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Cowboys point/counterpoint: The direction of the franchise under Mike McCarthy

An attempt to discern just who the Cowboys are so far

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
Making that playsheet work is going to be key.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The first third of the season is done for the Dallas Cowboys. With a 4-2 record, they are in a good position, especially with the recent losses by the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. At this still early stage, they are in a group with those two teams plus the Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Atlanta Falcons as the only NFC teams with winning records. The road to the playoffs is certainly open to them.

But it is hardly assured. They have a fairly easy stretch of games coming up, with three home contests in a row soon and only the Eagles looking like a major challenge until the final game of November against the Seahawks. Then they hit the hardest stretch of the season in December. The first six games were unfortunately very uneven for them, with three multi-score wins, two crushing losses, and one close victory over the Los Angeles Chargers. They are coming off a bye week in very good health. Hopefully they also will find some answers for some of the problems that have plagued them.

It all depends on what direction this team is headed as they return to action against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. David Howman and Tom Ryle disagree about whether that is the right one.

David: It’s easy to get caught up in the negative vibes that still emanate from that 49ers loss, but this Cowboys team is heading in the right direction. Yes, they lost to a bad team in the Cardinals; the 49ers just lost to the Vikings, and the Eagles lost to the Zach Wilson Jets. Yes, the Cowboys got blasted by the 49ers; the Lions got blasted by the Ravens the moment we all started talking about them maybe being the class of the NFC.

My point is these things happen, especially early in the year. You know what the Cowboys have also done? They blew out a Giants team that only lost by five to the Bills; they blew out a Jets team that put Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes in a blender; and they blew out a Patriots team (in historic fashion) that just upset the Bills. The NFC is wide open, and there isn’t a team in the league without at least one loss that was straight up bad - except for maybe the Chiefs, who have still had their fair share of ugly wins.

In short, nobody looks like a world-beater right now, but the Cowboys have looked like world-beaters in half of the games they’ve played. They also showed against the Chargers that they’re capable of winning close games. I also find it weird how little we’ve heard about the Dan Quinn defense limiting Justin Herbert and Kellen Moore to their worst offensive showing all season. Doesn’t that count for something?

Tom: On defense, I am only concerned about consistency and the depth outside of the line. I still have faith in Quinn and am willing to chalk the bad showings in Arizona and San Francisco to overall bad efforts by the team. He still has to prove he can keep things humming, and finding a way to constrict Sean McVay, Mike LaFleur, and Matthew Stafford is a good place for him to do so. The biggest worry the rest of the way is injuries, but you can almost say that about every team successful team and be perfectly correct.

But I am very concerned about the offense. The offensive line has not come together the way we thought they would after all the starters finally got on the field, but the bye week may be a huge help for them. Michael Gallup is still not back to his old self, and we really don’t know if he will be, but CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks look ready to really help the team. And Dak Prescott is certainly not the problem. He put on his cape more than once to secure that win over the Chargers, and outside of the general meltdown against the Niners, he has taken very good care of the ball.

My big worry is one specific name: Mike McCarthy. The Texas Coast has seen too many stormy days, particularly in the red zone reefs. In watching the games, it just looks like a bunch of good parts that have not been assembled well. In particular, the offense does not seem to be properly utilizing Prescott, Tony Pollard, and Jake Ferguson, just to name the most significant ones. So far in his comments to the media, the head coach has not acknowledged any issues he needs to fix in that aspect, as least as far as I can see. Relying on some hero ball from the quarterback and finding ways to win with Brandon Aubrey’s leg is not a good strategy, and while it may get them through the middle third, it seems a recipe for disappointment in December.

David: I’m not satisfied with this offense either, but we’ve only seen six games from this group and it’s been the first six games in a new scheme. It’s not easy to just hit the ground running in a new offense, which is a big reason why Lamar Jackson has jumped up in the MVP race for his stellar play in a new scheme: it’s hard to do that well right out of the gate.

As you mentioned, the Cowboys were dealing with injuries all along the offensive line for four of those games. And, of course, there’s the issue of the weird game situations: three of these games saw this offense spending most of their time trying to kill the clock, two of them featured the team chasing points from a deficit, and only one game featured any sort of normal conditions for how this offense operated. And they won that game while putting up significantly more yards than their opponent.

Is it perfect? No. Are there things that need to be fixed? Yes. Did the bye week come at a perfect time for McCarthy to review tape and make the necessary adjustments? I sure think so. The talent is all there, and the offense has actually been pretty good at moving the chains; they struggle in the red zone, but it’s not like this offense has been completely inept. I’ll sound the alarm if the same problems persist over the next few weeks, but I actually do see some promise in this offense from the very minimal amount of meaningful football we’ve seen them play thus far.

Tom: Look, there may be some PTSD here for me, but I’m mostly worried about the way McCarthy seems dug in on doing things his way with no real indications he is willing to adjust. That sounds too much like the Jason Garrett way of “playing our game” or the issues that led McCarthy to part way with Kellen Moore when the former OC kept trying to light up the scoreboard rather than adjust to the game situation. Now McCarthy seems to be exhibiting the same stubbornness in the belief he is right, as in his recent remarks about his decision to kick a field goal at the end of the second half versus the Chargers rather than take another shot at the end zone first. His offense almost appears designed to play with a lead, and there were obvious issues in the two losses when the team fell behind early. And in both losses, the team seemed badly prepared for the games, which to me falls mostly on him.

It just makes me nervous that he is going to plow ahead even if things don’t go well. The competition is going to get a lot tougher at times. It looks like the team is sticking to the course they have been on all along. Stagnation rarely leads to good things in the league, even if it is just in one season.

David: Personally, I’m okay with doing things McCarthy’s way. After all, he’s won a Super Bowl, something Kellen Moore was never able to accomplish. Dan Quinn won one as a coordinator, but was unable to get it done as a head coach. And McCarthy won that Super Bowl while calling the plays. I have to assume he knows what he’s doing and how to fix things that aren’t working.

Of course, McCarthy could prove me wrong too, but his résumé speaks for itself. Even the things he’s done in Dallas prior to this season - things that haven’t been done since the dynasty of the 90’s, like winning 12 games in consecutive years - are objectively good. I understand why some Cowboys fans still need to see more - it’s been a very, very long time since this team played in the Super Bowl, after all - but McCarthy has earned the benefit of the doubt in my book. And if he’s able to come out of this upcoming four-game stretch with at least three wins, the Cowboys will be in very good shape.

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