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Mike McCarthy vs. The Analytics

How Russ, Broncos offense will change in 2023

Denny Carter and guest Troy Renck look ahead to the Denver Broncos offense for 2023 and highlight what's changed with Russell Wilson over the offseason on the Rotoworld Football Show.

It was a comment you might make up if you were lampooning the most stridently old-school coaches in organized football.

It was early March and the Cowboys had just parted ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore after yet another Divisional Round playoff loss, this time to the 49ers, capped off in humiliating fashion with one of the most perplexing offensive formations in NFL history. Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy, speaking with reporters about axing Moore — now the Chargers offensive coordinator — was deferential and complimentary of the young man who will almost certainly be an NFL head coach one day.

Then McCarthy, who replaced Moore with the run-loving Brian Schottenheimer, said something that would have made Mike Ditka blush in 1986.

“I’ve been where Kellen has been. He wants to light up the scoreboard,” McCarthy said. “But I want to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense. … I don’t desire to be the No. 1 offense in the league. I want to be the No. 1 team in the league with a number of wins and a championship. And if we gotta give up some production and take care of the ball better to get that, then that’s what we’ll do, because we have a really good defense.”

Whether you’re a diehard Cowboys fan wanting nothing more than a return to glory, a fantasy football manager intrigued by the statistical prospects of Dallas players, or simply an NFL fan who enjoys high-scoring, back-and-forth football, it would be difficult to conjure a more concerning head coach quote. McCarthy had said the unspeakable in 21st century football: We do not want to maximize the number of points we score.

The mere concept might make your face twitch.

In the months after McCarthy’s utterances shook Cowboys fans and fantasy players alike, a weird thing happened: The Cowboys embarked on a hiring spree that included some of the game’s sharpest analytical minds. In June, they plucked the Colts’ director of football research, John Park, and brought on Sarah Mallapelle, a player personnel analyst for the Ravens since 2019, as the team’s strategic football analyst. The Boys weren’t done. In July, they hired William Britt as a strategic football analyst after Britt’s two years as an analyst for the Steelers. While McCarthy droned on about winning while scoring the fewest points possible, the Cowboys were forging one of the NFL’s most formidable analytics departments.

“[Analytics] certainly seems to be a priority for the team,” Seth Walder, ESPN’s sports analytics content specialist, told me when I asked him about Dallas’ head-first plunge into the analytical side of the game. While the Cowboys analytics commitment remains short of teams like the Eagles and Ravens, “these moves definitely give the team some analytical upside,” Walder said.

Walder, however, had a sobering assessment of what these forward-looking hires would mean for the Dallas offense as McCarthy takes over.

“My educated hunch is that this is about the Dallas front office rather than the Dallas coaching and play calling,” he said.

I asked what the hell McCarthy meant by his comments about Kellen Moore and being less explosive and running the ball more after a decidedly run-heavy 2022 season. Walder, like other NFL and Cowboys observers I spoke with for this article, was perplexed.

‘Learn From Past Behavior, Not Quotes’

None of McCarthy’s ravings about stone-age style football make sense. Under Moore, the Cowboys had the NFL’s seventh lowest early-down pass frequency in 2022, a year after ranking eighth in that category. The Cowboys, with Dak Prescott’s early season injury and his interception issues late in the year, had become a decidedly run-heavy team in 2022, one of the most reliably conservative offenses in the league. Only five teams had a lower pass rate over expected than Dallas last season. And Moore’s approach did not change upon Prescott’s return to the lineup in Week 7. The Cowboys remained run establishers.

cowboyspass
cowboyspass

McCarthy’s Packers offenses were some of the most pass-first units in the NFL during Aaron Rodgers’ heyday. From 2010 to 2018, when McCarthy was fired as his West Coast offense curdled into a painfully predictable mess of a system, no team had a higher early-down pass rate than the Packers. Green Bay led the NFL in pass rate over expected during that nine-year stretch. In fact, McCarthy’s Packers were well over their expected pass rate in every down and distance. In short, McCarthy established the pass in Green Bay.

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Screen Shot 2023-07-27 at 10.48.32 AM.png

None of this adds up for Daniel Houston, a longtime Cowboys observer who runs the Cowboys Stats and Graphics account on Threads and X.

Houston wondered if McCarthy might “be lying to the media about what led to the split” between him and Moore following the 2022 season. It simply could not have been that Moore was too pass-happy for McCarthy’s liking.

“[McCarthy] was one of the league's most pass-heavy coaches in Green Bay, and comes from a West Coast background that historically values the short passing game,” Houston told me. “But the more I've thought about it, the more I struggle to understand why McCarthy would misrepresent his former colleague in public like that. So we have to at least consider the possibility that McCarthy, once a pass-leaning coach but now an employee of Jerry and Stephen Jones, might be executing a run-heavier approach going forward than we're used to seeing from him.”

The Jones family, perhaps the last-ever ownership team to award a massive second contract to a running back, certainly values a commitment to the run. They are victims of their own success, repeatedly trying and failing to replicate the run-based dominance of Dallas' early-90s Super Bowl teams.

“That said, it would be hard for the Cowboys to move much further in a run-heavy direction,” Houston added. “Only seven teams in 2022 ran the ball more often than the Cowboys on 1st and 2nd down, when the game was within reach for both teams. So I think it's likely that what we see in terms of rush rates will simply be a continuation of last year's philosophy. Perhaps that's just something Moore didn't prefer to be a part of.”

That McCarthy wants to establish the run to “rest the defense” — a strange goal indeed — would seem to be a boon for Tony Pollard as the team’s lead back in this post-Zeke era of Dallas football (for now). But does McCarthy and the Cowboys coaching staff see Pollard — just a shade over 200 pounds — as a true bellcow back, the way they saw 230-pound Ezekiel Elliott? Pollard, after all, has seen more than a dozen carries in a meager 17.5 percent of his games since entering the NFL in 2019. He has exactly one game with more than 20 rushing attempts over those four seasons.

“I'm definitely skeptical that Pollard will ever get as many snaps within the Dallas offense that Ezekiel Elliott used to. Before Pollard emerged, Elliott was the unquestioned three-down back for Dallas, and I don't think they intend to use Pollard that way,” Houston said.

Pollard’s uncertain future in Dallas, he added, could lead to unforeseen rushing volume in 2023. “I do believe the Cowboys are likely to give Pollard more touches than ever before. The apparent likelihood that this will remain a run-leaning offense, with a quarterback and a defense that may allow them to defend a lot of leads, bodes well for Pollard's rushing volume. The fact that Pollard will be playing on the franchise tag after failing to secure a long-term deal also suggests the Cowboys may be preparing to move on from him after the season. There's no real incentive for the team to manage Pollard's workload, if that's the case.”

McCarthy can talk a big game about establishing a grinding run game like Cowboys dynasties of the 70s and 90s, but nothing in his lengthy play calling history suggests Dallas is on the verge of challenging the Falcons or Titans or Bears for the distinction of the NFL’s preeminent run-first offense.

“When push comes to shove, if we're trying to guess about what McCarthy is gonna do, my instinct is to lean on his past behavior rather than his quotes,” Walder said. “When you have a good quarterback, it just doesn't make sense to rely on the running game so much.”

Dak, Interceptions, And Luck

The entire Cowboys organization, from Jerry Jones to McCarthy to the players, seem stung by Dak Prescott’s inexplicable interception binge in 2022. Dak threw 15 picks in 12 games last season; his interception rate ballooned from 1.7 percent in 2021 to 3.8 percent in 2022. He tossed two back-breaking picks in the team’s postseason loss to San Francisco — mistakes that have resonated throughout this offseason.

Football, as analytics nerds know, is a game subject to variance — a fancy way of saying luck. Prescott was terribly unlucky last year: His turnover-worthy plays, per Pro Football Focus, ticked up from 3 percent in 2021 to 4 percent in 2022, yet his interception rate spiked. Establish The Run’s Pat Thorman in May pointed out that Prescott has been nothing resembling a turnover machine in his seven years as the Cowboys’ starter. His 1.7 percent interception rate over his first six NFL seasons ranked fifth in league history, ahead of quarterbacks you may know, such as Tom Brady.

There’s vanishingly little reason to believe Prescott will become a pick-prone QB unable to manage a Dallas offense stacked with playmakers. This is the guy who threw just two interceptions over the final seven games of the 2021 season. In 2019, Prescott threw a mere three picks over the season’s second half.

McCarthy certainly has a passer who can run the wildly successful West Coast scheme the Packers ran during the Rodgers glory years in Green Bay, Houston told me.

Under McCarthy, the Packers were “one of the league's most fearless offenses on third down, with relatively few passes ending up short of the sticks. It's obviously hard to disentangle McCarthy's tendencies from Rodgers'.” Indeed, the McCarthy Packers had a 12 percent pass rate over expected on third and short. They were without fear, unlike the 2022 Cowboys.

“In Dak Prescott, McCarthy has another quarterback who is more than comfortable throwing into tight windows beyond the sticks on third down,” Houston said.

Whether McCarthy will trust Prescott to do that after a run of nasty variance is anyone’s guess. And whether the team’s newfound commitment to information analysis will bleed into McCarthy’s play calling could define the Cowboys’ 2023 season, and McCarthy’s future as Dallas’ head coach.