To say things are going poorly for the Dallas Cowboys in 2020 is like saying the the surface of the sun is kind of warm. The once prolific offense has fallen off of a cliff without Dak Prescott under center, and it's led to an increased speculation Mike McCarthy might be entertaining grabbing the reins from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, but that's the last thing he wants to do. Instead, McCarthy is justifiably fine with keeping Moore in the driver's seat when it comes to play-calling, considering the drop off in talent at quarterback that's fueling the current inability to score the football.
When asked on Monday about the potential of calling the plays himself, McCarthy slammed the door and welded it shut.
"Absolutely not," he told media. "That's a non-topic."
Objectively speaking, that's fair, because Moore is the same maestro who orchestrated an offense that led the league in yards per game when Prescott was healthy, and one that averaged 32.6 points per game weekly. The forced move to Andy Dalton and now Ben DiNucci, by way of a concussion to Dalton, has made more clear than ever just how valuable Prescott is to the organization -- both as a leader and a quarterback. The narrative of "anyone can put up Prescott's numbers with the weapons he has" is now dead and buried.
The difference in the Cowboys offense post-Prescott is staggering.
Additionally, in dissecting the film, the overall play-calling isn't an issue.
It's the fact the Cowboys lost not only Prescott for the season, but also both starting tackles in Tyron Smith and La'El Collins, along with starting center Joe Looney having spent several weeks on injured reserve. The unit also lost a solid swing tackle in Brandon Knight, who now sits on IR with a knee injury, making for a desperate front that features Cam Erving at left tackle and a severely underperforming Terence Steele at the right edge. Steele has been a turnstile in 2020, one example being in how the undrafted rookie allowed seven pressures and three sacks on rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci in the Week 8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
"I think that it was a lot for him," owner Jerry Jones told 105.3FM the Fan on Tuesday of DiNucci's first NFL start. "I think we certainly, as a team, paid the price to have him come in and under those circumstances. And that's almost trite. It was frankly more than he could handle."
So when attempting to assess DiNucci, who was sacked four times in that game and now six times in his last five quarters, it's key to remember most of what he did or did not do was under duress. The same goes for Andy Dalton, who's been sacked seven times in only two starts, making it exceedingly difficult to execute the plays Moore is calling. So while neither QB is remotely equivalent to Prescott, they'd probably be a little better if they weren't constantly taste testing the grass.
As you can see, prior to the illegal hit that sidelined him for Week 8, Dalton was fed up.
That said, why not move perennial All-Pro guard Zack Martin to right tackle, as the Cowboys did against the Seattle Seahawks when Steele left with injury? It seems a logical decision, and one the team could also use to continue evaluation on Connor McGovern in Year 2 -- having not seen him at all in Year 1 due to a torn pec that pushed him into a redshirt 2019 season. Team exec Stephen Jones feels moving Martin for the remainder of the season would disrupt "continuity" on the offensive line. Of course, having had zero continuity with that unit anyway -- due to injury -- it wouldn't hurt to, well, try and make moves that will decrease your quarterbacks' chances of joining Prescott on IR.
McCarthy will hear none of it, though, passionately mirroring Jones' stance.
"I think it's fantasy football nonsense, unless you have 10 veteran offensive linemen on your football team that you can interchange like that," McCarthy said. "When you're dealing with young players, different combinations, you don't have an offseason, you don't have OTAs, you don't have a real training camp -- to think you're just going to pop people in and out of positions -- I definitely don't think that's the right way to go. I've talked repeatedly about our offensive line, the importance for these guys to play together day-in and day-out. You're always working different combinations.
"There are combinations that we work every week that Zack could potentially go outside. But you only have so many reps that you're able to accomplish in a day. And let's face it, the offensive lines that play the best line up and play the same position next to each other over and over and over again. So I think that's the most important variable in having a successful offensive line."
There's prudence in what McCarthy is preaching here, such as the lack of an offseason that prevented installs and robbed younger players of required reps but Steele, for example, has logged a total of 506 snaps in eight starts through eight games, and is consistently graded as one of (sometimes the) worst tackle in football. There would be just as much prudence in moving Martin to tackle and running a setup that puts a 26-year-old Greg Senat at left tackle over a struggling elder in Cam Erving, then using a returned Joe Looney in rotation with Connor Williams at left guard, next to rookie fifth-round pick Tyler Biadasz at center, bookended with Connor McGovern at right guard.
This is just one variation that might both improve protection up front while also giving the Cowboys a ton of those required reps McCarthy was noting got erased for young players this offseason. It doesn't sound like that's in the cards, however, and frankly it's a a disappointment for a team already wrapped in that emotion.
Because while there's nothing inherently wrong with Moore's play-calling, there's a lot wrong with the offensive line.