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Consider this part pat on the back, part apology and part heavy dose of realism for Mike McCarthy, who got his first win of the season out of the way in surprising fashion against last year’s conference champions.
After Dak Prescott went down, most of us were at least preparing a version of his employment obituary in Dallas. We believed, ultimately, that he had not logged enough successes, that his team would not win many games without Prescott, and that the Cowboys would not chance the near-future of their roster on a coach who had some bad luck but did not overperform. In a cosmic sense, McCarthy has been screwed by a broken ankle, then a broken thumb sustained by his star quarterback over a three-year span, but how willing would owner Jerry Jones be to consider this when there could be a more immediate fix available at his disposal?
These are all reasonable beliefs, but the best part about football is what McCarthy and his staff did Sunday. They gave Joe Burrow’s new offensive line the football equivalent of a middle finger, lining up in all sorts of odd fronts that hid Micah Parsons and tortured a group of sufficiently talented but still unfamiliar free agents to figure it out. They let Cooper Rush throw the ball on fourth-and-short early in the game. They flipped the ball to Tony Pollard. They isolated their best offensive players. They got the kind of signature, open-field tackle in a big moment that is so necessary in a tight win but also indicative of a team’s willingness to still give a you-know-what. This was not the kind of painfully conservative offense we typically see trotted out for a backup quarterback, the insult-to-football early-down handoffs and the merciless string of punts.
The Cowboys’ plan was somewhat guerilla, but largely it was the kind of performance that, a few years ago when Jones hired McCarthy in the first place, we would have expected from a stable offensive mind that sold himself as a man who understood the modern game. The hard part, of course, is that McCarthy will have to continue this herculean stretch for a handful of weeks. Because the same beliefs we had going into the Bengals game are still reasonable ones.
McCarthy, though, may be better than we’ve given him credit for. That’s a line of thought we’re willing to entertain after watching them handle a superior roster in a must-win situation. That’s the beauty of this upcoming slate of games, where he could either cement himself as the coach of the Dallas Cowboys by doing just about the hardest thing a head coach has to do in the NFL (win consistently with a backup quarterback), or he could fall victim to the moment. More simply put: He has a chance to be the kind of coach Jones dreamed he could be, or the kind of coach Jones has already gotten rid of before.
McCarthy will not be judged the way one would judge a typical coach, because he did not come into Dallas billed as a typical coach. He replaced Jason Garrett who, for all of his shortcomings, won the division every other year from 2014 on; a person who was adored by ownership and, regarding quarterbacks, fostered the growth of both an undrafted free agent (Tony Romo) and a fourth-round pick (Prescott). McCarthy positioned himself as the answer. As the Super Bowl–winning head coach who took a year off to self-evaluate and expand his offensive cannon.
If you would have fast-forwarded from his opening press conference in Dallas to Sunday’s game against the Bengals, with no knowledge of the gaps of time between, this all would have jelled.
What we saw Sunday, especially from an offensive perspective, felt new and unfamiliar. We still aren’t sure if this is a new(ish) coach, new(ish) offense and new(ish) ability to maximize the talent left on the roster. Or if this was just luck. Or if this was just a struggling Bengals team. Or if this was just a strange, fluky moment in time that will not color our long-term opinion one way or the other.
But we do know that if McCarthy keeps it up, he’ll have eliminated the heavy coating of doubt that has accompanied his tenure in Dallas. We do know that he’s one step closer to doing so than many of us had given him credit for.
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