I get it. The biggest storyline of the Dallas Cowboys’ comprehensive destruction of the New York Jets is obvious. Micah Parsons is playing like some sort of football alien who showed up to a new planet and was shocked by how primitive the technology is. He has reached the Luka Doncic Level, in which his performances tend to overshadow anything else that happens in a game.
And that is why I would like to get the offense its due credit.
There have been seasons in which being down just one starting offensive lineman would torpedo the Cowboys’ game plan. There have been seasons when the club would face an elite defense, look pedestrian, and we would all collectively shrug, “Well, what do you expect? They faced a great defense.” Yet when the clock hit zeroes on Sunday, Dallas walked out of its home opener having hung 30 points on one of the more talented defenses in the NFL.
Of course, it’s only two games. But right now, it appears that this Mike McCarthy-led offense has most of the answers to the tests. Recall McCarthy’s comment from the offseason to Michael Gehlken of the Morning News, after it was announced that McCarthy would be calling the plays after the departure of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore:
“I’ve been where Kellen’s been. Kellen wants to light the scoreboard up, but I want him to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense. I think when you’re a coordinator, you know but you’re in charge of the offense. Being a head coach and being a play caller, you’re a little more in tune with (everything).”
This, of course, had the “analytics” crowd (myself included) worked into a frenzy. But there is no lone truth on how to best coach offensive football. In reality, the approach should be specific to the game and circumstance at hand. Pending tonight’s games, Dak Prescott will finish Week 2 with the third-lowest average depth of target. This is in part a function of the Jets’ secondary being at its best when it is challenged deep, but it is also a function of understanding the opponent. If there were ever a situation where you could sell me on the idea of minimizing risk and simply taking what is there, it would be a situation where Zach Wilson is under center for the opposition. The Jets were going to have a hard time scoring. But if Dallas consistently engaged in risky behavior that gave New York more opportunities, the Jets would have more chances for a random bust that leads to a big play, like the 68-yard pass to Garrett Wilson for their lone touchdown.
I believe this applies to Dallas’ red-zone “struggles” as well. The fan base is certainly worked up over the fact that the Cowboys kicked four consecutive field goals in the second half, two of which came on the heels of the offense taking over in New York territory. It is clearly a failure to kick a field goal when you have first-and-goal at the one-yard line three plays prior, and I believe McCarthy should probably scrap the Peyton Hendershot end-around. The Cowboys had a few negative running plays in the red zone that set them back, plus a Tony Pollard touchdown negated by a holding penalty on Tyron Smith. Once these setbacks occurred, McCarthy decided he was going to make sure the offense got points, pile them up three at a time, and put the game out of reach for Zach Wilson. Sure enough, when the Jets faced first and second downs, they ran the ball seven times and threw it 27, which resulted in three interceptions that gave Dallas more opportunities to pad its lead. I don’t believe the approach in the red zone would have been the same had Aaron Rodgers been healthy. It goes against the core of my football constitution, but in some situations, I do understand the logic. For the proponents of “complementary football,” this is the stuff of dreams. Dallas married its offensive approach to its defensive approach and tailored that to the weaknesses of its opponent.
If you simply look at the box score, you would think the Cowboys’ rushing attack had a rough afternoon against all-world defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. And it’s true: it wasn’t impressive. But, again, the script of the game is a critical factor in why Dallas produced just three yards per carry on 44 attempts. McCarthy leaned into a conservative approach once it became clear that all he needed to do was get a few points out of every drive, and not turn the ball over. And the Cowboys didn’t.
Shortly before halftime, Dallas lost backup left guard Chuma Edoga (who was filling in for injured starter Tyler Smith) to an elbow injury. McCarthy was down to his third option at that spot: undrafted rookie free agent T.J. Bass. This only further reinforced the game plan of protecting the quarterback with the run game: on first and second down, Dallas ran the ball 37 times and threw it 26. When passes were called, the ball got out very quickly. All of these elements matter when looking at a game’s run/pass split totals.
Here’s something that doesn’t need a caveat: when the Cowboys did go to the air (and they did throw it 38 times), they were wildly efficient. Prescott started the game 13-for-13, the most consecutive completions to start a game of his career. He finished with an 81.6 completion percentage. CeeDee Lamb matched his career high in receptions with 11, seven of which moved the chains. Pollard provided his normal efficiency as a receiver, converting eight targets into seven catches. Jalen Tolbert didn’t look overwhelmed filling in for Brandin Cooks, and the tight end room provided two touchdowns.
All told, the Cowboys finished Week 2 with the second-highest EPA/play on dropbacks. And they accomplished this against one of the more stout pass defenses they will see this year. So while the Cowboys didn’t put forth the most visually captivating effort through the air, they were methodically tactical.
McCarthy had a sound game plan, and his team executed it.
Dallas is simply not a team you want to fall behind against, because Dan Quinn and Company will make it painful. That’s why I didn’t have a major issue with McCarthy electing to receive after winning the toss, which, in a vacuum, is a decision that drives me crazy. But then the offense responded with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. It immediately put Wilson in hot water (Parsons got the first of his two sacks on the third snap), and the Jets boiled from there. That won’t work against every team, although we may see it again with lowly Arizona up next and Dallas weathering some injury-related murkiness up front.
Complementary football is mostly a myth, after all. But if there were ever a case for its practical approach, that case was made on Sunday.