Mike McCarthy was adamant.
“We don’t have an effort issue,” the Cowboys coach said Monday.
He instead points to Dallas’ minus-seven turnover ratio, time of possession and a pass rush that fails to consistently generate pressure as the top reasons why Dallas has fallen to 1-3 in his first year.
“If I was going to rank them,” McCarthy said Monday after the Cowboys’ 49-38 to Cleveland, “A, No. 1, our turnover ratio is our biggest negative after four games.”
McCarthy acknowledges that the Cowboys’ mistakes have followed a pattern. His players have not consistently played cleanly nor consistently made in-game decisions they wished they would. But don’t wait for McCarthy to exert tough love or reprimand his players’ will to win.
“You've got to be really careful when you start challenging professional athletes about effort, especially from a distance,” McCarthy said. “We don't have an effort issue. If we had an effort issue, that game would have been over in the middle of the third quarter.
“Our guys fought all the way to the end.”
The Cowboys rallied from a 41-14 deficit entering the fourth quarter to a 41-38 disadvantage with 3:42 to play. An improbable comeback, like their 40-39 recovery over the Falcons two weeks earlier, again seemed at least possible.
COWBOYS: Dak Prescott would trade records for more wins
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy reacts to a pass interference penalty in favor of the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter at CenturyLink Field. (Photo: Joe Nicholson, USA TODAY Sports)
Then it took just one series, a single-play drive, for Browns receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to rip off a 50-yard rushing touchdown as a slew of defenders whiffed on tackles. The following play, a Cowboys special teams unit hoping to block and return Cleveland’s extra-point attempt instead fumbled the ball after a block and ceded 2 points. The Cowboys offense returned to the field, down 9, with 3:25 to go. Dallas advanced the ball 32 yards, entering the red zone. Then quarterback Dak Prescott threw an end zone interception on a route that receiver Amari Cooper had attempted to adjust at the last second.
On second thought, let McCarthy redeliver his philosophy on challenging players’ effort.
“Maybe I used the wrong words,” McCarthy said. “What I was saying is you've got to watch if you question their effort from afar. I mean, I'm on the sidelines. Our issues yesterday weren't on effort. I wasn't talking about me challenging. It's written at the top of my job description and job responsibility to challenge everybody in football operations.
“Maybe that was a misuse of words by me. But I was talking about questioning. Because I didn't see effort as an issue in yesterday's game.”
Monday at the Star, McCarthy and his coordinators instead further drilled down on the “whys” of fundamentals with Cowboys players. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore considered to what degree his play calls had precipitated three straight games of uncharacteristic fumbles from Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan showed players film of suspect tackling angles and missed run-gap responsibilities. Special teams coordinator John Fassel reconsidered scenarios and wished he had a time machine to reverse a fourth-quarter decision not to attempt an onside kick. Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said on local radio that the team is not as far away from good football as it seems.
But coaches disputed the notion their players lacked care, effort or drive in the loss. Nolan tried to explain and reframe defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence’s postgame comment denouncing himself and his teammates as “soft.”
Cowboys coaches grade defenders in three categories
👉 Winning effort
👉 Losing effort
👉 Just did your job
Mike Nolan: “Thus far I can’t say (Jaylon)’s had a game of the four that’s been a losing effort. I think all of his games have been do your job or a little better.”
“I'm no different than DeMarcus—I could find myself saying sometimes that my emotions get the best of me maybe,” Nolan said. “And as a player, when it comes to the running game, you typically associate stopping the run with toughness and obviously not stopping the run with, in DeMarcus' words, softness. We did a poor job playing together as one. We played individually, didn't play well in our techniques.
“But I would not call this group soft whatsoever. I'd say we just played very poorly.”
Smart distinction, per McCarthy, who on Sunday described a Cowboys run defense that was gashed for a franchise-worst 307 yards as just that: “poor.” McCarthy also said Sunday that the home loss was very disappointing.
Monday, he reconsidered that take, too.
“It’s definitely been bumpy,” McCarthy said. “The only disappointment I have as the head coach is we've had some repeated mistakes, repeated issues and that's the part we have to get that right.
“That's really what my focus is on.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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