With a 5-1 record, there are many reasons for the Dallas Cowboys' success.
Quarterback Dak Prescott's return from injury and MVP-level play
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s stellar game plans
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s ability to reshape a unit that was battered and bruised in 2020
Running back Ezekiel Elliott’s return to form as one of the NFL’s best running backs
Cornerback Trevon Diggs’ otherworldly start with seven interceptions
Rookie linebacker/defensive end Micah Parsons’ fieldwide playmaking
The front office’s drafting and economical free-agent signings
It seems credit goes to just about everybody but the coach, Mike McCarthy.
“That’s a lack of understanding of how teams work,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “Those guys aren’t there but for at the behest of Mike. I can assure you he was there with both [Moore and Quinn] hard and with commitment. So that should tell you Mike’s coaching them is a great asset.
“At the end of the day, you hear about complementing each other on offense and defense and that is also the head coach’s job, the bringing together, the complementing, plus being the lead person in setting the tone of the team relative to body language, relative to the kinds of things you’re trying to tell the players as a team. He’s your leader and doing an outstanding job.”
Coming off a disastrous 6-10 season in 2020 that can be explained away by so many things -- the COVID-19 pandemic, Prescott's ankle injury that cost him 11 games, the defensive collapse (allowed 29.6 points per game, ranking 28th), the death of strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul -- McCarthy entered 2021 with questions.
Since he is not calling plays and doesn't have a defensive background, some wonder what it is McCarthy actually does.
It’s the same wondering former coach Jason Garrett had to deal with after he gave up playcalling in 2013. Garrett did not get credit for the 12-4 season the Cowboys had in 2014 -- that was given to quarterback Tony Romo, running back DeMarco Murray, receiver Dez Bryant and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. He didn't in 2016 (13-3), either -- that was Elliott and Linehan smartly employing a rookie Prescott with an opportunistic defense, though Garrett was named Coach of the Year. Same thing in 2018 (10-6) -- with the trade for receiver Amari Cooper.
Ultimately Garrett was credited for his consistency of approach. As repetitive as it seemed publicly, the players bought in even if he could not achieve postseason success.
McCarthy’s steadiness has been a calming influence for a team that is constantly in the spotlight.
“It’s definitely needed in a position of leadership,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s like all of us, you learn things not only about the game, the preparation part of it, the performance part of it, but you definitely have to learn about yourself. I’m a big believer in listening to your own language. I think you’re coaching a different generation today than when I got into the league in the early ’90s. I think that’s part of the learning process. Again, if you want consistency, you have to have consistency from the leadership position.”
In preparing his team physically, McCarthy takes almost a scientific approach. He has meetings with strength and conditioning coach Harold Nash and director of rehabilitation Britt Brown every day, studying after practice the GPS numbers that track activity of each player.
Instead of a traditional practice on Fridays, the Cowboys go through a regeneration day designed for them to be at their peak mentally and physically by kickoff. After the Monday night win against the Philadelphia Eagles, McCarthy did not practice the players in pads the following week.
“We’re all a product of our own experiences,” Cooper said. “I remember him saying one time he’s run a team into the ground before. He said that, so he’ll tell you that. And I guess it wasn’t a good thing and he learned from that experience. So yeah, now he goes about things a little bit differently. He’s really conscious of how we might feel throughout the week coming off a games on Sunday.”
McCarthy gives his assistants freedom. Moore is the biggest beneficiary. Upon arriving in Dallas, McCarthy surprisingly said he would keep Moore as the playcaller. When he was with the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy briefly gave up playcalling in 2015 before resuming those duties and saying he would never give them up again.
Moore is currently directing the No. 1 offense in both yards per game (460.8) and points per game (34.2).
“[McCarthy] is an awesome resource for me as I go through each and every week just to talk through conversations, ‘Hey, what do you think about this situation? What do you think if we maybe did X, Y and Z?’” Moore said. “And we’re able to bounce those ideas off together. And I think as this is going into our second year together I think we’re so well aligned as far as our approach and our system and the routine that we take each and every week, that we’re in a really, really good place.”
Quinn said one of McCarthy’s “superpowers is he’s a really consistent person.”
“He doesn’t ride the wave, so I think he can see [where] others are and say, ‘Hey man, let’s keep this thing right in the middle.’ But he has a good connection with the players. He’s direct in his communication. I think as a ballplayer and as coach that’s what you want. Give it to us straight at what we need and how we’re going to go about winning.”
Winning is what matters most. Winning is why Jones hired McCarthy. He went to the playoffs in nine of his 13 years with the Packers and had a record of 125-77-2 (.618). He went to four NFC Championship Games. He won a Super Bowl.
After the season-opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McCarthy had a 17-27-1 record since his last playoff season with the Packers in 2016. For comparison’s sake, Matt Patricia had a 13-29-1 record in 43 games as the Detroit Lions coach from 2018-20.
The Cowboys have not lost since, but there are some who believe the Cowboys are winning in spite of McCarthy, not because of him, pointing to fourth-down decisions and clock management.
In the Week 2 win against the Los Angeles Chargers, McCarthy was criticized for settling for a 56-yard field goal, saying the clock he was watching inside SoFi Stadium went out. In the Week 3 win against the Eagles, he passed on calling a timeout at the end of the half, drawing Peyton Manning’s ire on the Monday Night Football broadcast.
In Sunday’s win against the New England Patriots, he made some eyebrow-raising decisions with a replay challenge and going for it -- or not -- on a few fourth-down plays. On the first series of the game, he opted to go for it at the Dallas 34 and was stopped, leading to a challenge that was denied.
“It’s obvious I have great confidence in our offense,” McCarthy said, “and rightfully so.”
In the fourth quarter, trailing by a point with 2:47 to play, he opted for a 51-yard field goal attempt by Greg Zuerlein and the kick hooked left.
On the game-tying drive, there was some confusion as to the down after a 24-yard completion to receiver CeeDee Lamb after two penalties on guard Connor Williams. The broadcast feed had it as second-and-25; the down markers on the field had it as third down.
McCarthy called timeout with 24 seconds left and sent Zuerlein in for a 49-yard field goal attempt to tie the game, leaving time on the clock for New England.
ESPN’s win probability model favored both field goal attempts. On the first, the win probability was 51.1% to kick and 45.5% to go for it. On the second, it was 34.2% kick, 23.7% to go for it.
While there has been second-guessing on those decisions, the Cowboys won and have continued to win. They have a 97.1% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index.
“The one thing you can’t know is how does an individual act when he’s under pressure, how does he go about the task at hand and just what happens when you’re in the foxhole,” Jones said. “And he absolutely was outstanding with our disappointing first year and responded in a way that you’d want a coach to respond in a game or for a period of time during a season or over a season.
"We got to have some early trials and I’ve had that happen a couple of times before. Jimmy Johnson and I, we lost early under a heavy-handed aura of criticism, and so I saw how that worked out. With Mike, he deserves all A's there.”