Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made the speculation that Mike McCarthy will replace Kellen Moore as the team’s play-caller official on Wednesday, speaking at the Senior Bowl. For a team that relies so heavily on the draft to acquire talent, the Senior Bowl is an important offseason event for Cowboys fans to pay attention to, especially since Dallas has drafted at least one participant every year since 2013, and a club record six last season.
If the Cowboys are trusting McCarthy to be the coach that gets them back into the NFC Championship game though, they’ll need more than just the draft to improve this roster. A second straight playoff loss to the 49ers paired with the Eagles using both free agency and trades to propel themselves to the Super Bowl should be all the motivation the Jones’ need to give McCarthy more to work with on offense.
Having tested the theory that quarterback Dak Prescott can elevate the talent around him this season, the Cowboys learned that just because he can doesn’t mean he should regularly be forced to. Two costly interceptions and a 12-point output in the playoff loss wasted a great effort by Dan Quinn’s defense.
With Quinn back in the fold and the Cowboys able to further commit to their identity on his side of the ball, and a play-caller on offense that’s historically done more with less, the path to winning games for the 2023 Cowboys isn’t going to look drastically different. During his tenure as head coach of the Packers, McCarthy’s team made 39 draft picks in the top 100, with only 16 (or 41%) going towards offense.
McCarthy and Kellen Moore reportedly had a strained relationship at the end of this last season, with McCarthy not doing more to save a stalling offense the year prior being the talk of the offseason. This all-in approach to keep his job status in good standing will come with some changes to how the Cowboys offense looks, with more of the West Coast influence still putting an emphasis on getting the ball out of Prescott’s hands quickly.
BTB’s David Howman took a deeper look at how McCarthy’s offense could change the Cowboys for the better:
More passing on early downs
Another way of making life easy on a quarterback is to call passing plays on early downs, when defenses tend to expect running plays instead. This ends up catching defenses off guard, and often in poor position to properly defend against a pass play. For example, Prescott’s 0.166 EPA/play on first and second down throughout his career is greater than his 0.144 EPA/play on all downs. That trend holds pretty firm across the board, as well.
The issue for Prescott, though, is he doesn’t get to throw on early downs all that much. His first three years in the league, when Scott Linehan was calling the plays, Prescott had the fifth fewest plays on early downs of any team. It got better under Moore, as the Cowboys called passing plays on early downs at the 15th highest rate over his four seasons as coordinator. Still, though, the Cowboys can easily aim higher.
McCarthy’s tenure as the play-caller for the Packers is the ideal. From 2010 to 2018, which includes the 2015 season when McCarthy wasn’t calling plays, the Packers led the NFL in early down pass rate. It’s no coincidence that Rodgers was third in EPA/play on early downs during that span; the offense as a whole was also second in EPA/play on all downs over that time.
How Prescott does so could be less reliant on the types of stop routes and concepts Moore called, and finally incorporate more of the motion and in-breaking routes fans have been calling for. To get ahead of the inevitable “we like our guys” shtick the Cowboys front office may bring to this offseason, any personnel changes with McCarthy’s offense in mind has to first evaluate what they currently have on the roster.
With that, here is what McCarthy is currently working with at wide receiver. This list does not include players who will be free agents in 2023.
One of the best things to come out of this season for the Cowboys was easily CeeDee Lamb emerging as a true number one receiver. Lamb was the team’s replacement for Amari Cooper in this role, with more receiving yards and touchdowns than Cooper ever had in Dallas, finishing with a career high 1,359 yards and nine touchdowns.
Even with opposing defenses knowing he was the Cowboys top target, Lamb was able to beat double teams and make plays down the field. His best position continued to be as a slot receiver, but with the Cowboys still feeling the need for more talent on the outside, Lamb playing the slot wasn’t an option some weeks.
In McCarthy’s offense, the slot position can see even more targets compared to Moore’s. Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones were leading receivers for the Packers under McCarthy, all with similar traits to Lamb in their ability to leverage defensive backs and make plays in traffic.
Giving Lamb even more of a supporting cast around him will only help the Cowboys WR1 get favorable matchups to show off his speed and dynamic playmaking ability. The arrow is still very much pointing upwards for Lamb entering year four.
The Cowboys were counting on a lot more from Michael Gallup in 2022. Coming off of ACL surgery, and now needing another knee procedure to start the offseason, Dallas can learn from this mistake moving forward while still keeping Gallup as a valuable part of the offense.
Gallup’s best plays have always come on scramble drills or when Prescott is outside the pocket, but without other established options Prescott faced the pressure of making more plays within the structure of the offense. Limited in his movements and explosiveness for much of the season, Gallup struggled to win off the line and separate.
Running Gallup on more crossing routes that allow him to use his size to box out defenders could be key to ramping up his production in McCarthy’s offense, but the Cowboys should treat their receiver room as if any contributions they get from a still-recovering Gallup are a bonus with other contingencies in place to help Lamb.
A strong training camp and preseason didn’t materialize into any real contributions from Fehoko, who played a total of 36 snaps on offense and caught three passes. If the Cowboys are serious about upgrading at WR and making this past season a low point in terms of talent that Prescott had to throw to, it may not be good news for Fehoko that he still couldn’t see the field.
Fehoko did battle through a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve, and was drafted under McCarthy, so the changes at the top for the Cowboys offense shouldn’t completely put him out of favor for more reps going forward.
The Cowboys backfield is just as uncertain as their receivers right now, and if they’re less dependent on Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard, they’ll need the short passing game that Fehoko can contribute in to be that extension of the run.
How soon is too soon to get excited all over again for Jalen Tolbert? An impossible amount of expectations for a third-round rookie to live up to came crashing down this season as Tolbert was mostly a game day inactive. In McCarthy’s return to Lambeau Field for an emotional mid-season game, Tolbert lined up offsides in overtime in a game the Cowboys lost. He would appear in just three more games the rest of the season, two being blowout wins over the Vikings and Colts.
Tolbert’s best trait out of South Alabama was the long speed to take the top off a defense, something Moore never consistently schemed for. Tolbert was clearly his college team’s top option, but even when the ball wasn’t going his way he made an impact by drawing coverage and opening up underneath throws. This is not only harder at the next level, but challenging given the spacing in Moore’s offense that puts pressure on receivers to win their individual matchups.
McCarthy’s scheme on paper should favor Tolbert more, but he has a long way to go to prove he’ll be a contributor on offense. Receiver was rarely a position the Packers drafted high, so Tolbert could face a new class of competition with similar draft status - not doing much in his first year in the NFL to separate from this next wave Dallas brings in.
By starting this exercise with just the options the Cowboys have under contract at receiver, it’s clear they have a lot of work to do to give McCarthy a real chance to improve on what Kellen Moore left. McCarthy’s head coaching status is now tied to the offense’s success way more than it has been at any other point in his tenure, and his influence on personnel decisions needs to be felt at all of the skill positions.
CeeDee Lamb is a great starting point, but the free agents and draft targets we’ll look at next can also be part of how the Cowboys give Prescott more to work with on the outside.