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The McCarthy Chronicles: Cowboys new-look offense takes back seat to defense and special teams

It was a good first start for the Texas Coast offense, the Cowboys new-look scheme, but Mike McCarthy will need more going forward,

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

So much of the Cowboys’ offseason narratives revolved around the offense. Head coach Mike McCarthy took control of the play-calling as Kellen Moore left for the Chargers, and together with Brian Schottenheimer he set out to changing some of the areas he felt needed to be different. There was also the matter of Dak Prescott and his interceptions from last year, and many of McCarthy’s tweaks were centered around minimizing turnovers and improving the pass protection for Prescott.

So it was a bit ironic that the Cowboys’ season opener - on the road against a division rival on Sunday Night Football - turned out to be a whole lot less about the Texas Coast offense as it was the dominance of the defense and special teams units, both of whom scored a touchdown before the first quarter even ended.

As good as the defense and special teams groups were, though, the offense was pretty solid too. McCarthy’s first game calling plays for Dak Prescott didn’t light up the scoreboard, and Prescott himself only completed 54.2% of his passes and had no touchdowns. But that doesn’t mean the offense didn’t offer plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

For starters, they scored points on five of the first seven drives of the game. After that, the Cowboys pulled their starters and went into clock-chewing mode. Of those five scoring drives, three of them resulted in touchdowns. Four of those five drives saw the Cowboys in goal-to-go situations, and it would have been four touchdowns instead of just three if not for a drop by Jake Ferguson. The offense moved the ball well and put points on the board, which is what you want to see.

An important factor to consider was the weather conditions, as rain was pouring all game and started coming down harder as the night went on. McCarthy revealed in his press conference on Monday that the team had prepared a game plan specifically for the rainy conditions, and when they realized that the skies weren’t going to clear up before kickoff they swapped to that one, which took out several plays they had practiced earlier in the week.

So McCarthy condensed his game plan as a result of the weather conditions but still managed to coordinate an offense that finished sixth in EPA/play and seventh in success rate, pending Monday Night Football results. Not only were the results good, but the way that McCarthy called the game was promising.

Early on, McCarthy was calling a lot of pass plays on early downs to get Prescott in a rhythm early despite the rain. He combined this with a lot of pre-snap motion and play-action, which helped Prescott and the rest of the offense identify and mitigate the exotic blitzes coming from the defense. Prescott himself was also getting the ball out lightning quick, averaging a ridiculously fast 2.37 seconds per throw. For context, Tom Brady had the quickest release in the NFL last year with an average of 2.45 seconds per throw.

As for Prescott, his box score numbers were unimpressive but the quarterback played well within the scheme. He had four different passes that were dropped, meaning his completion rate would have increased to 70.8% if those four passes were caught. And while Prescott didn’t throw any touchdowns, he also left the game without an interception.

More than that, he didn’t have a single turnover worthy play; roughly two thirds of starting quarterbacks had at least one turnover worthy play in Week 1. When all was said and done, Prescott’s 0.345 EPA/play was one of the best marks for a quarterback this week, indicating an efficient performance despite the lackluster stat line.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the offensive game plan was how McCarthy used KaVontae Turpin. The explosive receiver saw 11 snaps on offense, good for 19% of the offensive snaps, and he had five touches. Seven of those snaps had Turpin out wide at receiver, getting targeted three times. But the wrinkle McCarthy added in was lining up Turpin in the backfield four times and giving him three carries, which resulted in 14 yards and a touchdown. It took exactly one game calling the plays for McCarthy to get Turpin more touches than he had in 17 games last year.

We may not have seen much from the first game of the Texas Coast offense, but we also didn’t need to with how things went. What McCarthy did show, though, was enough of an appetizer to make us all ready for the main course. The Cowboys won’t always score touchdowns without the offense’s help, and they’ll eventually have a game where Prescott and McCarthy need to generate the majority of the scoring. The glimpses we got of this new offense on Sunday night suggests that Dallas will be ready to answer the call when that phone rings.

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