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Did we just see the peak of the Mike McCarthy era in Dallas?

However open the window was, it looks to be closing

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NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The 2021 Dallas Cowboys season ended in glorious, humiliating fashion. Enjoy the moment, we might not get another one like it for a few years. Because that was probably the best team the Cowboys will have for the next few seasons. What we just saw was likely the peak of the Mike McCarthy era, however long that lasts.

The roster becomes expensive immediately

According to Over The Cap, the Cowboys are scheduled to be $13.6M over the cap for 2022. The actual dollar amount is irrelevant, as is the fact that they’re scheduled to be over the cap. The Cowboys will make cuts, restructures, and contract extensions that move money around, just as every team that will be over or near the cap will make. What matters is that the Cowboys are in the 3rd worst starting position for 2022. Only the Packers and the Saints have less cap space.

Certainly the Cowboys will have to restructure some of their seven(!) players whose cap hits for 2022 are at least $15M, but that just kicks the can down the road, and the road is already backed up. For 2023 the Cowboys already have the least amount of projected cap space.

At the very least the Cowboys are facing two years of cap difficulties. They’re going to have to make some roster decisions based purely on money. And that starts this offseason.

They have a bunch of contributors who are free agents

Dalton Schultz, Connor Willams, Damontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Randy Gregory, and Dorance Armstrong are all free agents.

That’s their starting tight end, a starter on the offensive line, both starting safeties, their third and fourth wide receivers, and their second and third leading sack getters. Additionally Keanu Neal was 10th on the defense in snaps and his contract voids. The Cowboys have to clear $30M in cap space to be able to sign some of them. Outright cuts aren’t going to help them much. The biggest cap savings for releasing players (without a June 1st designation) are Amari Cooper, DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyron Smith, Anthony Brown, Blake Jarwin, and Zack Martin. Jarwin and his $4.5M in cap savings is the only dead weight relief, the rest are all starters.

They’re not reaching the regular season highs they reached again

Let’s assume for a moment the Cowboys did some cap magic and were able to run it back with every starter and contributor they wanted to. Even if they did that, it is going to be impossible to replicate the regular season success they just had.

The 2021 Cowboys finished 1st in scoring and 1st in takeaways. They are simply not repeating that in 2022. It doesn’t happen.

The 2015 Panthers finished tops in both en route to going to the Super Bowl, the next season they finished 15th in scoring and 7th in takeaways. The 2011 Packers also finished in 1st in both (with Mike McCarthy!), the next season they finished 5th in scoring and 18th in takeaways.

The only other teams in the past 10 years that finished 1st in scoring and top 5 in takeaways were the 2017 Rams, who were 1st and 5th and then 2nd and 3rd; and the 2012 Patriots, who were 1st and 2nd and then 3rd and 10th. Those are excellent rankings in a two year period, and they still took a small step back. It’s really hard stay on top of the mountain in scoring. Add in turnovers and it’s virtually impossible.

It’s unlikely the 2022 Cowboys offense finishes first in scoring, but they should still be very good. The talent they have on offense is too good to be bad, even with Dak Prescott missing 11 games last year they still finished 17th in scoring. Their luck on takeaways is ripe to come crashing back to earth.

Takeaways are volatile from year to year. Over the past ten seasons teams that finished top 3 in takeaways finished on average 14th the next year. Only four teams out of 34 finished in the top 3 again the next season, three teams finished in the bottom 3. In nine seasons as a defensive coordinator or head coach, Dan Quinn’s defenses have finished 16th or worse in takeaways in seven of them. The only other above average season he had was his first with Seattle, the Seahawks topped the league, the next season they were 20th. Dan Quinn does not have a scheme that lends itself to turnovers. Without takeaways, the Cowboys defense was run of the mill. They were 15th in passing yards per attempt, 14th in sack rate, 22nd in rushing yards per attempt. They had the 3rd best completion percentage, but the 4th worst yards per completion.

Takeaways were everything for the Cowboys defense, and a big part of the offense too. The Cowboys went 2-4 when the defense got fewer than 2 turnovers, and one of those wins was against a practice squad. In the other five games the offense scored an average of 21.6 points without the benefits of the defense regularly flipping the field for them. When the Cowboys hit their bye after six games, they were 5-1 with 14 turnovers, getting at least two in every game, and scored 31.2 points per game. The rest of the season they were 7-5 with 21 turnovers and scored 28.5 points per game, and 26.5 if you don’t count their Week 18 win over the Eagles practice squad.

Trevon Diggs was responsible for a third of the team’s takeaways. But after seven interceptions in his first six games, Diggs had just four in his final 11 games. And all season long he got torched in coverage. If you wanted to make a case that teams have figured Diggs and his all or nothing approach out, it’s not a hard one to make. His four interceptions in his final 11 games were 1) with his team up 36-3; 2) against Taysom Hill, 3) against Mike Glennon, and 4) against Taylor Heinicke. Diggs was first team All Pro and the only time we saw him against the 49ers and their turnover prone QB was when he was incorrectly biting on routes and giving up acres of space to his receiver.

The coaching staff might take a hit

The Cowboys coordinators are in demand this offseason. Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn are getting head coach interviews, and one or both might land a job. Like most “hot coordinators” they are riding coattails of fortunate circumstances, but they do have a few things going for them. Ezekiel Elliot, Tyler Biadasz, and Dalton Schultz were their only offensive starters to play in every game and the offense still led the league in scoring. The 2020 Cowboys gave up 30+ points eight times, including 40+ twice, the 2021 team only gave up 30+ thrice, with a high of 36 in overtime. Maybe Moore and Quinn hit the right buttons this year.

Moore would be the bigger loss, as he has established himself as a good play designer and caller, even if he galaxy brained the ending of the Cowboys season. The potential loss of Quinn won’t be as bad, as he was a lousy head coach in Atlanta and never had a good defense there, this is the best non-Legion of Doom defense he’s ever had, and it had all the marks of a fluke. The Cowboys might even stumble into a replacement who can raise the floor of the defense that will help to offset the ceiling being lowered.

But they could easily end up with a replacement who is worse. When McCarthy fired Dom Capers as Packers defensive coordinator for 2018, it helped improve the team so much that McCarthy got fired during the season. And when he first got to Dallas he hired Mike Nolan, who he used to work for, as defensive coordinator, Nolan was fired after the season. If Moore leaves, he’ll be replaced by someone worse that Mike McCarthy will get to pick. He might pick himself.

No one has repeated as NFC East champs since 2004

Eventually a team will repeat as division champions, it might even be the Cowboys in 2022. But it speaks to how volatile the division is, and there is plenty of reason to believe it will remain so. While the NFC East isn’t good, this is not the NFC North where one team dominates above the rest. The Eagles and Soon To Be Renamed Football Team might both be in the market for an established QB who makes them an instant division favorite. Even if they don’t, the Eagles have an easy-on-paper route to improving their team while Dallas does not.

They are delusional

The manner in which the Cowboys lost in the playoffs and the struggles they had during the regular season should cause the team to reflect on why and how to address the issues they faced. They went 6-6 against teams not in the NFC East. They went 5-5 against teams with a winning record, and one of those wins was against a practice squad. Ezekiel Elliot is cooked yet he was 7th in the league in rushing attempts and 6th in touches. They led the league in total penalties, had the 2nd most penalties per play, and had the 3rd most pre-snap penalties. For all the good they had in 2021, there’s plenty that needs to be addressed for 2022.

The Cowboys are not interested in hearing it. They blamed the referees for their own failures on Sunday, with Dak Prescott going so far as to condone fans for throwing things at referees. This is not team that is poised to genuinely self reflect and find ways to improve, that’s not how Jerry Jones works.

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