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Mike McCarthy Watch: Cowboys offense looks promising in first preseason game

We got our best look yet at the Texas Coast offense.

NFL: Preseason-Jacksonville Jaguars at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

All but one projected starter for the Cowboys offense sat out for Saturday’s preseason debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but there was still plenty to look for in this one. Mike McCarthy, who took over play-calling after Kellen Moore took the same job with the Chargers, made his debut running the offense Saturday.

It may have just been backups, but the game offered the best look yet at what this new offense will look like under McCarthy. The head coach, who called plays for all but one of his 13 seasons with the Packers, has insisted that this year’s offense is not a complete overhaul of the scheme but rather a continuation of what had worked under Moore while integrating some new concepts and marrying some of McCarthy’s West Coast principles into the offense. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has said that roughly 70% of the offense has remained intact, with many of the new changes focused on pass protection adjustments.

That was immediately evident on Saturday. Not a single starter was present on the offensive line, as the Cowboys hoped to get an idea of their depth in the trenches while also testing out their schematic changes to help the line out as much as possible.

As is customary with the West Coast offense, Cowboys quarterbacks were getting the ball out fast. It appeared as if both Cooper Rush and Will Grier were operating within a scheme that instructed them to go through their first two reads and then find the checkdown option. The result was very few deep drops and plenty of quick hitters. In fact, nine of Rush’s 12 attempts in the game were to either running backs or tight ends. Grier spread it out a bit more, with 14 of his 31 attempts going to backs or tight ends, but the emphasis was still there.

It was a good first test, too, as Jacksonville played their starters to begin the game. Their defense, which finished last season ranked 11th in run defense DVOA and eighth in pass rush win rate, presented a very worthy challenge for the backup offensive line. Not everyone on the line fared so well - Matt Waletzko and Josh Ball were both charged with three pressures, while Matt Farniok gave up four - but it went better than could have been expected considering it was backups vs starters.

McCarthy’s quick-hitting scheme played a big part in that, which was encouraging to see. Rush averaged 2.18 seconds per throw while Grier averaged 2.32 seconds per throw. Both are among the 10 quickest releases of the first week of preseason football, and well below last year’s league-wide regular season average time to throw of 2.74 seconds.

Also helping things out was McCarthy’s commitment to passing on early downs. The Cowboys threw the ball on nearly two thirds of their first downs and just under 70% of their second downs. A good chunk of their early down runs came when Deuce Vaughn got into the game, and his play was so hot that it was understandable to try and feed the exciting rookie and see how he responded (spoiler alert: he responded very well).

By and large, though, McCarthy’s first game calling plays in Dallas was very reminiscent of his tenure in Green Bay, during which time the Packers led the league in early down pass rate, and not some out-of-context quote about “run[ning] the damn ball.”

That said, McCarthy didn’t break out all the stops in this first game either. The scheme itself was rather vanilla, likely a combination of not wanting to show opponents too much and also just wanting players to get comfortable within the framework of the new approach. We’ve seen a lot more motion and deep shots in training camp than we got in the preseason game, so any concerns about simplistic passing concepts should be held off for at least another week.

If you were looking for a negative, though, it was the rushing offense. Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle entered the game as the top two contenders for the top backup running back spot with Ronald Jones out with a minor injury. Neither one managed to get anything going, and the offensive line struggled to open holes all night. Again, much of that has to do with a ton of backups facing off against the starters on a very good defensive front, but it’s still something for concern when evaluating the team’s offensive line depth.

Still, the soft launch of the Texas Coast offense has to be considered a success. Rush and Grier both looked comfortable for the most part, the scheme helped out the pass protection given the circumstances, and plenty of pass catchers were getting open to make plays. It wasn’t perfect, but a good first start for the new offense.

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