conversion rate on third downs is fourth-best in the league, and they’re scoring points on 43.5% of all offensive drives, seventh in the NFL.

Dallas is also 10th in drive success rate, which measures how often a down series results in either a first down or touchdown. We all know about the poor red zone offense, and that context should make their drive success rate all the more impressive. This offense is not a complete project, but there are certainly things to work with.

The Bad

The run game

I considered making a separate category for “the ugly” and putting the run game as the sole entry, because wow. The run game has gradually gotten worse and worse for the Cowboys as the season has progressed. They entered the bye week ranked 15th in EPA/carry and 25th in rushing DVOA. They’re only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and Tony Pollard is having his most inefficient year of his career so far.

Some of it is on Pollard, too; the running back is currently near the bottom of the league in total distance traveled on carries, meaning he’s not getting north and south often enough. This is despite facing a loaded box on just 14.5% of his attempts.

The offensive line has struggled, too; 18% of their carries are getting stuffed, ranked near the middle of the pack. Additionally, Cowboys running backs are 26th in runs between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage and 22nd in runs beyond 10 yards downfield. This portion of the offense has been atrocious, and the Cowboys have to hope they figured out a solution during the bye week.

Not enough deep shots

This was an issue a year ago, as too many defenses figured out that the key to defeating the Cowboys was to sit on the quick, underneath routes and bet on their inability to throw deep. It largely worked, as Prescott only attempted passes of 20 or more yards on 10.7% of his throws. Some of that was due to the lack of a true deep threat at receiver, but Cooks and the improved health of Gallup were supposed to have changed that.

So far, that hasn’t been the case. Prescott is throwing deep just 10% of the time, even less than a year ago. The confusing part is that Prescott has been pretty good on those few throws: he has a 92.9 passer rating with two of his six touchdowns coming that way. He’s also averaging just 2.62 seconds to throw, second-fastest in the league on deep throws.

In other words, the Cowboys are scheming up deep shots that don’t ask Prescott to hold onto the ball forever and he’s winning more often than not when he goes deep. He’s just not doing it much at all right now. McCarthy needs to emphasize a greater use of deep shots going forward to really unlock this offense.

Limited use of tight ends

The utilization of tight ends in this passing attack has been curious. Jake Ferguson has had three games with at least six targets, and two of those saw him pull in at least five catches. But in the other three games, Ferguson has a combined eight targets, catching seven of them.

The young tight end has proven to have reliable hands, and his 5.1 YAC per reception has been a promising figure early on. But it seems as if McCarthy has yet to really feed Ferguson the way that Dalton Schultz was fed under Moore. Nearly 43% of Ferguson’s receptions have gone for a first down, and his ability to move the chains is currently being underutilized.

Rookie Luke Schoonmaker has also been oddly absent from the gameplan. He has just one game with multiple targets, and it was against the Patriots; one of those targets was dropped, while the other was broken up by the defender. Schoonmaker has ascended to the TE2 role with Peyton Hendershot’s injury, but he’s not getting any opportunity to provide value in the passing game.

The red zone

Yes, the red zone is a problem. Scoring a touchdown on just 39.1% of all red zone trips is very bad. I’ve long held that this is something that will improve as the team starts to gel more, and that continues to be the case. They hit on 50% of their red zone trips against the Chargers, a marked improvement, and the two failures consisted of the failed tush push and the decision to settle for a field goal before halftime.

That’s not to say all is fixed, but it was definitely a step in the right direction. More targets for Lamb in this part of the field can’t possibly hurt either, but the Cowboys are at least headed in the right direction on this issue.

Lack of motion

Everybody loves pre-snap motion... except for the Cowboys, apparently. When Moore first took over the offense, he made extensive use of motion but then slowly phased it out over the years. So far, through six weeks of McCarthy calling the offense, Dallas is dead last in motion.

Motion has generally been proven to be a very valuable tool for offenses, and it’s become all the rage as of late. Even Moore, now in Los Angeles, is back to running motion at the sixth-highest rate.

There have been whispers in the past that Prescott doesn’t like motion at the snap, and that he played a part in Moore’s decline in use of motion. McCarthy phased motion out of his offenses in Green Bay when Aaron Rodgers voiced a similar distaste; that, combined with Moore’s trends with the Chargers, might lend credence to the idea that motion won’t be a thing in Dallas as long as Prescott is under center. Whether that’s true or not, the lack of motion is still a net negative for this offense.

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