The NFL held their annual league meeting just last week, and it provided an opportunity for owners, general managers, and head coaches all across the NFL to provide several soundbites to the swaths of reporters in attendance. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy had his fair share of soundbites, but the most insightful one ended up being this sit-down interview with Tom Pelissero.
From my @nflnetwork conversation this week with Mike McCarthy on the state of the #Cowboys, letting Ezekiel Elliott go and how Dak gets back on track. pic.twitter.com/3crxYLrTpu— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) March 31, 2023
McCarthy is notorious for refusing to give anything away in interviews, so of course there aren’t any jaw-dropping revelations here. But his comments on the team and, more specifically, the offense, offer some insight into where he thinks the Cowboys can get better going forward.
McCarthy, of course, is coming off consecutive 12-win seasons, something no Cowboys head coach has accomplished since the Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer days. But for the second season in a row, the Cowboys were sent home in the playoffs by the 49ers. When asked by Pelissero how the Cowboys get better from here, the first word out of his mouth is efficiency.
“Yeah, definitely efficiency, and you’re always chasing that. We have the same numbers as we do as far as, you know, how we perform, but it’s really the efficiency of those numbers. How you’re throwing it, and I think situational we’ve done some real good things, but there’s some other areas we could be better in.”
The Cowboys, as a team, finished sixth in DVOA, which measures efficiency adjusted for opponent. However, their offense ranked 15th, while both defense and special teams were in the top 10. That undoubtedly played a part in the decision to move on from Kellen Moore and see McCarthy take over play-calling.
To McCarthy’s point, though, the offense was pretty good in situational football. They scored a touchdown on 71.43% of their red zone trips, best in the NFL. On third down, Dallas moved the chains at the fifth-highest rate while ranking seventh in EPA/play and fifth in success rate. They also tied for the second best power success rate in the league, which measures the rate at which runs on third/fourth and short result in either a first down or touchdown.
Of course, things weren’t perfect. The biggest problem for the Cowboys offense stemmed from turnovers. Dallas tied for the eighth most turnovers on the year, and Dak Prescott infamously led the league in interceptions despite playing just 12 games. McCarthy also addressed this:
As a whole, the number one goal for our offense is we gotta take better care of the football. I just think, like anything, we all spend so much time on the decision making process, and the responsibility in each decision, and it’s all been identified. We’ve actually had a chance to already sit down and watch the interception tape from the last three years.”
Turnovers are, naturally, efficiency killers, and they were a big reason why the Cowboys offense wasn’t more efficient in 2022. A driving force behind all those turnovers was how often the Cowboys were put in third-and-long, must-pass scenarios due to poor play-calling on early downs.
Another factor was pass protection, something McCarthy has also touched on in previous interviews this offseason. The Cowboys ranked 28th in pass block win rate and they were middle of the pack in pressure rate allowed. Furthermore, Prescott’s rate of turnover-worthy plays increased from 3.6% to 4.1% when he was pressured, while Cooper Rush went from 4.0% to 5.2% when pressured. It’s hard to throw a good pass under pressure, and that led to the Cowboys moving on from longtime McCarthy assistant Joe Philbin. McCarthy has also talked about Prescott getting the ball out quicker, as his average of 2.72 seconds to throw was definitely a factor in all the pressure he saw.
McCarthy has remained adamant all offseason that he won’t be completely starting from scratch with the offense in 2022. That said, he is planning on making changes in some areas where the offense has been too inefficient as of late.
“There’s not going to be a bunch of major changes. The offense is clearly built around making Dak successful, and the things that we are changing, the things that we are adding, he’ll be part of that conversation as we work to that point.”
That flies in direct contrast to McCarthy’s “run the damn ball” soundbite that went viral at the combine, which was blown out of proportion from the very beginning. It does seemingly confirm that McCarthy is interested in running an offense that’s best suited for highlighting Prescott’s strengths, something Moore got away from this past season. Moving on from Ezekiel Elliott - thus erasing the impulse to “feed Zeke” and consequently put the offense in third-and-long with alarming regularity - and adding a savvy veteran with field-stretching capabilities in Brandin Cooks both serve that goal very well.
In all likelihood, the offense is probably going to look very similar in overall presentation in 2023. McCarthy does seem very interested in cleaning up areas of inefficiency, though, and getting Prescott back to his old ways. That could be the difference between the Cowboys fielding a great offense to go along with their highly efficient defense and special teams this year.