What Went Wrong In Dallas?
By Matt Mosley
Special to FOX Sports
If there's one moment that summarizes the 2020 season for the Dallas Cowboys, it came on Thanksgiving -- a day long associated with tradition and glory for America's Team.
Despite entering the holiday having lost four of its last five games, Dallas still somehow had a chance to climb atop the NFC East playoff race against rival Washington.
Trailing just 20-16 with 13 minutes left in the game, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy called for a fake punt deep in his own territory. The play was doomed from the start as Cedrick Wilson was tackled behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-10. Washington scored a touchdown on the next play and won in a rout, 41-16.
That baffling moment — McCarthy said it was a "solid" call — came to define a team that finished 6-10 and missed the playoffs in the historically bad NFC East. The pundits who thought Dallas had an outside shot at the Super Bowl before the season have retreated quietly.
The Cowboys were officially eliminated Sunday in a 23-19 loss to the Giants after an improbable three-game winning streak had given them an outside shot at the postseason. They fell behind 20-6 in the first half and were unable to make up the deficit, due in part to curious game management from McCarthy.
With the Cowboys' season finally over, Fox Sports will probe deep this week in our "How To Fix The Cowboys" series, discussing why Dallas failed so miserably in 2020, and what can be done to fix a franchise that was recently flexed out of prime time for the first time since that became a thing.
Yes, Dak Prescott's injury was disastrous for Dallas -- but the Cowboys were still struggling with the QB at the helm in September.
We'll also take a look at the looming Dak Prescott dilemma and what McCarthy can do to quickly change this embarrassing state of affairs.
As I’ll explain in this column, time is not necessarily on McCarthy’s side. This four-part series might be both painful and therapeutic for Cowboys fans. But mostly painful.
The foreshadowing to this horror show could’ve been the early retirement of Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick. Unlike almost everything else in 2020, Frederick’s departure had nothing to do with the pandemic. His body played out on him after suffering from an autoimmune disease, and he decided to call it a career last March.
It didn’t scream disaster for McCarthy and his team, but that’s exactly what has followed.
McCarthy was the so-called "safe choice" who led Green Bay to a Super Bowl title in 2011, but he has looked overmatched and at times, completely lost.
Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones and McCarthy both expressed surprise when they were asked about the coach’s job security the day after Dallas' 30-7 victory over the Bengals in Week 14.
"Absolutely no change with coach McCarthy, and I’m surprised someone would question Mike," Jones told 105.3 The Fan. "There’s unprecedented situations that everyone has been in. On top of that, no one is making excuses, but we have some real challenges in the injury category."
And that’s the biggest reason owner Jerry Jones likely will look past McCarthy’s baffling game management, including that fake punt.
The stories of McCarthy holed up in a renovated barn talking strategy and analytics during his one-season sabbatical from football seemed charming, until you saw it in practice. The former Packers coach was eager to go for everything, no matter the circumstances.
And in Sunday's game, he curiously decided not to go for a two-point conversion while trailing 20-15 and then failed to challenge a Giants catch that allowed them to make a 50-yard field goal.
Jerry Jones is likely to stick with Mike McCarthy, but the Super Bowl-winning coach will need to show progress next season.
"I thought that was a clean decision," he said afterward.
The injuries that caused four of the five starting offensive linemen to miss at least half the season offer a legitimate excuse for struggles on offense. And losing the prolific Prescott at quarterback caused the offense to fall off the cliff under the direction of three backups, headlined by Andy Dalton. But Prescott’s gruesome ankle injury and subsequent surgery has overshadowed the fact Dallas would’ve started 1-4 if not for a patented Atlanta Falcons' choke job in Week 2.
Prescott is by any measure (except playoff wins?) an elite quarterback, but the Cowboys now have to franchise-tag him at $37.7 million next season, or bow to his demands for a four-year contract instead of the five seasons the Joneses prefer.
Or will the Cowboys be in the quarterback business in the draft? I’ll address Prescott’s future in Part 2 of our series tomorrow, but to blame this season on his absence ignores the fact rivals Washington, Philadelphia and the Giants have rallied, to varying degrees, behind backup QBs. And Dalton was billed by some as the most competent backup in the league.
McCarthy also turned the richest running back in the NFL into a role player. It used to be surprising when Zeke Elliott didn’t rush for 100 yards. Now, it’s expected. He picked up his second run of more than 20 yards this season in mid-December at Cincinnati. His 100-yard game against the Eagles in Week 16 came as a shock, although he deserves credit for playing through injuries down the stretch.
McCarthy had a history of not leaning on the running game, in part because he had Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Elliott has had 20 carries in only one game since Week 2. It could be a question of trust, with Elliott having lost five of his six fumbles this season. It was striking to hear McCarthy talk about Elliott’s backup Tony Pollard after one of his strong December performances.
"Tony Pollard is a hell of a football player both on offense and special teams," McCarthy said. "He can make any cut. He has vision. On offense, he’s a dynamic player. So, Tony’s playing excellent football for us."
Ezekiel Elliott, who signed a six-year, $90 million contract in 2019, has struggled all season, posting just one 100-yard game.
Rest assured Jerry Jones will not release Elliott this offseason despite diminishing returns. He has to know surrendering to the running back’s holdout was a huge mistake, but he’s loathe to admit it about a star player. It’s obvious Elliott jumping ahead of Prescott in negotiations was bad for the organization, and it’s part of the reason the quarterback has been in no hurry to sign long-term.
There is a mistake Jones owned up to recently, and it will likely lead to the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The Cowboys allowed Nolan to install his favored 3-4 scheme via Zoom. And for much of the season, the defense has been an unmitigated disaster.
The Cowboys rank last in the NFL against the run, and the unit has given up at least 200 yards rushing four times. McCarthy refused to blame the scheme after the Cowboys were shredded by the Ravens for 294 yards on the ground, but days later the Cowboys owner disagreed.
"I’d like to start again on how we approached our defense this year," Jones said. "I’d like to start that over again. I’m sure everybody else would, too."
Jaylon Smith and the Cowboys defense have struggled to stop the run all season long, with four opponents having rushed for 200 yards or more.
As a longtime observer and interpreter of Jones, I can tell you he is far more comfortable blaming coaches than players. He believes coaches are dispensable, which is why so many assistants have left the building before finding success elsewhere. (See Sean Payton and Mike Zimmer).
Jones showed great patience with Jason Garrett, who spent more than nine seasons on the sidelines, but he was like a family member due to his longtime ties to the franchise. McCarthy was a relative stranger to Jones, so he will have to show progress next season.
Dallas has valid excuses for struggling, but other teams have overcome adversity. The Cowboys haven’t had a COVID outbreak like the Titans and Ravens. Teams such as the Rams and Saints lost key players, but were resourceful enough to overcome setbacks. The Eagles seem to actually function better with backup quarterbacks.
Most of us could use a period of introspection. With McCarthy, his year away seems to have led to an identity crisis. He spends time on the sideline consulting with swashbuckling special teams coach John Fassel, who has indulged McCarthy’s daring tendencies.
To my eye, Fassel is a showman who is eager to unload his bag of tricks. His "watermelon" onside kick worked against the clueless Falcons "hands" team. But on an almost weekly basis, Fassel’s unit has a head-scratching moment or two. Jones, an old oil wildcatter, said recently he "loves" Fassel’s approach.
During a horrible season, sometimes blind risks are confused for courage.
Outside of wide receiver and quarterback, if Prescott returns, there’s nothing special about the Cowboys. The O-line has been great at times, but it's rarely healthy.
Rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb has flashed big-ability and been one of the few brights spots for Dallas in 2020.
First-round pick CeeDee Lamb and rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs offer hope, and second-year safety Donovan Wilson appears to be a playmaker. But the Cowboys will have to overhaul the defensive line (again) and try to find additional help in the secondary.
The once formidable linebacking duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith also fizzled this season. The sight of Smith chasing tailbacks 10 yards downfield is very familiar to Cowboys fans. The man loves his "swipe" celebration, no matter the score.
McCarthy thought he was taking over an experienced team on the cusp of something big. In reality, he has a team preparing to pick early in the draft. And thanks to the late push, not early enough.
Matt Mosley has covered the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News, ESPN, FOX Sports and Texas Monthly Magazine. He also co-hosted afternoon-drive radio in Dallas for 10 years and is now heard on ESPN Central Texas. He makes regular appearances on "The Herd" on FS1 and Fox Sports Radio.