The Dallas Cowboys have prepared for the Baltimore Ravens this week wondering the answer to a changing question: When will they play?
Last week, ahead of a Thanksgiving matchup with Washington, head coach Mike McCarthy asked himself a different question. How?
“Being completely honest here,” McCarthy said Friday after the 41-16 loss, “I had no idea how we were going to play. That’s a feeling you never have as a coach.”
The Cowboys’ emotional rollercoaster of a week began high. Their 31-28 victory at Minnesota was the team’s first victory in 42 days — the first since losing quarterback Dak Prescott for the season.
But joy evaporated quickly Tuesday when strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul collapsed at 7:30 a.m. local time. A trainer rushed through the locker room with a defibrillator. An ambulance rushed to the Star to transport Paul, 54, to a nearby hospital. Mike McCarthy rushed down from Kellen Moore’s office then sent his players home to spend time with family as they processed the tragedy.
Last Wednesday evening, Paul died.
“It’s been emotionally challenging, overwhelming,” McCarthy said Friday. “It was something that was just so personal for all of us, especially how it happened, where it happened and the timing of it all.”
Grief now hangs over players as they enter the weight room to lift without their bench-press guide and line up for pre-practice stretching without the mentor who’d counted off each hamstring and calf exercise.
But the Cowboys’ adversity in McCarthy’s first year began before the loss of Paul. The team has required 19 adjustments to their starting lineups this year in response to injury. Six of those players, including Prescott — who had made 72 consecutive starts — were sidelined for the season within its first month. COVID-19 restrictions, as they have across the league, hampered the staff’s chance to instill scheme and culture during the offseason and training camp. A protracted contract dispute between the Cowboys and Prescott hasn’t helped the pursuit of a smooth operation.
“We’ve all clearly been part of this pattern and the pattern’s been one way,” McCarthy said of the series of unfortunate events. “And I’m hopeful and will be grateful when it turns the other way.”
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Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott is tackled by Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young during Washington's 41-16 win on Thanksgiving Day. (Photo: Jerome Miron, USA TODAY Sports)
Expectations vs. reality
When the Cowboys relieved Jason Garrett of head-coaching duties after 10 seasons, Jerry Jones said he didn’t want to scout the ranks of up-and-coming college coaches or NFL coordinators. The 78-year-old Cowboys owner and general manager believed his roster was talented enough to win now. Jones wanted a proven, experienced coach to immediately contend. Also, a coach who could further Prescott’s development. McCarthy, out of work after 13 seasons in Green Bay, fit the bill.
But despite McCarthy’s praise of Prescott from his job interview onward, the two did not spend meaningful time together until training camp in August, with Prescott signing his one-year franchise tender June 21 when COVID-19 restrictions were in place. McCarthy and his staff attempted to instill scheme and culture virtually through the spring, but lost the extended offseason program usually granted to a new staff as well as the chance to connect with players in person.
Dallas’ offense, with Kellen Moore still coordinating, began the season productive, albeit turnover-prone. After Prescott went down, turnovers continued (23 total), but production dissipated as four quarterbacks started in five games. Andy Dalton suffered a concussion and then a bout of COVID-19. On Thanksgiving, both of Dallas’ starting offensive tackles suffered multi-week injuries during their first series. McCarthy’s staff shouldered further criticism for failed fourth-down attempts including a fake punt on 4th-and-10 in their own territory.
“I feel like I didn’t call a good game in situational football,” Moore said of the 41-16 loss.
Dallas’ defense, shifting schemes drastically under Mike Nolan, has allowed 32.6 points per game, the worst in the league and enough to smash the 10-year franchise record. Their run defense next faces reigning MVP Lamar Jackson after ceding 182 yards and three scores by ground to Washington and a league-worst 156.4 rushing yards per game. Losing defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Trysten Hill for the season hasn’t helped. Nor have multi-week injuries to linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, cornerback Trevon Diggs, cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and more.
Can Jones remember a coach as handicapped as McCarthy since he bought the team?
“Yeah, I sure can,” Jones said Tuesday morning, referencing Jimmy Johnson’s 1-15 record in his debut 1989 season. “Jimmy had a lot of handicaps when we first came in here. And he was accused by one other coach for sure of running, making it look like it was a high school program.
“Coach [Tom] Landry was challenged the year before when he only won three games. So, sure, I can recollect real challenges that we've experienced. And by the way, to those guys' credit, they took that adversity, they made adjustments. They didn't lose the team, the spirit, the heart of the team.”
McCarthy, at 3-8 but the NFC East not yet out of grasp, has attempted to cater to his players’ spirit as well. Seeking to fire up his players before the Minnesota game, he smashed watermelons with a sledgehammer in their Saturday night meeting. When laughs turned to tears amid Paul’s death, McCarthy encouraged players to spend extra time with their families and avail themselves of the organization’s mental health resources. He’s stressed that message since August, he said.
“Frankly I shared a story with our team that I went through a divorce in 1995 and how it was taboo to go talk to somebody,” McCarthy said. “And I was talking to an individual at that time and any time the individual came into the office, I want to crawl under my desk. That was just kind of the stigma back then. That doesn’t exist, I know it doesn’t in our organization.
“I think when people are open and talk about it, I think it definitely helps, probably helps save a lot of others. Because like I said, it’s part of our football operations.”
‘Something to play for’
On the field, five games remain, starting with a visit to the Ravens on Dec. 8. The Cowboys will not be favored in Vegas to run the table and finish .500, though no NFC East team is more than a game ahead of the last-place Cowboys.
“It gives us something to play for,” center Joe Looney said Tuesday. “We've still got a chance of holding up that trophy at the end of the year.”
Jones continues to dismiss the notion of tanking to improve draft capital. The momentum of a playoff berth “unquestionably” supersedes potential draft perks, he says. And Jones defines tanking as fielding players who can most help the team in the future in favor of those who can best help now. Injuries have limited that decision.
“There's really not a decision here on our team with tanking,” Jones said. “We've got players that we're having to play, not because necessarily we have a choice. We have these players — they're our best players to win the ballgame. It turns out they're the players that ought to be playing. They're young players that potentially have for the most part good futures.”
Jones draws optimism from McCarthy’s history, his debut season in Green Bay improving it from 4-8 to 8-8 and then 13-3. Within five years, McCarthy won a Super Bowl at Jones’ AT&T Stadium. Jones points, too, at what succeeded Johnson’s 1-15 start. The Cowboys went 7-9 in Johnson’s second season and captured two Super Bowl titles in his first five.
“Those bad years caused us to sit there, caused us to scratch our head and sit down and say, 'What do we got here that we might could move the needle on?'” Jones said. “‘Hello, let's use this to look at how not only to be interesting, entertaining, but also productive.’”
McCarthy hopes that productivity will shine in the season’s last month.
“I don’t kind of just throw in the cards,” he said. “I think you line up and play every hand to win and we’ll do that against Baltimore.
“There’s still a lot of football left. It’s just unfortunate.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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