We’re 8 months and 2 games into the Mike McCarthy era in Dallas. After a frustrating loss to the Rams and a ridiculous victory against the Falcons the Cowboys sit at 1-1. What have we learnt from those two game and this odd pre-season on what McCarthy and Co. have planned in Dallas?
Following a look warm 9 and a half years with Jason Garrett as head coach, the Cowboys wanted someone with championship experience to tip them over the edge and into a long playoff run. Garrett’s 85-67 record (.599), with only one losing season is far from atrocious. But only three trips to the playoffs, going 2-3, is not good enough in big D.
In comes Mike McCarthy with his impressive resume; during his 12 full seasons as Head Coach of the Packers he went 121-70-1 (0.63) making the playoffs 9 times. That included 8 consecutive appearances (09-16), a post season record of 10-8 and the big one: one Superbowl win. Ironically enough that win came in Dallas.
McCarthy’s post-season experience as well his offensive prowess, having been successful as QB coach and OC before Head coach, was seen as the missing link to finally produce a post-season run for the Cowboys.
McCarthy’s old pal Mike Nolan was brought in as defensive coordinator; promising a more aggressive, turnover heavy defence. A change from the lack lustre, rigid 4-3, turnover-lacking Dallas defence of recent times.
It was never going to be easy – star corner Byron Jones took a big money deal with Miami in free agency and 3 out of the Cowboys top 5 players for sacks last year also departed; Robert Quinn and Maliek Collins as free agents and Michael Bennett retiring. Those three alone accounted for half of the Cowboys very average number of 39 sacks last year.
In the two games so far the Cowboys have failed to create much pressure. Tied for 3rd worst with only 2 sacks and 12th worst with only 15 pressures. The Rams managed to schemed out of most pressures with quick dump offs and screens. On the other hand the Falcons just let Matt Ryan stay in the pocket – the Cowboys failed to get much pressure only registering the 1 sack.
How about those turnovers? One interception. The Cowboys are one of only 8 teams with 1 or less (so 0) turnovers. They’ll have to improve on that strike rate just to hit last years lofty heights of 17, which was tied for 7th worst.
What won’t help is a lack of starters. Dallas are down two starting linebackers in Sean Lee and Leighton Vander Esch and corner Anthony Brown joins them on IR. There’s questions on the health of their other corner Chidobe Awuzie and rookie Trevon Diggs too.
Must do better
Based on the above you’d be hard pushed to say there’s much to be positive for the Dallas Defence. But lets try; realistically with big personnel, scheme and coaching changes partnered with limited practice and no off-season; it was unlikely the defence was going to be great straight out of the gate. Points and stats wise they’ve been better in the second half of games allowing just 17 points (out of 59 total, 29%), 290 yards (out of 802, 36%) They’ve also only allowed scores on 33% (3 of 9) second half drives, versus a whopping 69% (9 of 13) first half drives. Helped by the crazy offensive effort late against the Falcons yes, but also suggests adaptations made in game have helped. This will be key moving forward.
Dallas lead the league in yards last year with 6904, over 380 more than nearest yardage rivals Baltimore. Great! Everyone loves moving the ball and the more yards you get the more points you score? Not exactly.
Cowboys scored 434 points, 6th over all, a full 97 points behind those Ravens. The Cowboys moved the ball a lot but didn’t get much from it. Cowboys were 19th in the league in terms of yards/points averaging 15.9 yards per single point scored. The aforementioned Ravens lead the league in yards/points with just 12.2. For some context: on average, to score 7 points the Ravens needed just 85.4 yards of offence, the Cowboys 111.3. Over a season that’s a lot of extra work for the same number of points.
Keeping coordinator Kellen Moore and adding top rookie receiver prospect CeeDee Lamb with the 19th pick of the draft signalled McCarthy’s plan to continue to lean on the offence this year. The Cowboys lost two living legends in the off season in Jason Witten and Travis Frederick. Witten was somewhat of a progress stopper so not as big a loss. But 5 time pro bowler Frederick retires leaving huge boots to fill in the middle of the Dallas front.
Injuries haven’t helped, stellar tackles La’el Collins and Tyrone Smith have both missed time. Collins started the season on IR, he may return as soon as week 4. Smith missed week 2 due an ongoing back issue, his availability will be a question mark for most of the season. Starting tight end Blake Jarwin went down with a knee injury, leaving Dallas weak at that position until his potential mid season return.
The Good, The Bad and the Ugly
Two games in the offence has been a bit like that spaghetti western “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”. Coming back from 20-0 down in the first quarter the Falcons was great. Coming back from 19 down at half time was even better! And somehow coming back from 9 points down with less than 3 minutes and no time outs left… You get it, amazing.
However, those late game heroics may not have been needed had they not fumbled the ball 3 times and managed only 3 first downs on 5 drives in the first quarter. Talk about an ugly start to the game. The Cowboys first five drives went; Punt, fumble, fumble, turnover on downs, fumble. Awful.
While the Cowboys offence eventually took over the game against the Falcons, the same can’t be said for the previous week. Without doubt had you said prior to the game “your defence will hold the Rams to just 20 points”, most would expect a Cowboys victory. But no, a limp second half which included a failed 4th down conversion and only 3 points. Yes THREE points through a whole half of football; hardly tipping you over the edge into the playoffs kind of football.
An incredible onside kick recovery and game winning field goal was textbook John Fassel. Top special teams coordinator Fassel joined Dallas to bolster their special teams prowess. The onside kick wasn’t anything new, Fassel had done something very similar before, in Dallas.
Twice before the onside recovery the Cowboys tried, and failed, their hand at fake punts. A fake punt pass in the first quarter and a fake punt run in the 4th, both failed. Fortunately for Dallas, despite both times giving the ball away in their own territory, Atlanta only managed two field goals – anything more and they’re probably 0-2.
Lets be honest, it’s too early to tell. Offence, defence and special teams have all had their moments – both good and bad. To reach the playoffs they’ll have to continue to adapt and improve.
In the NFL’s history only 5 first year head coaches have made the Superbowl, only two of those won. Expecting McCarthy and Co. to get to February this season was always going to be a big ask. An improvement on last years 8-8 record and setting some sort of new foundation needs to be the aim.
Looks grim? Is there a silver (and blue) lining?
Despite all the coaching changes currently the Cowboys look similar to last year; an offence that can, at times, move it as well as anyone with a defence that’s ok – just above average at best.
Pressure will be on the offence to score, as it should be with their plethora of weapons. Expect improvements on the defence as they get used to the system and hopefully get healthier as the season progresses.
At 1-1 the Cowboys are in joint lead of the NFC East and are arguably, just, the best performing team in that division so far. It’s too early to say but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Cowboys finish just over .500 and sneak into the playoffs as NFC East champions. Based on what we’ve seen so far it’ll take a lot more than just a touch of McCarthy’s post season magic for them to make a run in the playoffs.