The 2023 NFL Combine is underway in Indianapolis, and in addition to being the first opportunity for NFL teams to get a close look at this year’s draft prospects, it’s also a golden opportunity for teams to spread offseason propaganda, either through interviews or leaked reports to the many reporters and insiders onsite.
Naturally, then, Mike McCarthy managed to turn heads and raise eyebrows with his comments on Wednesday. After the Cowboys moved on from Kellen Moore, replaced him with Brian Schottenheimer, and decided that McCarthy would call plays, speculation abounded as to just how much the offense would change going forward. Unsurprisingly, McCarthy was asked plenty of questions about that at the combine, and his answers have incited some restlessness:
“I’ve been where Kellen has been,” McCarthy said. “Kellen wants to light the scoreboard up. But I want to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense. I think when you’re a coordinator, you know, but you’re in charge of the offense. Being a head coach and being a play caller, you’re a little more in tune with (everything). I don’t desire to be the No. 1 offense in the league. I want to be the No. 1 team in the league with a number of wins and a championship. And if we gotta give up some production and take care of the ball better to get that, then that’s what we’ll do, because we have a really good defense.”
Taken in full context, there really isn’t anything wrong with anything McCarthy said here. Most of it is explaining the difference in perspective between a coordinator and a head coach, and how it can be beneficial for the head coach to also be the one who calls plays. In fact, that same sentiment has been shared by many of the people who are now grilling McCarthy for these quotes.
Of course, that’s because the “run the damn ball so I can rest my defense” part is what makes the best soundbite, and out of context it seems like a really ill-advised approach to offense in 2023. After all, the Cowboys were sixth in rushing attempts in 2022 and it correlated to a lot of third-and-long situations, which set Dak Prescott and the offense up to fail; nearly half of Prescott’s league-leading 15 interceptions came on third-and-long.
The Cowboys don’t need to run the ball more, they need to run it better. And that’s what McCarthy was talking about on Wednesday, aiming to improve the run game’s efficiency overall. That’s one of the reasons Schottenheimer is the new offensive coordinator, as he’s excelled as a run-game designer throughout his career.
While the Cowboys actually fielded a fairly efficient run game in 2022 - finishing 10th in rushing DVOA and 12th in EPA/rush - their production spiraled downward as the season went on, ranking 20th in EPA/rush over their final seven games. Additionally, Dallas ranked 20th in EPA/rush on first and second down for the year, a concerning trend considering they ran on early downs at the seventh highest rate this year.
That approach is fundamentally at odds with McCarthy’s offense, no matter how many soundbites he produced earlier this week. From 2010-2018, with McCarthy calling the plays for all but one year for the Packers, Green Bay led the league in early-down pass rate. It’s no coincidence that, over the same exact span, the Packers were 11th in EPA/rush. It’s abundantly clear that McCarthy understands that the secret to an efficient run game does not involve running at a high rate on early downs.
McCarthy also spoke about protecting Prescott more, in an attempt to keep his quarterback on the field for a full season. Part of that is the change in blocking scheme that comes with new offensive line coach Mike Solari, but it also involves getting the ball out quicker - a staple of McCarthy’s West Coast principles - and throwing more on early downs, when defenses are expecting a run.
It’s quite clear that the Cowboys can improve at how efficiently they run the ball, and wanting to do so does not equal running the ball more. McCarthy, specifically, has a very large sample size as a play-caller that suggests he understands this. Giving him the benefit of the doubt - something rarely afforded to the head coach of the most prominent franchise in all of sports - would interpret McCarthy’s comments about running the ball as a purely situational, game-management approach rather than a broad statement about his overall offensive philosophy.
Now, it is possible that McCarthy does actually increase the Cowboys’ volume of rushing attempts. It’s a well-known secret that ownership strongly believes in establishing the run, and often “suggests” a goal for carries or yards to the coaching staff. Because we’ve seen the kind of offense McCarthy runs with little influence from above, the Cowboys are in a weird position where a continued (or emboldened) commitment to the run in 2023 would confirm the suspicion that there is a limited amount of control that coaches have over the X’s and O’s in Dallas.
That said, the way this offseason has unfolded thus far with McCarthy taking the most ownership of the team yet, it also wouldn’t be shocking to see him ignore any suggestions from above and simply do things his way. It’s a risky gambit, but one that would be true to his nature and, if it works, would pay off in a massive way.