ARLINGTON, Texas — Little has gone right for Mike McCarthy in his first year as Dallas Cowboys head coach.
Some he has had no control over, like dealing with a virtual offseason program, shortened training camp and no preseason games because of the coronavirus pandemic. Throw in the season-ending injuries suffered by Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and other expected key contributors.
Then came the death of strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul less than 24 hours before the Cowboys (3-8) lost to the Washington Football Team, 41-16, on Thursday.
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Players repeatedly praised McCarthy for being sensitive to their needs during the springtime social unrest that followed after the death of George Floyd. And players praised McCarthy for how he helped everybody grieve the loss of Paul.
“Coach McCarthy is a remarkable person,” Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “He’s a guy that loves and cares. And he knows what he’s doing. We’ve got to figure it out. It’s not all on him. It’s a team effort. We play a team sport, and winning is the name of the game. All is well, but nothing matters when you lose. You have to win, especially playing for America’s Team. All of these things we’re experiencing right now is only going to make us stronger. We don’t have any quitters. We have fighters in this organization from top to bottom.”
It’s the things that McCarthy can control, however, that have raised concerns this season.
He passed on a potential game-tying 28-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of the 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1.
He was eventually bailed out in the Week 2 win by an onside kick after electing to go for a 2-point conversion down 9 points against the Atlanta Falcons. And that came after two failed fake punts. While analytics might have been on his side, McCarthy did not go for two when presented the same opportunity the following week against the Seattle Seahawks.
McCarthy’s fourth-down decisions in the loss to Washington were perhaps even more egregious because the current iteration of the Cowboys needs almost everything to go right in order to win.
Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy on his fourth-down gambles in Thursday’s loss to Washington: “… You can never hit them if you don’t call them and don’t believe in them.” Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images
On the first series on Thursday, the Cowboys lost left tackle Cameron Erving and right tackle Zack Martin to injuries for the rest of the game.
Facing fourth-and-inches from the Dallas 34 in the second quarter, McCarthy opted to go for it in a 10-10 game. Surely he would hand off to the Cowboys’ $90-million running back, Ezekiel Elliott, who was coming off his first 100-yard game four days earlier. Nope. Instead, he opted to have backup quarterback Andy Dalton throw a pass to CeeDee Lamb that fell incomplete. Even if the play had worked, the Cowboys would have had to punt anyway because of a personal foul penalty on tight end Dalton Schultz.
By turning it over on downs and getting 15 yards, Washington needed just 19 yards to score a go-ahead touchdown.
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“It was a clean matchup,” McCarthy said. “Honestly, we had one-on-one on the perimeter. Obviously, the result wasn’t what we were looking for. I think everybody saw what happened on the play. Those are plays that you look to create opportunities, and it was a good playcall. We had one-on-one on the outside. We just didn’t convert.”
In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were still in the game, trailing 20-16, when they faced a fourth-and-10 from their own 24. If there was ever a time to punt, this seemed to be it, but McCarthy OK’d a fake punt called by special-teams coordinator John Fassel.
Punter Hunter Niswander, who has been on the active roster for three games, was supposed to be on the receiving end of a pass from wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Now, Wilson does have a touchdown pass to his credit this season, hitting Prescott against the New York Giants. But Washington was in good position to prevent the pass, and Wilson ended up losing a yard.
On the next play, Washington’s Antonio Gibson ran untouched from 23 yards for a touchdown and a 27-16 lead.
“Well, you don’t get anywhere if you think about the negatives all the time,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, it was a solid playcall. It’s a good play design. Their gunner made a good play. He came off of it and put us in a high/low read for Cedrick. It’s a play that if we hit it, we’re sitting [good]. That’s the nature of those plays. So, you can never hit them if you don’t call them and don’t believe in them. I clearly understood the situation when it was called.”
Asked if he really thought it was a good call, McCarthy doubled down.
“I’m fine with my answer before,” he said. “There’s obviously film study that goes into the call when you call it. But yeah, when you call it, you’re obviously looking to convert it. You obviously understand on fourth-down calls what your options are. … There’s flow of the game and all those things that factor into the decision. I’m very confident in our players, and we put them in position to make big plays.”
With five games to play, the Cowboys can be no better than 8-8. In order to get there, they will have to win out, which given the sorry state of the division would almost assuredly guarantee they win the NFC East, even after being swept by Washington.
But does that seem even remotely possible?
For many, including McCarthy, 2021 can’t get here fast enough.