A lot has gone wrong for the Cowboys in 2020, and it is easy to put a bulk of the blame for it on Mike McCarthy. After all, he is the head coach, and the good and the bad fall on the head coach. But while the Cowboys are a disappointment, Mike McCarthy has not been. No, he has been exactly who he is and who he said he would be. With so much going wrong, the Cowboys should take solace that at least one part of their team is meeting expectations.
Over reliance on his star QB
A big knock on Mike McCarthy’s time in Green Bay was that he rode Aaron Rodgers’ coattails to a Super Bowl, and that a good coach would have done more and won another Super Bowl during his tenure, specifically in 2014. That is perhaps a bit unfair, since McCarthy became a head coach only the Patriots and Giants have won multiple Super Bowls. It is really hard to win a Super Bowl, let alone two.
But beyond the Super Bowls, the claim has merit. For a supposed offensive mastermind and quarterback guru, McCarthy’s Packers were crap when Aaron Rodgers was not able to play. In 2013 and 2017 Aaron Rodgers combined to start 16 games and miss 16 games. The Packers were 10-6 when he started, 5-10-1 when he was injured.
In 2013 McCarthy went through three quarterbacks in Rodgers’ stead: Seneca Wallace, who the Packers added off waivers to start the season, suffered his own injury in his first start after just five passing attempts. Replacing Wallace was Scott Tolzein, who was also added at the start of the season, he had a 63.9 rating in his two starts. Tolzein was replaced by Matt Flynn, who had previously spent four years in Green Bay under McCarthy, Flynn steadied the ship and went 2-2 while Rodgers healed and returned for a must win game in Week 17, Rodgers came out victorious to save the season, the Packers would go 6-3 in the games Rodgers started, 2-4-1 in his absence, the combination of backups throwing 8 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
In 2017 Rodgers broke his collarbone early in Week 6, the Packers entered the game with a 4-1 record. Brett Hundley, drafted two seasons prior by the Packers, was miserable as his replacement, throwing 12 interceptions to 9 touchdowns, the Packers went 3-6 with Hundley as the starter.
Every team with a good QB suffers when their starter goes down with an injury, but the best coaches find ways to overcome them. McCarthy’s Super Bowl winning peers Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Doug Pederson, John Harbaugh, Sean Payton, and Mike Tomlin had seasons where their starting QB missed at least four games but had winning records with backups and in some cases won playoff games (and in one case a Super Bowl) with them. McCarthy was fortunate that he only had to go to his backups twice, but in both cases they were awful, he never beat a team with a winning record.
It is no surprise that without Dak Prescott the Cowboys offense, which looked unstoppable, have been inept.
One of the selling points for McCarthy was that with his experience and resume he would bring in a top notch staff to elevate the Cowboys. This was always a silly notion. Doug Pederson was a first time head coach and far from a high profile hiring, that didn’t stop the Eagles from getting Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator.
McCarthy’s big hire was Mike Nolan, who has made a career of putting together mediocre at best defenses. The Cowboys defense may be porous, but it is only 28th in DVOA, Nolan has had three units that were worse since becoming a head coach in 2005. Since 2005, Nolan has been a defensive coordinator or head coach for 11 seasons, in five of them he has had a bottom five defense in yards or points. The 2020 Cowboys are last in turnovers, Nolan’s defenses have been bottom five three other times.
The Cowboys defense is poor on talent and on coaching, there was no reason to expect anything other than a bad defense this season.
Leadership, in whatever form
After years of the Jason Garrett country club Dallas wanted an old school tough guy. Enter Mike McCarthy. Brett Favre called him “hard-nosed”, former Packers GM Ted Thompson said he was a “tough guy” with “Pittsburgh macho stuff” whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.
Coaching changes can have some bumpy roads, and McCarthy is no exception with players calling out the coaching staff for things like “being unprepared” and saying “they just aren’t good at their jobs.” Or McCarthy criticizing his players for not retaliating when Andy Dalton was concussed. And the Cowboys should have expected such issues, since his time in Green Bay is filled with critiques by players over the talent level of the coaching staff, how his tough guy act was just an act, and how he did not care about his defense.
Analytics, or the outcome of them
McCarthy pitched himself as a born again analytical coach. Doug Pederson winning the Super Bowl with his fourth down aggressiveness opened a floodgate in the NFL, now everyone wants in on the action. McCarthy’s new found faith was rightfully mocked at the time. Analytics is a broad term, and spending a day with Pro Football Focus does not remake a person, nor did it seem like he learned anything.
But the outcomes this season are in line with an improved analytical philosophy. The first check box for an analytical coach is do they go for it on fourth down. McCarthy got some heat from traditionalists for his failed fourth down attempt against the Rams, but it was the right call. Doug Pederson has been making the same kind of call for years, and John Harbaugh has been making it since last year and been basically credited with inventing it. The Cowboys should be pleased that McCarthy is onboard.
McCarthy has also increased the Cowboys aggressiveness, another positive factor of the analytical crowd. Last season Jason Garrett passed on just 45.7% of first downs, this year McCarthy has passed 59.6% of the time, which is an even heavier pass to run balance than he had in his final years in Green Bay. Those are positive, modern football improvements. Never mind that everyone is going for it on fourth down now, or that in Green Bay he was criticized for being too pass happy and abandoning the run. Jerry Jones wanted a more modern offense and he got it, process be damned.
In fact, Jerry Jones has gotten everything he should have expected when he hired Mike McCarthy, he is who he was in Green Bay. With Dak Prescott done for the year, Jones should consider this a redshirt year for McCarthy and run it all back again next year. It is only fair.