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The Honeymoon Phase Is Over for Mike McCarthy in Dallas

After Thursday's season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, McCarthy's seat isn't hot but the grace period has ended.
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Mike McCarthy’s grace period as a coach with an excuse ended the moment Dak Prescott lingered in the pocket with defenders closing on both sides, lofting a perfect ball on a designed fake screen between converging zone coverage for the Cowboys’ first touchdown of the season. It ended when Prescott bravely took a zone read keeper deep in Tampa territory and plowed his rehabbed shoulder into the best defense in football. It ended when Ndamukong Suh popped Prescott in the chest at full speed and the quarterback hopped right back up, gearing up for another 40 some odd passing attempts.

Let’s for one moment cut through the celebratory haze of football returning Thursday night to address the reality of the situation. Dallas should have won the game. There is, outside of Prescott’s existence on the field, no feel-good moment to cull from a season-opening loss just because the opponent happens to be a defending Super Bowl champion returning most of their roster. The Buccaneers were a flawed team before they reached a Super Bowl during an unprecedented pandemic season and remain that way now. Their beleaguered secondary was an invitation for any team to carve them up strategically, let alone one of the most efficient passers in the NFL and a duo of highly drafted or expensively acquired weapons.

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This is what’s interesting about wearing the headset in Dallas right now. Performing somewhat above nebulous expectations Thursday night did not ease any of the burdens of the job, it heightened them. With Prescott as relatively flawless in his return—after under-gassing a few throws at the beginning of the game, he adjusted perfectly—McCarthy is now simply a coach with a functional top-five quarterback who started the season 0-1. And while it is far too early, especially in the lukewarm division Dallas calls home, to start any kind of discussion about job security or the lack thereof, it is difficult not to view the former Super Bowl-winning head coach’s situation differently than we might have a few hours ago.

McCarthy’s hire was viewed as a stable handoff from Jason Garrett, a coach who could get a very good roster almost all the way there to a coach who could, as much as any free agent on the market at the time, walk into Jerry Jones’s office and almost guarantee he’d return the Cowboys to Super Bowl prominence for the first time in a quarter-century. McCarthy made a lot of promises. The whole thing was going to look polished and professional, which is why there did not seem to be any semblance of panic a year ago when many of the promises he made were not delivered upon. So what if Dallas was not analytically forward? So what if they didn’t use backfield motion? So what if they still put themselves into third and unmanageable situations with regularity? So what if, as he did in Green Bay, McCarthy stubbornly hung on to a defensive coordinator that was, at times, costing him games? Andy Dalton was quarterbacking. The stone façade on their offensive line was falling apart. Why display the vision now and squander your tendencies for the following year, when the team would be far more suitable to contend? It will all sort itself out in the offseason.

Which is why some of the issues on Thursday were alarming. For example, McCarthy kicking a field goal on fourth-and-3 at the opponent's 3-yard line with nine minutes to go in the third quarter was not egregious by any stretch, but it was a situation where the math, along with several exploited mismatches, supported going for a score.

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Dallas came out with a sweeping array of personnel usages on Thursday night, with Ceedee Lamb running routes out of the backfield and an effective 12 personnel package that dotted the tight ends throughout various formations. “Big” personnel groupings were playing in lighter, quicker-looking packages. It looked fresh and helped Prescott get some early matchup wins, which undoubtedly eased the burden on a passer returning from a catastrophic injury.

But as the game wore on, Dallas fell back into 11 personnel more exclusively—McCarthy’s calling card in Green Bay. Ezekiel Elliott's carries were forced despite some of the most severe dips in Dallas’ win probability and the fact that Vita Vea was demolishing the interior of the Cowboys’ offensive line all night.

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These were the bad habits, the small tics that might have breezed by during a season where people are half-watching anyway because it’s Dalton because there are bigger concerns surrounding the long-term health of Prescott (and, in turn, the franchise). That won’t be true for much longer. Not with Jerry Jones’s itch for a Super Bowl growing by the day. Not with the emergence of all this talent that (mostly) pre-dated McCarthy’s arrival. Prescott has a stranglehold on Comeback Player of the Year and, at this torrid pace, perhaps some far more significant individual hardware.

It's up to McCarthy now to keep pace, lest the next person to capture Jones’s ear and whisper I alone can fix it gets an audience. 

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