Only one team ends their season without wondering what they should’ve done differently. For the 31 teams that do, there are often a plethora of answers that could be considered correct. Usually the moves that a team makes in the offseason - whether it be coaching changes, trades, free agency moves, or the draft - speak volumes about which answer that team’s brain trust chooses to accept as fact.
So now that the draft is over, and the Cowboys have come pretty close to the roster they’ll open training camp with, what have their offseason moves taught us? Sheil Kapadia of The Ringer has an idea:
They overreacted to their playoff loss.
The Cowboys were a very good team last year. They went 12-5, and their plus-125 point differential was third in the NFC behind only the Eagles and the 49ers. The Cowboys should be a very good team again this season. They made sensible trades to add wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and the departures of tight end Dalton Schultz, who left in free agency, and running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was cut in a cost-saving move, are unlikely to be devastating.
But the biggest change will be with their offensive play-calling. The Cowboys let Kellen Moore go, and head coach Mike McCarthy is now running the show. McCarthy indicated this offseason that he thinks the Cowboys can benefit from a more run-heavy approach that limits turnovers and puts games in the hands of his defense. McCarthy’s comments demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of what is actually wrong with the Cowboys.
Were turnovers an issue in 2022? At times, yes. But overall, not really. The Cowboys turned the ball over on 10.8 percent of their possessions, which was slightly lower than the league average. Dak Prescott was intercepted on 3.8 percent of his passes, which was the worst mark among starters. Not all of the interceptions were his fault, and interceptions were not an issue for Prescott previously in his career. From 2019 to 2021, Prescott had the ninth-lowest interception rate in the NFL. It’s reasonable to think that the Cowboys got some bad turnover luck last year and that Prescott won’t throw nearly as many interceptions in 2023.
The bottom line: It’s hard to envision a scenario where the move from Moore to McCarthy offers an upgrade. In four years with Moore, if we isolate the plays where Prescott was the quarterback, the Cowboys performed like the second-best offense in the NFL in terms of EPA per play. Did the offense look bad in a 19-12 playoff loss to the 49ers? No doubt. But that was one game on the road against the best defense in the NFL. Ideally, the Cowboys would’ve examined what went wrong in that game, made some tweaks, and moved forward. Instead, they made a big change that could result in a step back in 2023.
With all due respect to Kapadia, who really is spectacular at what he does, I have to disagree with him here. He seems to be caught up on the soundbite from Mike McCarthy, about wanting to “run the damn ball,” that went viral earlier in the offseason. The reality is that the soundbite was taken completely out of context and blown out of proportion; furthermore, McCarthy made comments a few weeks later that doubled down on his commitment to improved offensive efficiency, which is what he had actually been talking about.
Kapadia is right about the Cowboys offense facing a solid likelihood of regressing from last year to this year, but that isn’t as simple as “Kellen good, Mike bad.” The Cowboys had exceptionally bad turnover luck in 2022, which is almost certainly going to dissipate in 2023. On the flip side, they posted efficiency numbers on third down and in the run game that are so great they can’t possibly be replicated again. In other words, the basic principle of regression to the mean is coming for Dallas regardless of who calls plays this year.
As good as Moore was throughout his tenure, it’s also clear that he had some shortcomings. And in three full seasons calling the offense under McCarthy, Moore still had those same shortcomings. Kapadia wanted the Cowboys to just make tweaks where necessary instead of making a big change, but McCarthy has likely been waiting on those tweaks for three years now. Perhaps it became clear that the only way to make those tweaks was to do it himself, which also lines up with his comments about wanting to keep the offense mostly the same. It seems very likely that Dallas is, in fact, following Kapadia’s retroactive advice here.
So what did the Cowboys’ offseason actually teach us? More than anything, it taught us that the decision makers in Dallas are actually willing to change their ways when necessary. For a very long time, this team has had firmly established ways of doing things, and they’ve rarely wavered from it. But this offseason was very different.
It started with the decision to move on from Moore. Everyone knows that Moore was heavily favored by Jerry Jones, and it may or may not have been the key reason he stayed on under McCarthy. To move on from him now, after consecutive 12-win seasons, was an unexpected decision. Similarly, the decision to cut Ezekiel Elliott - also a favorite of Jones - was one that many fans and analysts recognized as the right move but doubted the team would actually do.
The team also got uncharacteristically aggressive during the free agency period, trading for two established veterans in Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore to fill their two biggest holes. And while they didn’t break the bank, Dallas spent more than they usually do in order to retain their key free agents - namely Donovan Wilson, Leighton Vander Esch, Johnathan Hankins, and Dante Fowler - rather than letting them take deals elsewhere and save the cap space.
It was fitting, then, to see the Cowboys put the cherry on top in the first round of the draft by taking Mazi Smith with the 26th overall pick. That’s notable because it marked the first time since 1991 that Dallas used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle, a pretty seismic shift in the way this team values the position.
This is not to say the Cowboys are completely different; they’re still going to be worried about how many slices of pie are left and will still prioritize building through the draft and keeping their own guys. But this offseason showed, for the first time in a long time, that the Cowboys were willing to adjust their approach in areas where it was obvious they needed to do so. Time will tell whether it was worth it or not, but the willingness to change is promising.