DALLAS — Maybe we should have moved beyond our initial skepticism of Mike McCarthy as Cowboys coach. His first season produced a 6-10 record and some questionable coaching hires, but a pair of 12-5 seasons served, for the most part, to put those concerns to rest.
For the most part.
Then McCarthy goes to Indianapolis for the scouting combine and feels compelled once more to expand on the dismissal of Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator — a move that only a low percentage of Cowboys fans would question despite the team’s high rankings in recent years — and he says this:
”Kellen wants to light the scoreboard up, but I want him to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense.’’
I don’t believe that was a blanket condemnation for Moore’s refusal to feature the team’s running backs. I do believe that McCarthy was actually watching the games last season, even though he wasn’t calling plays. It’s hard to say any team was really more determined to run than Dallas.
The Cowboys ranked sixth in rushing attempts last season. The Eagles, who were practically given credit for reinventing the running game based around quarterback Jalen Hurts, ran the ball just 13 more times than Dallas despite finishing 14-3. The Cowboys, in fact, weren’t very good at running the ball late in the season when the backs were either wearing down or out and with tackle Terence Steele on the sideline, yet Dallas kept running.
I think McCarthy’s statement was more a reflection of dissatisfaction with occasional play-calling from Moore. The play that stood out in the wake of the playoff loss to the 49ers was a second-and-2 just before halftime at the San Francisco 18. The Cowboys went empty backfield and Dak Prescott was intercepted by linebacker Fred Warner. Moments later, the 49ers kicked a field goal, so the halftime score was 9-6 San Francisco when it should have been in Dallas’ favor based on where the Cowboys had the ball inside the two-minute warning.
Little things like that drove fans (and apparently McCarthy) nuts. Still the notion that the Cowboys need to get back to running the ball more — no matter the thinking — is a frightening one. It reminds us that McCarthy is from another era and that the mostly young play-callers dominating the league (Andy Reid is the notable exception here) are throwing the ball with freedom.
It used to be that you could look up the top 10 rushing teams at the end of the season, and it would be filled with playoff clubs. That has always caused confusion on the causation-correlation front for some, but it has merely indicated that when teams have a lead — especially a big lead — they run the ball to drain the clock and shorten the game. Some think running the ball 40 times leads to winning when it‘s really winning that leads to running the ball 40 times.
I think McCarthy knows this. Let’s trust that he does.
But even that approach to football philosophy is fading. The bottom nine teams in rushing attempts this season included six playoff teams. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs (24th) were joined by Minnesota (27), the Chargers (28), Cincinnati (29), Miami (31) and Tampa Bay (32). Except for the Bucs, who won the sad-sack South in the NFC, these are teams that won between nine and 14 games and still found little time (or need) for running the football. Meanwhile, five non-playoff teams (Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, Cleveland and Pittsburgh) ranked in the top 10 in rush attempts.
A more important note for the Cowboys is that they ranked behind only Kansas City at converting first downs when throwing on 1st-and-10. They ranked 22nd in converting first downs when they ran on first. This is not a team that needs to increase its emphasis on running.
Now, of course, team personnel will dictate whether it makes more sense to run or pass, and if the Cowboys aren’t going to engineer a significant upgrade at wide receiver, then they may not have much choice in this matter. We all know Dak Prescott tied for the league lead in interceptions while missing five games and has vowed that it will never happen again.
But McCarthy appeared to be speaking indirectly to or about his quarterback when he said, “If we’ve got to give up some production and take care of the football a little better to get that, then that’s what we’ll do because we have a really good defense.’’
Sounds more like a head coach determined not to lose games with his offense than one who believes his offense is capable of being the winning factor.
It’s just early March. We don’t even know who the Cowboys running backs will be in 2023. Ezekiel Elliott may be headed for his release and Tony Pollard might get the franchise tag to stay. They need another runner if they’re so determined to ground things out, but heaven help us all if the Cowboys use a first-round pick on Texas’ Bijan Robinson or any other back.
Right now we’re just wondering if a franchise that once ranked ahead of the curve with its use of computerized scouting in the ‘70s is operating in the wrong century of football thinking. No need for the Jones Boys and McCarthy to prove it by putting a running back at the top of their draft-day needs.