With Mike McCarthy in charge, the Cowboys’ 2020 implosion comes as no surprise

Doug Farrar
·6 min read

When the Dallas Cowboys replaced head coach Jason Garrett with Mike McCarthy this last off-season, the idea was that it would bring a rebirth to “America’s Team” not seen since Dallas won Super Bowl XXX with Barry Switzer playing stand-in with Jimmy Johnson’s leftovers. Garrett managed an 85-67 regular-season mark over 10 years with just one losing season, but his 2-3 postseason mark and lack of Super Bowl swag left Jerry and Stephen Jones wanting more.

So, on to McCarthy, who compiled as 125-77-2 mark with the Packers from 2006 through 2018, when he was fired 12 games in after a 4-7-1 mark to that season. More importantly for the Jones boys, McCarthy had a 10-8 postseason mark and a Super Bowl ring.

If McCarthy was supposed to be an upgrade — and I expressed grave concerns about that concept when he was hired — it has not turned out as expected. The Cowboys stand at 2-4. Quarterback Dak Prescott and left tackle Tyron Smith are each out for the rest of the season with injuries. Running back Ezekiel Elliot, the most important offensive player remaining, was briefly benched in Dallas’ Monday night 38-10 loss to the Cardinals after losing the ball on two straight early drives and improbably re-creating the butt fumble. Their turnover ratio is historically awful, as franchise legend Gil Brandt pointed out.

This has left Dallas’ players doing what no coach wants to see — anonymously leaking the reasons for the dysfunction to the media.

Slater is as dialed into the team as anyone in national football media, so this is not a paper tiger. This is a major problem.

“I haven’t been part of any of those type of discussions,” McCarthy said of the criticism. “I think like a lot of things, when you hit a part of your season or any challenge where there is negativity out there, where it comes from and who it comes from, that’s something I’ve never chased. I think you do have to recognize it and I just really go back to my first meeting with the football team. I’ve always stated this to every team that I’ve coached. I think it’s important to handle things as men; if you do have something to say publicly that is of most importance, I think it’s important to say it to the individual. Particularly in a group dynamic, setting. Especially in the game of football, especially for the Dallas Cowboys. That’s all part of the development of our program, of the system we’re installing here.”

This was not supposed to have happened. McCarthy, who was fired after bungling his way through his last season in Green Bay, was supposed to have been the guy who spent his year in exile poring over offensive concepts with other coaches at leisure, and visiting Pro Football Focus headquarters to get a sense of how analytics are used in the modern league. He was also supposed to have been the guy who watched every Cowboys play from the 2019 season in preparation for the job he got.

Actually, McCarthy was the guy who did this.

And here we are.

Yes, losing Prescott was a big hit, and would have been a big hit for any team. But the best coaches adapt and adjust. Last season, Andy Reid’s Chiefs went 1-1 with Matt Moore as their starting quarterback when Patrick Mahomes was hurt, and Moore threw four touchdowns to no interceptions as Reid’s starter. Last season, the Steelers went 8-8 with Ben Roethlisberger out all but two games, and Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges as the replacements. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as Bill Belichick’s quarterback after Tom Brady suffered a torn ACL in the first half of New England’s first regular-season game. The 1972 Dolphins lost Bob Griese for over half the season to a broken leg and a dislocated ankle, and kept the NFL’s only perfect season going with Earl Morrall.

Stuff happens. You either step up as a coach, or you don’t. How were most of those teams able to transcend the losses of their franchise quarterbacks? With defenses that ranked anywhere from above-average to all-time great. That is not the case for Dallas’ defense, which has been an abject disaster all season long.

Earlier this month, I wrote about why Dallas’ defense has been one of the worst in franchise history, and it boils down to defensive coordinator Mike Nolan over-complicating his defense without a comprehensive off-season plan due to the coronavirus pandemic. This has led to edge-rusher Demarcus Lawrence calling his own defense “soft,” and cornerback Xavier Woods making disconcerting comments about the overall effort put forth.

As 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman recently said on his Pro Football Focus podcast (oh, irony) with Cris Collinsworth, it’s a defense that lacks an identity.

“Like they’ve talked about, [Nolan’s] scheme is so complicated. It’s so variable. It’s so diverse. People think that means good defense, and it doesn’t. You don’t have a foundation, you don’t have an identity, so you have nothing to fall back on.”

“So when things aren’t going great it’s not like you have, ‘Hey, we can put the fire out with this. We’re going to run this until we get things under control.’ It’s just like a patchwork of, ‘Hey we’re going to keep throwing things at the wall and see what sticks.’ When you have that as a player then you’re like okay so, you don’t even know how we’re getting attacked.”

“Are we getting attacked as a Cover-2 defense? A man-to-man defense? A Quarters defense? A Cover-3 defense? Like, how are they attacking us because we’re in so much nonsense?”

“I don’t know if changing the coordinators changes the way they run that playbook, but if you change coordinators and they go back to foundational fundamentals of running a certain defense, then I think they’ll have better results. But who am I?”

Who Sherman is, is a guy who understands and recognizes a defense in disarray. And anyone looking at the Cowboys right now can see the same in a team sense.

Did Mike McCarthy sucker Jerry and Stephen Jones into hiring a coach who doesn’t actually exist? Based on the early returns in Big D, and the nadir of McCarthy’s time in Green Bay, a case could be made. And if that’s the case, watching the Cowboys fall off a figurative cliff in the post-Garrett era should come as absolutely no surprise.