FRISCO, Texas — When Mike McCarthy arrived in Dallas, he considered two strategies.
“You can torch the earth and start over on everything,” McCarthy said, “or start to incorporate the things you can from the past culture into your culture. I’ve obviously taken the second approach.”
So the Cowboys team that will face the New York Giants and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett on Sunday continue to embody many of Garrett’s principles. Garrett’s “control what you can control” mantra has further become a rallying cry in an unpredictable COVID-19 era of NFL play. Eleven of Dallas’ 22 expected starters this week were drafted under Garrett, with another four acquired while he was head coach. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore played and coached under Garrett.
“Obviously, I owe a lot to Jason,” Moore said. “Someone who, as I continue to grow as a coach, I’ll probably always connect with and want to learn from as well.”
But as a 1-3 Cowboys team prepares for an 0-4 Giants team, Dallas’ differences from the Garrett era might define the outcome of each team’s first divisional matchup. A Dallas team that long prided itself on controlling the clock with the run game is averaging a league-best 407.8 passing yards per game. A Dallas defense that in recent years emphasized speed and simplicity is facing questions about its motor and a slow transition to schematic understanding. Even McCarthy, whose record through four games is worse than Garrett’s ever was in nine-plus season at Dallas’ helm, has taken effort to stray from Garrett’s conservative approach, in play-calling and in press conferences.
“I probably didn’t handle (media) the best way in my prior experience,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “Being ‘BBD,’ Boring By Design, was probably not the best method.
“I’m trying to be as charismatic as hell with you as you can tell. I’m just flowing out my ears right now.”
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Neither Garrett nor McCarthy have immediately found success in their 2020 appointments.
Garrett joined Giants coach Joe Judge’s staff in January after leaving Dallas with an 152-85 (.559) record as head coach. His teams were above .500 in all but one season and won the NFC East three times. In New York, a rebuilding roster remains winless at the season’s quarter mark. Garrett’s preference for a run-heavy offense was dealt a massive blow when its feature piece, running back Saquon Barkley, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the second game. The team hasn’t scored a touchdown in either of the two contests since. The Giants’ 11.8 points per game and 278 offensive yards per game rank dead last in the league. Quarterback Daniel Jones has thrown five interceptions and lost two fumbles.
“Sometimes, quarterbacks have to take their lumps because they’re really in the ground floor of the rebuilding process,” Garrett said Thursday. “The best ones I’ve been around have come out the other end of those experiences.”
McCarthy was expected not to rebuild Dallas but contend immediately. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had lost patience waiting to end an NFC championship game drought that dates back to the 1995 season. McCarthy, whom Green Bay fired in 2018 after 13 seasons, made nine postseason appearances and won a Super Bowl.
“It’s lightning in a bottle,” Jones said at McCarthy’s introductory press conference. “Those things, Lombardis are hard to get a hold of, and we know that. And he’s had one of his own right here. To catch that right now and get our time to do that was just an opportunity.”
Offensively, Dallas has flashed. Fifth-year starter Dak Prescott has led the offense to a league-best 509.5 yards per game and third-best 31.5 points per game. Receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb are on pace for more than 1,000 yards apiece. Running back Ezekiel Elliott and tight end Dalton Schultz have had productive stretches.
But the offensive line has quickly dipped from one of the team’s strongest groups to its weakest. Prescott and Elliott are fumbling at an uncharacteristic rate; the team’s six lost fumbles in four games nearly three times as punishing as the 9.1 lost fumbles the Cowboys averaged per season under Garrett. Dallas’ 26:07 time of possession is 3 minutes below the worst mark of the Garrett era, the offense unleashing often in the second half while playing catchup against the Falcons, Seahawks and Browns.
Only against the Falcons, with an improbable onside kick, did Dallas emerge victorious. Their turnovers are too much to weather for a defense battling injuries, scheme change, growing pains and miscommunication. The result: a defense allowing a league-worst 36.5 points per game, which is also on pace for worst in franchise history.
“We’ve had four games and frankly, the formula for how these games have unfolded is not our outlook for how we want to play,” McCarthy said. “It’s very clear our time of possession, turnover ratio, how we’re challenging the quarterback of the opponent, is clearly not within the outlook of how we want to play games.”
With a division win, the Cowboys could regain control of the NFC East from the 1-2-1 Philadelphia Eagles. The Giants, on the other hand, could get their elusive first victory against a defense that is still learning its assignments, with a coordinator that knows Dallas’ defensive personnel well even if Nolan has instituted “really, a completely different style of defense from when we were there,” Garrett said Thursday.
“Obviously, with Jason’s knowledge of personnel within the building, we’ve talked and discussed different things offensively and defensively with him,” Judge said. “We try to use every resource we have.”
A new vantage point
Garrett declined to elaborate on the emotions of his return when he was asked this week. But he’ll enter AT&T Stadium with a keen familiarity, the only coach to ever frequent the stadium’s home coaching desk until last month. During his tenure as Dallas coach, Garrett would complete a game, address his players from the center of the locker room, then assume a podium in the tunnel adjacent to the locker room.
Only after his engagements were complete, and his players headed home, would Garrett’s friends and family join him on the stadium turf. Slants, post routes and the occasional Hail Mary dotted the Garrett-quarterbacked scrimmage that would unfold. Even after his final 2019 game, Garrett cherished the tradition.
“I want to be the coach of the Dallas Cowboys,” Garrett said after the game, roughly a week before Dallas sealed the deal with McCarthy.
Sunday’s postgame scene will vary drastically for Garrett when he arrives as a coordinator visiting in an era of tight COVID-19 protocols. Prescott envisions a postgame hello with perhaps more extended conversation after with a coach he’s got “nothing but respect for.”
“I’ll never forget all of the many practices in OTAs and mini-camp of him continuing to get on me and put in my head, ‘Get back and get away from center. Get away from center,’” Prescott said. “To all of our games, throwing after practice, which everybody got to witness. Nothing but respect for coach Garrett and it will be great to see him.
“But this is about getting a win.”
“The biggest thing that we’re all focused on is what we can do to help the New York Giants play as well as we can play,” he said. “I obviously spent a lot of time in Dallas and am very grateful for my experience there. All the players I was fortunate to coach, the guys I was fortunate to coach with, and everyone in that organization and really the people of Dallas. They were amazing to me. It was a great time of my life. Forever appreciative of that and forever grateful of that.
“But I’m excited about this opportunity and trying to help this team get better.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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