Here are five ways new head coach Mike McCarthy can make the Cowboys contenders and be considered a success
Success is expected when you are the head coach of the Cowboys, so what steps does McCarthy need to take?
It did not take long for the Dallas Cowboys to find Jason Garrett's replacement. Less than 24 hours after the team announced that it was finally moving on from the long-time coach, it was widely reported that the Cowboys former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy.
The merits of this hiring can be debated ad nauseam (and you can listen to me, Will Brinson, and Patrik Walker discuss them in the podcast linked below), but that's not what we're here to discuss. We're here to look forward, at what McCarthy needs to do to find success for however long he holds the position.
He's coming into a job where immediate success is the expectation, with Jerry Jones stating that he preferred a candidate with previous NFL head coaching experience to a coordinator or college coach due to his that the latter types of candidates experience far less success in their jobs than the former. McCarthy has a strong roster on his side, but roster talent alone is not enough to find the kind of success that Jones envisions, as we saw this season.
Below, we'll detail five different ways that McCarthy himself can add value and help the Cowboys get back to where they want to be.
1. Have a plan to maximize Dak Prescott
Prescott's contract has expired, but Jerry and Stephen Jones have stated on numerous occasions that he will be the quarterback for the Cowboys next season. Whether on the franchise tag or a long-term deal, Dak is going to be under center for this team, likely for McCarthy's entire tenure. And that means any success the coach has can and will start with how he's able to develop Prescott.
McCarthy himself admitted as such in an interview with The Athletic. "The offense has to be built around making the quarterback successful," McCarthy said. "That's what I've always believed, and that won't change."
Building around Prescott is far different from building around Aaron Rodgers. The two have in common the ability to make plays by using their athleticism to escape from the rush and create outside of the offensive structure, but apart from that they are not all that similar as passers.
Rodgers was able to find great success early in McCarthy's tenure with throws to the perimeter of the field on isolation routes, such as back-shoulder fades to the likes of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, and later Davante Adams. Rodgers was also averse to play-action passing, as he was not very comfortable turning his back to the defense. Prescott is far better at attacking the middle of the field than the sidelines, which means the Cowboys should use different route combinations than those that populated the Packers' playbook. Dak has also been a far more effective passer when throwing after a run fake than out of straight drop-backs. The Cowboys incorporated a ton of play-action early this season, but their usage tailed off as the year went along. Getting back to that strength should be an important component of McCarthy's offense.
An increased use of shifts and motion (especially at-snap motion, which the Ravens and 49ers have led the way on this season) should be part of the plan as well, in order to keep defenses guessing about what's coming before and after the snap. Plays that include a shift and/or motion have tended to be more efficient than those that don't, and while they likely cannot be used on every play, their extensive use should be encouraged in order to put Prescott and his skill position corps in position to succeed.
McCarthy will have at his disposal one of the NFL's best offensive lines, with three multi-time All-Pros anchoring the unit. That should allow him to afford Prescott excellent protection on the regular, but that doesn't mean the majority of the passing plays should be as slow-developing as many of Green Bay's were. Prescott excels in the quick game, and especially on the RPO concepts that comprised so much of his offense at Mississippi State. The Packers did not use RPO action all that offense during McCarthy's tenure, but he would be wise to change that tune in his new job. Utilizing Prescott as a runner, especially in short yardage situations, should also be on the docket. He's a good decision-maker on read-option runs, and the Cowboys did not tap into that part of his skill set often enough under Garrett's leadership.
There will be a temptation to base the offense around the exploits of $90 million running back Ezekiel Elliott, but despite the fact that he is an obviously good player and should be heavily involved in the team's plans, it needs to be accepted up and down the organization that running is far less efficient than passing and thus Elliott should be viewed as a complement to Prescott as opposed to the other way around. That's true whether Prescott performs like the MVP candidate he was for more than half of this season or the above-average quarterback he has been for the majority of his career. The $90 million for Elliott has already been spent. (Or will be spent. The deal hasn't actually started yet.) You don't have to run the ball down opponents' throats to try to justify the price tag. Instead, you should utilize Elliott's versatility to buoy what Prescott can do.
The Cowboys can put Elliott in better position to succeed than he has been over the past few seasons by not tasking him with running into stacked boxes as often (Kellen Moore did a far better job of this than his predecessor, Scott Linehan); not running him up the middle on first downs as often; utilizing him more often in "and-short" situations and near the goal line, where running is often more effective than passing into windows constricted by a lack of space; and getting him more involved in the passing game than he was this season -- and not just in the screen game.
It's also perfectly fine for the Cowboys to lighten Elliott's load by reducing his snap share and giving a bit more work to Tony Pollard. The explosive rookie ranked first in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' Elusive Rating this season, forcing 26 missed tackles on only 101 touches and averaging 4.51 yards after contact per attempt. He was an excellent receiver during his time at Memphis, and that part of his skill set went under-utilized throughout his rookie season. (He had only 15 catches.) In addition to providing the defense with a different look and actually getting value out of last year's fourth-round pick, doing this would have the benefit of not over-working Elliott, who has had at least 350 touches in three of his four NFL seasons and is under contract for six more years. If the Cowboys want him to come close to making it through that deal, they need to pull back on the throttle a little bit.
Dallas would also do well to prioritize finding more Pollard types who can be threats in both the run game and the pass game, as well as receivers who can play either outside or in the slot. Keeping defenses guessing is an important part of success in the NFL these days, and that's far more difficult to do if you line up the same way on every snap. Versatility in the run game and the pass game can only help.
With that in mind, it's obviously important for Dallas to retain Amari Cooper in addition to Prescott. He slowed down toward the end of this season, but Cooper also played injured all year. He has flashed extraordinary talent throughout his career, and he has shown marvelous chemistry with Prescott at times. The same is true of Michael Gallup, who emerged as a legitimate co-No. 1 while Cooper struggled down the stretch, but it'd be best to keep them in tandem as opposed to having to find a No. 2 and a new slot receiver to complement Gallup. (Assuming Randall Cobb is let go, because he's likely too expensive to retain given the Cowboys' need to pay so many other core players.)
That third receiver spot is an important one, and it'd be good for the Cowboys to find a speedy type who excels with the ball in his hands, like the 49ers did with Deebo Samuel in last year's draft. That'd give them a technician (Cooper), a deep threat (Gallup), and a YAC guy (whoever), all of which you need to challenge defenses in a variety of ways, to a variety of areas on the field.
2. Welcome new ideas
McCarthy has spent the past several weeks telling any journalist who will listen about all the learning he did throughout his season away from football. In interviews with NFL.com, NBC, and The Athletic, McCarthy detailed his extensive plans for a football technology unit and an analytics department, both of which represent significant departures from the way he operated in Green Bay.
There's a flow chart for his proposed 14-person Football Technology Department, including a six-person video unit and an eight-person analytics team. The Chief of Football Technology tops the department, which will run both video and analytics. The top analytics lieutenants will be a Coordinator of Database Management, Coordinator of Football Analytics and Coordinator of Mathematical Innovation. Below them: Football Technology Engineer and two Football Technology Analysts. And finally, a Football Technology Intern. McCarthy spent a day last summer at Pro Football Focus offices in Cincinnati, discovering how much more data is available than he realized. PFF data will be a key component of his analytics tree, as will GPS tracking of players and Next Gen Stats.
The mathematical innovation hire will be crucial. "This guy here has to see the world differently," McCarthy said, pointing to that job on the flow chart. "He will be very, very important."
But employing "computer folk," as Giants GM Dave Gettleman likes to call them, is not enough. You have to be open to incorporating these ideas into your decision-making process. Garrett famously told the media this season that not only did the Cowboys not utilize that type of information in their in-game decision-making, he did not even want to receive the information.
That doesn't mean McCarthy should do what "the analytics say" every single time, in every single situation. It just means that he should include evidence-based information as one of many factors in his decisions, so that if he does go against what "the analytics say," he knows that he's doing so, and can have a good reason why.
3. Make better in-game decisions
This is a big one. McCarthy is the same guy who once kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from inside the 25-yard line, then defended the decision the following day, even after his team lost in overtime. I have written extensively on this website about Garrett's in fourth-and-short situations, and how his extreme preference for kicking field goals and punting back to the other team cost the Cowboys meaningful opportunities for points and wins.
Given the setup of the Dallas offense, with Prescott (6-2, 238 pounds), Elliott (6-0, 228 pounds), Pollard (first in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' Elusive Rating), and the NFL's highest-paid (and arguably best) offensive line, McCarthy should become extremely aggressive when faced with the same types of situations. He was ahead of the curve on fourth downs for much of his Green Bay tenure, but became overly conservative by the end. He needs to get back to letting his offense try to convert.
McCarthy had a pretty good record on challenges during his Green Bay tenure, with his 47 of 93 overall mark dragged down by two outlier seasons (5 of 14 in 2009 and 1 of 6 in 2014). Being more judicious with challenges -- which should almost always be saved for high-leverage situations and instances where the call is at least somewhat likely of being overturned -- is another improvement he can make.
The Packers were often among the better two-minute offenses in the NFL during McCarthy's tenure, but much of that was due to Rodgers' brilliance. The coach was criticized fairly often for his clock management (another thing he has in common with Garrett) and timeout usage, both of which are things that should be fairly easy to fix. If he can't, that's a concern.
4. Be more creative on defense
The "more creative" here applies to both what McCarthy's defenses were like in Green Bay and what the Cowboys' defenses were like these past couple years.
In particular, multiple opponents publicly stated in the last two years that they knew exactly what the Dallas defense was doing before the snap. The Rams offensive line was very open that they knew what was happening on in their playoff win over the Cowboys last year. And this season, several opposing quarterbacks and coaches stated that they knew the Cowboys would be running Cover 3 or Cover 1 on a near every-snap basis. In Green Bay, McCarthy kept Dom Capers as his defensive coordinator long past the time when his defenses were effective, and despite the fact that Capers' defenses kept being beaten by the same types of plays in the same types of ways. (Go watch any game where the Packers faced a read-option run, but especially the one where Colin Kaepernick lit the field on fire in the 2012 divisional round.)
The Cowboys need to base their defensive strategy on confusing the opposing offense rather than merely out-executing them. Executing better than the opponent is obviously important, but given how complex NFL offenses are these days, and how smart opposing coordinators and coaches can take advantage of a defense when they know exactly what's coming, it's paramount that the Cowboys get a bit more exotic in their schemes, and especially in terms of disguising their post-snap plans.
Incorporating more blitzing should absolutely be in the cards, for example. The Cowboys have been among the most blitz-averse teams for a while now, and they sent an extra rusher on only 23 percent of snaps this season, the seventh-lowest rate in the NFL. If you take a look at the Ravens -- who are incorporating evidence-based decision-making into their play calls -- they sent a blitz on 55 percent of defensive snaps this season. The Ravens also led the NFL in quarterback knockdown rate, at 10.8 percent. It's difficult not to see the connection there.
The Cowboys as an organization should also be open to valuing different positions in different ways than they have in the past. They have not invested significant resources in the safety position since the Darren Woodson era, and it has been a weak spot for them for years. They have to admit it hasn't worked, and cannot come into next season with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods as their starters. Expanding their idea of acceptable size measurements at certain positions is a must as well. They can't pass on the next T.J. Watt for the next Taco Charlton because the latter fits their rigid positional benchmarks and the former does not. You have to be willing to make exceptions for superior talents.
Multiple reports indicate that McCarthy is courting Saints linebackers coach Mike Nolan to fill the position, bring their relationship full circle, as Nolan hired McCarthy to be his offensive coordinator in San Francisco back in 2005, which led to McCarthy's hiring in Green Bay. The defenses Nolan has coordinated throughout his career have been largely average, with a few seasons where they were very good and a few where they were very bad.
It's certainly possible that Nolan has learned a bunch of new tricks during his three years with the Saints, but it's at least worth noting that he has been willing to switch between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes throughout his career. The Cowboys have been a 4-3 team for the past several seasons, though those specific alignments matter less in the modern NFL, when teams are rarely in their base defense anyway.
5. Get the suspensions under control
You can't win if your players aren't on the field. Jason Garrett liked to say that the Cowboys prioritized the "right kind of guys," but in recent seasons his teams were repeat violators of the NFL's personal conduct, performance enhancing drug, and substance abuse policies, resulting in numerous suspensions.
Since 2014, Orlando Scandrick, Jakar Hamilton, Josh Brent, Greg Hardy, Rolando McClain, Joseph Randle, R.J. Dill, Randy Gregory, Demarcus Lawrence, Damontre Moore, David Irving, Ezekiel Elliott, Shaquelle Evans, Terrance Williams, Robert Quinn, and Rico Gathers have all been suspended for violating one of the aforementioned policies.
That's 16 different players, who were suspended a total of 24 times, leading to 102 missed games. All three of those totals lead the league, with the number of suspensions and missed games blowing the rest of the NFL out of the water. (The closest teams are the Giants and Jets with 19 suspensions, and the Bears with 84 games missed due to suspension.) The team was responsible for 7 percent of all suspensions during that time. That cannot be acceptable to the next coach.
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