Here are five points I’ve come up with after watching last week’s film of the Washington game and as the Cowboys transition to Sunday night’s game in Philadelphia.
It is too early to pull the plug on the Mike McCarthy era.
Despite the slow start, the Cowboys would be wise to let McCarthy fully implement his program over a number of years. The one-time Super Bowl winner has over 60-percent of his games in a 14-year career with only a pair of losing seasons. He has won at least 10 games eight times and guided his team to nine playoff berths. Most important, McCarthy has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy and learned how to guide a team to the winner’s circle. With that in mind, the Cowboys should give him every opportunity to build this team in his vision. He not only needs time to establish his culture and standards but he needs a little to identify a set of “OKGs” (our kind of guys) to provide positive examples for how things should get done under his direction.
Some of the holdovers who were considered leaders in the Jason Garrett era could be miscast as captains under the new regime. McCarthy needs enough time to evaluate which guys are really worthy of wearing the “C” on their chests and which ones are better fits in secondary roles.
The head coach also needs to take a long, hard look at his coaching staff to determine which coaches are effective teachers with the capacity to help players take information from the board to the field. Great teachers are able to simplify complex strategies to help players better understand their roles and responsibilities. In addition, great coaches are also able to help players refine their games through diligent work on the practice field. If they can add tools to a player’s tool belt, they can transform average players into good ones and transform good players into stars. McCarthy needs more time to evaluate his coaches to determine which ones should remain as he builds the foundation of the program.
Remember, the Cowboys didn’t make this hire with only 2020 in mind. McCarthy was brought in to build a perennial title contender like he helped build in Green Bay. Considering he took his first Packers’ team from 1-4 to 4-8 to 8-8 during his first season before guiding them to the NFC Championship Game a year later, the Cowboys should exhibit plenty of patience before making a move on a proven winner.
The Everson Griffen trade creates more opportunities for Randy Gregory and Bradlee Anae.
The Cowboys’ decision to swap the * time Pro Bowl defender for a sixth-round pick was all about giving their young players more playing time. Gregory has returned to action after being on a lengthy suspension and Anae is ready for more time after an early-season apprenticeship. Each defender is a better fit as 3-4 edge rushers due to their ability to play from a three-point stance or standup position off the edge. Gregory, in particular, is the long, rangy athlete that perfectly fills the role as an edge defender. He is athletic enough to drop into coverage on occasion or rush from a variety of angles as part of a five-man pressure package.
Anae is a high-energy defender with the non-stop motor that every defensive coordinator covets. He’s been a limited participant to these points but the former Utah standout has the worker bee mentality needed to energize the defense. With Griffen out of the mix, the Cowboys should be able to get Gregory and Anae more snaps in the coming weeks.
Offensive tackle should be a top priority in the 2021 draft.
Before you @ me regarding pressing needs on defense, the Cowboys must consider using a top pick on an offensive tackle in 2021. The injuries to Tyron Smith and La’el Collins have rendered the team’s high-powered offense punchless and put the spotlight on warts along the offensive line.
Smith hasn’t played a full season since 2015 with a number of injuries sending him to the sidelines. Although he rates as one of the NFL’s best bargains based on his salary compared to his play, his absences leave the Cowboys unable to sufficiently protect their franchise quarterback or create holes for their five-star running back. The Cowboys need a better backup plan for the immediate and long-term future with Father Time and the injury bug playing a role in Smith’s availability.
Collins should bounce back from his season-ending injury but there are still some questions about his best position on the field. Despite grading out as a top offensive tackle, he is a natural fit at offensive guard and the acquisition of a blue-chip prospect could help the Cowboys build a fortress at the point of attack.
While some observers will suggest the Cowboys should make adding young defenders a top priority, the team might be better served adding a top offensive tackle to ensure the offense remains a dominant unit when Dak Prescott returns to the lineup. Building strength on strength served the Cowboys well when the offensive line featured a collection of first-round talents a few years ago. It might be time to revisit those tactics to help the Cowboys climb back to the top.
Can Mike Nolan get the defense to play as one?
This is the million-dollar question that is asked every week but the defensive coordinator must come up with an answer to help the Cowboys get off the snide. The defense has struggled with scheme comprehension, poor communication, gap integrity, situational awareness and overall physicality through the first half of the season. The inconsistency in each of those areas has prevented a talented unit from playing to its potential despite learning a new scheme. Nolan’s job is to identify why the defense is struggling in those areas and find a solution to remedy the problem.
Studying the All-22 coaches’ tape, the Cowboys are disjointed and disconnected on defense. They aren’t playing together and the lack of cohesion shows a lack of trust between players and coaches. Defenders are jumping out of their assigned gaps because they don’t believe others will make the plays that they are expected to make based on the call. The lack of trust and cohesion also extends to coverage with defenders repeatedly blowing assignments due to uncertainty and overall comprehension. The unit doesn’t play on a string and it is on Nolan to call players out in film sessions whenever they are out of position due to a mental error. The mild-mannered defensive architect has simplified the scheme to make it easier for the players but they simply aren’t doing their jobs.
Until each defender commits to understanding their assignment and playing with the proper technique (with energy and maximum effort), the Cowboys will continue to struggle on defense. Nolan has to find a way to encourage and inspire his unit to play together to get the job done. We’ll see if he can tap into their hearts and minds to change their habits to get better results on game day.
With Andy Dalton in concussion protocol, the Cowboys could hand the ball to the rookie from JMU. DiNucci* didn’t look overwhelmed by the prospect of playing in a regular-season game when he stepped into the huddle against the Washington Football Team. He completed 2 of 3 passes for 38 yards with a 32-yard strike to Amari Cooper that stood out on tape. The timing, touch, and ball placement were superb for a quarterback unexpectedly thrust into action. It shows the coaching staff and his teammates that he is more than capable of making big-time throws when called upon.
That said, the Cowboys must find a way to make him comfortable as a first-time starter if he has to play against the Eagles. Kellen* Moore needs to tailor to the game plan to suit his talents (quick-rhythm passer with a big arm) while keeping it simple enough for him to play fast and free at the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys’ offensive play-caller must also consider the offensive line’s limitations as he builds out a plan to help the rookie succeed against a defense that will likely bring pressure from every angle.
DiNucci’s athleticism could add a dimension to the Cowboys’ scheme as an athletic playmaker with running skills and escapability. He is mobile enough to execute zone-read plays while also threatening the perimeter on bootlegs and movement passes. The Cowboys have utilized these tactics with Prescott and could dust them off with DiNucci taking over.