Tuesday, June 18, 2024 Jun 18, 2024
87° F Dallas, TX

The Cowboys’ New Offense Is Too Safe to Succeed

The blowout loss to San Francisco confirmed every nagging suspicion about Mike McCarthy's uninspired new scheme.
Dallas' new schemes aren't doing its quarterback any favors. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

What occurred on Sunday night in Santa Clara was purely dumbfounding. Although we went into Week 5 aware that the Cowboys weren’t quite on the 49ers’ level, the assumption was that they were close. This notion has now been so thoroughly dispelled that it is difficult to care about the rest of the regular season. After two consecutive postseason exits at the hands of San Francisco, the Cowboys decided it was time to move on from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and put the play sheet in the hands of Mike McCarthy. Sink or swim, the offense was now under the control of the head coach as he sought to get over the hump.

He did not. With all five linemen finally healthy for the first time all season, Dallas produced less than 200 yards of total offense. The first four drives produced just eight yards, and almost 18 minutes elapsed before the initial first down was recorded. It might seem harsh to judge the Cowboys against the gold standard of the league, but this is the team Dallas aspires to sit at the table with. As it stands,, the coaching staff doesn’t have the juice to even be in the same room. 

It’s pretty simple: Niners coach Kyle Shanahan makes things easy for his quarterback, and to this point, McCarthy has failed in that regard. This is not to relieve Dak Prescott of any and all fault for the atrocious performance. But the talent discrepancy between these two teams is not such that Prescott trying to produce offense should look like brain surgery while Brock Purdy is able to move the ball with such ease that it looks like an afterthought. 

Where did CeeDee Lamb go? Five targets for a player many of us believed was, like Dallas, on the cusp of elite, is not going to cut it. The 49ers defense is legitimate, and it’s probably the unit the Cowboys envision themselves to be. Fine. But with Brandin Cooks, Michael Gallup, and Tony Pollard healthy, how is it possible that if San Francisco sells out to limit Lamb, no one else can make a play? How is it possible that the coaching staff can’t find a way to get one of the players open enough to keep the game in check?

Through five weeks, the Cowboys are experiencing an identity crisis on offense. They don’t know who they are, or who they want to be. The blowout wins are nice, but they’re also misleading. They have yet to prove they can grind out first downs for a full 60 minutes, or mix in big plays in a way that keeps a defense off-balance. Does McCarthy trust his quarterback? Because if he does, it certainly isn’t showing up in the game plan. 

Prescott ranks 32nd out of 36 qualified quarterbacks in average depth of target. He ranks third in the percentage of throws that have been attempted short of the first-down marker. When he tried to push the ball down the field on Sunday night in the third quarter, he overthrew Cooks by a good five yards. The pass was never close, and neither was a subsequent deep ball that the 49ers picked off. At 28-10, the game was somewhat out of hand, but if Prescott and Cooks connect on that shot, perhaps Dallas has a chance to make a game of it. 

Those YOLO-balls notwithstanding, for the most part, Prescott isn’t turning the ball over like he did last year, although three second-half picks could be a concern. He’s top-10 in turnover-worthy throw percentage. Great! But at some point, the deep ball has to be a regular consideration to keep the defense honest. For context, Prescott ranked roughly middle of the pack in average depth of target last season. The coaching staff has clearly decided it wants to rein him in. And it allows the defense to simply sit on the Cowboys’ core concepts and limit the yards after the catch. Essentially, McCarthy has seriously overreacted to Prescott’s turnover issues of a season ago.

Pro Football Focus tracks a metric it calls “Plus Throws,” which boil down to attempts where a quarterback puts the ball accurately on a receiver away from coverage. These are throws that take a little moxie. Prescott ranks last among 31 qualified starters. Again, last year, middle of the pack. 

Disclaimer: some of this is simply the way these games have unfolded. You could make the case that Dallas hasn’t needed Prescott to press the issue given the blowout wins over the Giants, Jets and Patriots. The concerning part is that when the Cowboys do need to let it all hang out, they appear wholly unable to do so.

Dallas wants to be a team that runs the ball and controls the clock. So do the 49ers. The difference is, San Francisco marries its run and pass game in a way that allows its quarterback to make easy throws to receivers running across the field. At times, it feels as if the Dallas offense is really two offenses: the run game and the pass game. Never is that more evident than when you run into Shanahan’s scheme.

It is inexplicable that a $40 million-a-year signal-caller is less trusted than pick 262 from the 2022 draft. But that is what we saw on Sunday evening. On the first drive of the second half, trailing by two scores, the Cowboys opted to kick a 50-yard field goal on fourth and five. They ran the ball on third and four, losing a yard on an inside handoff to Rico Dowdle. You aren’t going to beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road with playcalling like that. Let your quarterback make a play on third down, and if you don’t make it, go for it on fourth. At some point, you have to apply a little pressure. The sample size is quite small with just five games, but the Cowboys rank as the least aggressive team on fourth down in the league. 

Perhaps we look in a month and the Cowboys have played a few more games that follow a regular script and the offense has opened up. But what we’ve witnessed seems far too intentional to be happenstance. Prescott has proven himself to be a capable playmaker, yet the coaching staff is limiting his ability to impact the game. If McCarthy is afraid of his quarterback’s decision-making, that’s a problem. If this truly is a make-or-break year for the head coach, it’s difficult to envision him getting the offense over the hump by turning his franchise quarterback into a bus driver.


Jake Kemp

Jake Kemp

View Profile
Jake Kemp covers the Cowboys and Mavericks for StrongSide. He is a lifelong Dallas sports fan who previously worked for…