Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy ‘not concerned or wary at all’ after CeeDee Lamb questions offensive identity

The Week 5 addition of “Sunday Night Football” between the Dallas Cowboys and their playoff nemesis, the San Francisco 49ers was, to be blunt, an unmitigated disaster. They lost 42-10, committed four turnovers to the 49ers’ one, only mustered eight first downs to the 49ers’ 25, were outgained 421 to 197 in total yards and lost the time of possession battle by just under 15 minutes, an entire quarter, 37:05-22:55. 

“I would not say I’m concerned or wary at all,” Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “I think these are opportunities to grow, no doubt about it. I think adversity gives you a tremendous look inside, makes you answer more questions and make sure you’ve got the right answers.”

The 32-point loss on Sunday is the largest of the series as well as the largest defeat the Cowboys have suffered with Dak Prescott as their staring quarterback. The defeat is also the second-worst of McCarthy’s NFL head-coaching career, trailing only a 35-0 loss he suffered in Week 11 of the 2006 season against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in his first year leading the Green Bay Packers. Given that the Cowboys won 38-3 against the Patriots a week ago, their Week 5 meltdown is the fourth-biggest defeat a week after a 35-point victory since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. 

Cowboys 2022 Second-Team All-Pro wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, who led Dallas with four catches and 49 receiving yards, kept it real when asked what happened after the game concluded.

“We got blown out tonight,” Lamb said postgame on Sunday.

The 49ers limited Cowboys to an alarming eight total yards on their first four drives, forcing three three-and-outs and a fumble. That allowed San Francisco to race out to a 14-0 lead before Dallas even recorded a first down. 

“We didn’t establish a rhythm, ” Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said postgame on Sunday. “We couldn’t get the run game going. We didn’t get the run game going. It was tough to get completions. When that’s the case and you’re not getting first downs putting yourself in third and manageable, a position we would like to be in, it’s always going to be tough. It’s a tough business. When you’re stepping on your own feet against a team like that, you’re only making it harder. Against a team like that, it’s damn near impossible.”

After the Cowboys finally got on the board, via a 26-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to wide receiver/return man KaVontae Turpin, the 49ers imposed their will once again. Dallas’ final eight drives went as follows: punt, end of first half, field goal (50 yards), interception, interception, interception, punt and turnover on downs. The Cowboys fell behind early Sunday night, and Prescott pressed too much, throwing three interceptions — two very ugly — one 26-yard touchdown to receiver/return man KaVontae Turpin and 153 yards on 14 of 24 passing.   

“I think when we have established a rhythm, that has been something to lean on with our tempo, changing up our personnel and putting pressure on the other team,” Prescott said. “It starts with getting one first down…. It’s tough to overcome. You feel like you are stepping on your own feet. When you get a first down like we did on I think our fourth possession [it was their fifth], we got better. You look at the rest of the game, it was either three-and-outs or the turnover spree that I started.”

Week 5 marks the Cowboys second embarrassing defeat of the season to go along with a 28-16 upset loss at the previously winless Arizona Cardinals back in Week 3. With the rollercoaster-like nature of the Cowboys “Texas Coast” offense in head coach Mike McCarthy’s first season as Dallas’ offensive play-caller, frustrations are beginning to show. 

Cowboys this season

WEEKS 1-4 WEEK 5 AT 49ERS

W-L

3-1

L, 42-10

Points scored

124

10

Points Allowed

41

42

Opponent W-L

5-15*

5-0

* Giants, Jets, Cardinals, Patriots

“We got to be complete,” Lamb said. “We can’t go out there one week and look like a super team and then the following week shit the bed.”

When asked what the Cowboys’ offensive identity is this season, he provided a damning answer. 

“I don’t know,” Lamb said. 

When asked the follow-up question of if Lamb should know five weeks into a 17-game season, Lamb provided a similar asnwer. Should he know five weeks into the season?

“I guess so,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Lastly when Lamb was asked how they find said identity, he answered once again with dejected frustration. 

“I don’t know.”

McCarthy had a contrasting answer to the two-time Pro Bowler’s when asked a similar question about his team’s offensive identity through five weeks.

“I look at the five weeks of our offense, and we have been in a different range of games,” McCarthy said. “I was thinking about it even after I talked to the team last night, it’s been on my mind. I just believe consistency and continuity is so important in everything you do in this league because it is difficult. You look at our five games, and we have three lopsided wins, a tough game on the road that kind of got away from us that we fought back in [the Arizona Cardinals loss], and last night’s game [at the 49ers]. With that, the identity of the offense is clearly … you want to have some balance throughout how you play and the ball distribution in four out of five games we have definitely hit the mark. When you get into these games, you have to get touches to certain individuals. I like a lot of things that we have done outside of last night offensively. Outside of the red zone, we have definitely hit the mark.” 

Lamb’s 35 targets and one receiving touchdown through the first five games of the 2023 season are both the worst start of his four-year career through the first five games of a season. 

“CeeDee, trust me, no wants him to touch the ball more than I do,” McCarthy said. “CeeDee is an impact player, has been for us. I think all of those things are very fair questions, and we’re having the same conversations. At the end of the day too, we have to keep some balance in our offense. That is when we are at our best. Definitely, CeeDee is a premiere player. That’s how I view him. It’s our responsibility to make sure he has opportunities to make an impact plays.” 

CeeDee Lamb First 5 Games
Season By Season

2020 2021 2022 2023

Targets

40

38

50

35

Receptions

29

24

28

27

Receiving Yards

433

348

341

358

Yards/Reception

14.9

14.5

12.2

13.3

Receiving Touchdowns 2 2 2 1

“I’ll just say that if he’s not pissed off that he’s not getting the ball then I’m pissed off at him for not being pissed off,” McCarthy said. “He’s an impact player. He should feel that way. It’s like anything in life, how you handle things and how you move forward, how you affect others, 

McCarthy said postgame that not having a “balance” between run and pass was right up there with not converting “manageable” third downs in the first half. The Cowboys totaled just two carries for five yards in the first quarter, one of which ended up as a lost fumble by Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard. The team totaled 21 rushing yards on seven carries in the first half altogether as Dallas entered the locker room with a 14-point deficit, 21-7. The second half wasn’t much better as they could only muster 36 rushing yards on 12 carries, which threw off their ideal game script tremendously. On Monday, McCarthy revealed perhaps the biggest kicker when elaborating on a question about his team’s offensive identity: the Cowboys are driven by their defense. 

“When we started this offensive approach back in April, I just think it’s a matter of: Who do you want to be and who do you think you are? I coached a team [the Green Bay Packers] for a lot years that was offensive driven,” McCarthy said. “But this team is about defense. Let’s make no bones about it. That’s not a slight against the offense. We want to score as many points as everybody and we’re not playing not to lose, so don’t mix the message here. But we play to our defense. That’s the strength of our team. And by doing that, the time of possession, taking care of the football, those are two things that I thought were improvements from past years, the first month. Clearly, it was not [versus the 49ers].”  

When zooming out to look at how different McCarthy’s offense is from former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who is now in the same role with the Los Angeles Chargers, it’s apparent there isn’t much of a difference at all through the first quarter of the season.

When you remove non-offensive scores, of which the Cowboys have four this season, and take the temperature of the Dallas offense, they’re averaging 21.2 offensive points per game this season, down 5.2 points per game from last season. One of McCarthy’s big philosophical assertions about his offense versus Moore’s was that he “wanted to run the damn ball.” That was said in the context of maintaining possession and not wearing out his defense. So far, the Cowboys are running the football at essentially the same rate as they did in Moore’s offense. Meanwhile, the Chargers are averaging five more points per game with Moore (27. 5 in 2023 vs. 22.5 in 2022) while quarterback Justin Herbert has increased his average pass length to 8.8 in 2023, the fifth-longest in the NFL, after averaging 6.4 last season, the third-shortest in the NFL. 

Cowboys offense last 2 seasons

2022 2023

Offensive PPG

26.4

21.2*

Total YPG

354.9

327.4*
Yards/Play 5.4 4.9*
Red Zone TD Pct 71.4% 36.8%*
Run Pct 37.1% 36.9%
Time of Possession 29:20* 32:16

* Ranks 16th or worse in NFL

What also didn’t help matters on Sunday night was the predictability of how McCarthy and his offense went about attempting to attack the 49ers uber-talented and disciplined defense. Plays under center were mostly runs while plays out of the shotgun were mostly passes. Dallas ran play-action on 10.2% of their offensive plays, the ninth-lowest rate in the league in Week 5. The Cowboys didn’t run any plays with motion in Week 5, and their 40.2% motion rate this season ranks 21st in the league. McCarthy was very complimentary of how 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan used motion and their run game, featuring perhaps the NFL’s most complete running back in Christian McCaffrey

“I thought they played at a high level,” McCarthy said. “It starts with the run and the things that come off of that. I think they do an excellent job with the motions, the double shifts and motions. I thought he played extremely well and made some big-time throws tonight.”

McCarthy may want to take a page out of Shanahan’s playbook quickly in order to help Prescott see his receivers schemed open and lower his quarterback’s degree of difficulty on each play. However, it’s also not all on the scheme. Prescott missed a wide-open Lamb when he threw his first pick of the game on a throw to receiver Michael Gallup.

“We know how we’ve gotta approach it,” Prescott said of handling what comes next after an embarrassing primetime performance. “We know what’s gonna come from this outside of our building, so it’s about locking arms. Something we’ve always hung our hat on is our culture, our brotherhood within the locker room. Now more than ever, we’re gonna be tested on that.”

Their next test involves going head-to-head with Moore and the Los Angeles Chargers back on the West Coast at SoFi Stadium for “Monday Night Football.” That will provide another opportunity for a litmus test of what the Cowboys offensive identity is aiming to be. 

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