Much has been said about the game-ending chaos in the closing seconds of the wild card playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. It was the Cowboys who provided the drama in the last 14 seconds, thanks to a lack of execution and a questionable decision made by the team’s coaching staff.
I’ll admit, the quarterback draw choice of a play to run in that situation with no timeouts left had me shaking my head along with a vast majority of Cowboys fans. The Dallas team simply looked unprepared in this instance, and it was a very bizarre way for the game to end.
The chaos that followed the Cowboys successful fake punt earlier in the quarter should have been an indicator of the type of miscommunication that we were all in store for at the end. A replay will give you an idea of the sideline mayhem that occurred in the aftermath by Dallas Special Teams coach John Fassel. Fassel’s actions after the successful fake made it appear to the viewer that he was losing his mind.
To start with, the idea of trying to push the envelope by taking a chance that the 49ers would use a timeout rather than utilizing their punt return team, already on the field, to defend on a play did not match the risk that came with this gamble. However, the confusion and disarray on the Cowboy sidelines at this particular time was comical. Not only was Fassel running around waving his arms, but head coach Mike McCarthy also looked dazed and confused. McCarthy eventually decided to send out the offense and his look of dismissal and disgust was priceless, a prime example of “how not to react”.
These types of administrative blunders seemed to happen time and time again this season to the Cowboys. I think showing how disorganized they were went a long way toward players developing a lack of respect and losing faith in the coaching staff.
I have thought all along that while McCarthy and his clock management have been suspect and at times, ridiculed by analysts on all media platforms, it’s the locker room where his critics reside that matters the most. The damage gets done over time. I think a lack of respect toward the head coach from his players has manifested itself in this team.
They are undisciplined and mistake prone on Game Day (14 penalties last Sunday was inexcusable) and some individual players are not being developed in their craft throughout the season. I think if you summarize the 2021-22 Cowboys, you basically have a team that made very little progress in any facet, both collectively or individually this year.
I can’t place all the blame on Coach McCarthy. For some unknown reason, he has chosen Fassel as his assistant administrator and guiding light in game and clock management situations. I go back to his demeanor on the sideline after the fake punt. Do you want that reaction in charge of anything?
Also, Fassel’s infatuation with his kicker who, despite causing Tums stock prices to rise this season, has to be seen in the locker room with many-an-eye-roll. This hurts McCarthy’s credibility, as well with the players.
I shared some history with McCarthy. He was our offensive coordinator in New Orleans when we went from last to first and won the franchise’s first playoff game EVER in 2000. He was a confident, detailed, fundamentalist and a grinder who was respected because of his plan. He also administered a great offseason plan for his players that started with a quarterback school of fundamentals and carried down to all the other positions.
McCarthy now seems disconnected with his own offense and what they are doing on the field. I think he was very good as an offensive coordinator (even when he was the head coach and play caller) and the players respected that. But as the head coach, my guess is that the players know this is really Kellen Moore’s offense and McCarthy is playing the role of CEO, a role which he is not suited for. His leadership ability is questioned in this role.
I think it also brings to light a bigger and time-tested theory. Players know the buck stops at the owner’s door, not the head coach’s door. They know that when Jerry Jones stamps them (drafts them or pays them), they are playing with house money. This was a problem that affected even the great Bill Parcells when he coached the Cowboys and couldn’t command a locker room like he had done his whole career.
I think this mindset has affected QB Dak Prescott this season as well. He has played with a hesitancy, a doubt, and a lack of confidence in either what he is seeing, what he’s being told, or just flat-out distrust of his protections or receivers separating from coverage in the right window. Again, there has been little or no development anywhere on offense. It’s just been hit or miss for most of the season. I still think the Cowboys have the best roster on paper, but unfortunately, they don’t play like the best individually or as a team.
The mindset of this team seldom falls in the category of even keel. They take their lead from the sideline and usually those decisions have been anything but decisive. Some are late, almost like an afterthought, and others, we have been told, are practiced and well thought out. Regardless of style or research, too many choices have gone over like a lead balloon.
As the team embarks on an offseason of doubt starting with each of its coordinators being candidates for head coaching opportunities elsewhere, this organization is left at a crossroads. Their best coaching asset, IMO is Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn, who will no doubt get another head coaching job during this cycle. Kellen Moore, their offensive coordinator, has been portrayed as a “future star” in the business but is probably not quite ready to be a head coach unless he’s surrounded with lots of experience behind every door of the organization.
The Cowboys have got to improve if they want to get to the next level. The lack of detail and mental mistakes have got to stop. That starts by being empowered by the organization and with a different mindset from the coach.
If I am Mike McCarthy, I’m going down swinging. It starts with allowing him to install and run his own offense. For him to be effective, he has to be allowed to do his job in a way that demands respect from his players. That seems like it is missing currently in his role of middle manager. It is not a simple fix.