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The Cowboys Have Improved Since Then, Thanks to Mike McCarthy and The…

“September football” is a term Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy has used a lot to this point. It’s been used to explain some of the growing pains the Cowboys have experienced and as a source of hope for what is to come beyond “September football.”

McCarthy made the following statement during his speech on Tuesday: “September football, there are certain trends that you see in September football.” “At the end of the day, every season is different. We’ve had three high moments with the type of victories that we’ve had, we’ve had two competitive games. … There are highs and lows you go through every year. Just in this short range of games, the peaks and valleys have been different than I’ve encountered as a head coach.”

Offensively, there have been far more valleys than peaks through the first six games, and that’s something that falls squarely on McCarthy. That’s not to say that McCarthy is solely responsible, of course. Part of the blame can be placed on Dak Prescott, the offensive line that surrounds him, and the defense, which has been less effective than one might anticipate from a team that aspires to become great in history.

While the spotlight shines brighter on McCarthy for the responsibility he assumed this past offseason as the offensive play caller, let’s begin with a responsibility that falls, to a large extent, on McCarthy, the head coach.

As much as Micah Parsons wants, Cowboys, Dak Prescott won’t get ‘same energy’ as others

The Cowboys currently have 46 accepted penalties in six games. Five teams have slightly more total penalties than the Cowboys—two have 47 and three have 48—but each of those teams has played one more game than the Cowboys. In essence, the Cowboys are the most penalized team in the NFL through the first trimester, as McCarthy likes to call this first segment of the season.

Not all penalties are graded equal, and the Cowboys are committing too many of the ones that need to be avoided.

“I break them down in three categories, always have,” McCarthy said earlier this season on his evaluation of penalties. “The biggest thing is pre-snap penalties and post-snap; you have to break those out. There is no justification for pre-snap penalties. Those are decisions and disciplines that (we do) lot of reps, a lot of time, a lot of energy. The pre-snap penalties are the ones that are clearly negatives.”

Only considering accepted penalties, the Cowboys have been called for defensive offside nine times through six games. That number leads the league and is three times as many as the next closest offender. The Cowboys have also been called for eight false starts and two delay of games.

This is not a new issue. Since McCarthy took over in 2020, the Cowboys rank third in the NFL in accepted penalties, and are only two back of the second-place Arizona Cardinals, who have played an extra game. They comfortably lead the league in that span in defensive offside penalties and are third in the NFL in neutral-zone infractions.

To be fair to McCarthy, in his 13-year run with the Green Bay Packers, his teams were a middle-of-the-pack penalized team (while the Cowboys were still top five) but those are the types of things the head coach is expected to come in and address. The Cowboys have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball but not enough to consistently overcome shooting themselves in the foot to this extent.

McCarthy said this week that penalties are a top priority.

“We talked a lot about penalties today,” McCarthy said Monday. “That’s our biggest focus from a negative perspective.”

There are also are a lot of questions about McCarthy, the offensive play caller. When McCarthy took over play-calling duties from Kellen Moore this spring, it was done with the intention of being an upgrade. While it was McCarthy’s first time calling plays in Dallas, he has a long history of doing so, especially over his tenure with the Packers. The Cowboys spent all offseason touting the “Texas Coast” offense and how it would work but so far, it’s been a downgrade.

Again, it’s fair to look at the players and execution, and Prescott will naturally carry the brunt of that. But it’s also worth noting that Prescott was running one of the league’s highest-powered offenses in the NFL as recently as last year under Moore’s direction. Growing pains are to be expected, certainly, but with November around the corner, it’s time for a lot of those things to smooth over.

One thing McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have pointed to is the nature of the games thus far. In the first two games of the season, the Cowboys merely needed the offense to not get in the way as the defense and special teams throttled the New York Giants and New York Jets. The same held true again in Week 4 against the New England Patriots.

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