FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics as the Cowboys (4-1) prepare for that extra "17th game" on the schedule up in Foxboro this Sunday:
- Yards Are Yards
- McCarthy's Impact
- Something Special
Kellen Moore told us a month ago that "yards are yards, whether it's run or pass." Clearly, he meant it.
"If we need to throw it 60 times, if we need to run it 60 times, I really don't care," the Cowboys' offensive coordinator said following the season-opening loss to Tampa Bay in which Dak Prescott tied a career high with 58 pass attempts while Ezekiel Elliott had only 11 carries for 33 yards.
"It's a long season," Moore cautioned. "Different matchups, different defensive schemes, we're going to need Zeke to pound it. Could be this week. Could be the following week."
How about the last four games?
In that stretch the Cowboys had 31, 41, 34 and 39 carries. Those 39 were a season high in last Sunday's blowout win over the Giants.
With Zack Martin back at right guard after sitting out the opener, the offensive line has overpowered defenses. The result is the NFL's No. 2 run game (172.8 YPG) featuring Elliott and Tony Pollard.
And as Elliott said following the Cowboys' Week 3 win over Philadelphia, you can tell when a defense starts to wear down in the second half, especially when the offense uses tempo.
With Moore's direction, the Cowboys have been the picture of balance on offense. They have the third-most rush attempts, 163, to quarterback Dak Prescott's 165 pass attempts. And it's not all clock-draining in the second half. More than half of the Cowboys' carries (79 of 159) have been in the first and second quarter.
Sunday might be the most intriguing matchup yet. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is famous for eliminating an offense's strengths, forcing them to play outside their comfort zone. A game plan the previous week might completely shift the next.
Will New England focus on the run, as Tampa Bay did, and put the game more on Prescott's shoulders? (There's risk in that, too.) Should be quite a chess match.
"As we go through this process through this week, we're going have to do a really good job honing in our game plan and feeling very confident, but also understanding that adjustments may need to be applied throughout the game, and guys have got to be ready to adjust," Moore said.
Just as they have throughout the early part of the season.
this is how we're seeing head coach Mike McCarthy's imprint on this 4-1 start.
McCarthy continuously referenced "play style" over scheme as the primary focus in preseason. A major part of his play-style vision is a top turnover differential.
The Cowboys' defense has at least one takeaway in nine straight games dating back to last season, the longest active streak in the NFL. During that stretch they've forced 24 turnovers (2.7 per game) leading to 99 points (11.0 per game). The record: 7-2.
McCarthy has been an offensive-minded coach throughout his career, calling plays for most of his Packers tenure. But collectively, his teams have always valued the ball: protecting it on offense, going after it on defense.
"I think it's a combination of we drafted some good players, we got some good players in free agency and we work at it every day," wide receiver Amari Cooper said. "This is my seventh year, but it's a huge emphasis on securing the ball or taking away the ball every single day. We do that before practice every single day, and it's been showing up."
McCarthy's Packers teams had a top-10 turnover differential in nine of 13 seasons. Sure, much of that is a credit to Aaron Rodgers' low turnover rate. But those Green Bay defenses, led mostly by Dom Caper, had an average of 27.3 takeaways in 13 years – typically a top-10 total in a given NFL season.
McCarthy is no longer calling plays. He's in more of a CEO-type role: overseeing scheduling, managing physical stress on the players with the weekly STAA program, and emphasizing play style with the coordinators and position coaches.
He wants the Cowboys to play a certain way over and over again. Last year, the Cowboys' inability to establish complementary football for much of the season – they had a minus-13 turnover differential over the first 12 games – probably drove him nuts.
It's taken a while to sort that out. We're seeing it now.
"Complementary football is part of it," McCarthy said. "It's the consistent energy and not having the lulls. We had the lull last week, two weeks ago against Carolina. That's what we're talking about – keeping the energy up, handling the adversity moments the right way and making sure we're emptying our bucket each and every contest."
I Have No Idea…
why there was outside concern about team chemistry last week following Jaylon Smith's release.
That's no knock on Smith. He was well-liked in the locker room, and players respected the way he returned from a career-threatening knee injury in 2016. Smith's long-time linebacker teammate, Leighton Vander Esch, bashed fans' social media criticism that crossed the line into "classless."
That said, players are acutely aware they're in a multi-billion-dollar business. Vander Esch's future with the team is uncertain beyond this season. The Cowboys did not pick up his fifth-year option for 2022, which makes him an impending free agent unless a new deal is reached before March. Twenty players, half of them starters, have expiring deals.
Ultimately, there's a job to do. Guys take pride in that, and this is proving to be a team that plays for each other.
Let Vander Esch explain.
"You can tell there's something special here," he said after Sunday's game. "I know it's early, but we've just got to keep continuing to keep building together."