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McCarthy Conundrum: Are Cowboys Winning Despite Weakest Link at Top?

Mike McCarthy's weekly decisions boggle the mind, and put his team behind the 8-ball

FRISCO - No way around it, the Dallas Cowboys are 5-1 despite Mike McCarthy not because of him.

Dak Prescott's MVP accuracy. Trevon Diggs' script-flipping interceptions. Greg Zuerlein's clutch kicking. Those are the impetus for the Cowboys' five-game winning streak - punctuated by the 35-29 victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday - and ascension onto the NFL's front burner as they head into their Bye week.

What makes Dallas' super start all the more impressive? Their befuddling head coach consistently - even weekly - makes irrational fourth-down decisions and clock-management gaffes you won't find on Friday night high-school fields throughout Texas.

The Cowboys' players are performing like a 5-1 team. Their coach is making calls on a 2-4 level.

Yes he has a Super Bowl on his resume and a Hall-of-Fame owner in his corner. And yes, there are obviously things being accomplished behind the scenes - countless things - that he's doing right.

But in this area? McCarthy just has to get to better. Now. It's one thing to screw around with a mediocre 2020 outfit that was doomed from the start. But this year's team has realistic Super Bowl aspirations.

The Cowboys are too good to be coached this bad.

But there was McCarthy last Sunday in Foxboro, continuing a troubling two-year trend of head-scratching, logic-defying decisions.

In a dramatic, pretzel plot of a game the Cowboys had to finally win overtime, McCarthy ...

*Went for 4th-and-1 at his own 34 on the opening possession of the game. High risk, low reward. Even with a conversion (they failed), the Cowboys were assured of nothing but a first down in their territory.

*Didn't go for 4th-and-2 at New England's 33 down 21-20 with 2:42 remaining. High risk, high reward. A conversion (instead of a Greg Zuerlein missed 51-yard field goal) would have allowed Dallas to run the clock down and kick a shorter field goal on the game's final play.

*Didn't call timeouts when he should've and then did when he shouldn't have on the Cowboys' final drive in regulation. Getting the ball with 2:05 remaining, armed with two timeouts and the two-minute warning, and only needing a field goal to tie, they had plenty of time to map out a game-winning touchdown. While Dallas drove to New England's 31, it did so without stopping the clock along the way and were left with 4th-and-1 and only :31 remaining. 

The coach decided to try for the game-tying field goal but - inexplicably - called a timeout with :24 remaining. Why?! Zuerlein made the 49-yarder. But the Cowboys left time on the clock, and then had to kick off. 

Mac Jones and a mediocre Patriots' offense couldn't exploit Dallas' time mismanagement, but - down the road, on a bigger stage - the likes of Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers certainly could.

Look, we all grew tired and bored with former coach Jason Garrett's conservative mindset and metrics that used a white-bread algorithm with the crusts cut off. But ... this? McCarthy is light years beyond the opposite end of the spectrum, a gut-instinct gambler with his hair on fire and no common-sense rationale on his play sheet.

There is nothing more fascinating - or maddening - in DFW sports than McCarthy's mismanagement of time and risk.

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Mike McCarthy on Elliott and the 10 days Dallas has between games: “I think it’s a huge benefit. I think it’s a huge benefit for our whole football team. … It’s like another bye week, and we treated it that way.”

The bad news: This isn't a new thing. Good news: His team (so far) is camouflaging his mistakes.

This season McCarthy has ...

*Ordered a 60-yard field goal attempt that gave Tom Brady time and the ball at the 50-yard line before halftime.

*Let the fourth-quarter clock run - without calling a play - from :29 to :04 in Los Angeles before Zuerlein bailed him out by making an unnecessarily long 56-yard, game-winning field goal to beat the Chargers.

*Cost his team plays and possibly points by not calling timeout during an Eagles' first-half possession that saw them facing a 2nd-and-31 in their own territory in the final two minutes.

*Eschewed a safe, 16-point lead and instead okayed a 4th-and-goal pass while up 27-14 on Philadelphia midway through the fourth quarter.

*Accepted a Panthers' penalty on an extra point and went for (and failed) a two-point conversion in the middle of the second quarter of a game his team ultimately sweated out as a one-possession win.

Kellen Moore runs the offense, Dan Quinn runs the defense and McCarthy runs time management into the ditch.

Upon further review, no player grades out perfectly. But these aren't technical tweaks only spotted by Monday morning quarterbacks scouring the All-22 film. These are real-time miscalculations made by a veteran head coach being harpooned by fans, iconic radio play-by-play voice Brad Sham and TV analyst Tony Romo. 

It's Football 101, and in this particular class, McCarthy is flunking.

He made similar, mind-numbing errors last season, so maybe we should grudgingly get used to it.

But in training camp last July, the Cowboys' coach got us all geeked and set the bar with this fiery speech:

"F*ck last year," McCarthy said in an Oxnard meeting room. "Charlie F*ckaround? He doesn't work here. High School Harry? Get his ass out the f*cking door. This is about winning a world championship. Nothing else. Winning season? Not good enough. Playoffs? Not good enough. Getting to the conference championship game? Not good enough. This is about winning the Super Bowl. Period."

Again, none of McCarthy's oops have affected the win-loss column. Yet. Dallas just beat Bill Belichick despite committing 12 penalties for 115 yards, committing two turnovers in the end zone and surrendering a 75-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes.

The Cowboys are talented enough to legitimately eye this season's Super Bowl.

But not if it turns out "Charlie F*ckaround" is wearing the main headset.