Figures who will shape 2020 NFL season: Just don't mess up Cowboys' top-five offense, Mike McCarthy

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Few teams can boast the embarrassment of riches the Cowboys have on offense heading into 2020. Let’s just lay it all out for the people.

You want a piece of this Cowboys offense in fantasy

Dallas’ offense is anchored by a running back who is among the most productive players in the game since entering the NFL. From 2016-2019, Ezekiel Elliott ranks first in rushing yards per game (96.5), total touches (1,358), and yards from scrimmage (7,024). Among backs with 170-plus carries, Zeke ranked first, second, seventh, and first in rushing success rate over the course of his four NFL campaigns.

The offensive line isn’t what it once was but don’t mistake it for a problem spot. Three of the five starters were ranked inside the top-22 offensive linemen by Pro Football focus (min. 580 snaps).

The most established receiver in Dallas, Amari Cooper, is a vertical playmaker who can line up at multiple positions to create mismatch problems. Cooper has cleared 1,000 yards in four of his five pro seasons and is coming off a career-high 15.1 yards per catch and eight touchdowns.

Last season, the Cowboys had another breakthrough in the wide receiver room with Michael Gallup’s emergence. Since 2010, only 22 wide receivers (and one Gronk) have cleared 1,100 yards in a season before turning 24 years old. Michael Gallup joined a list filled top to bottom with good players.

Pretty much every intelligent football observer can agree that’s a list of great wide receivers, save for maybe Hakeem Nicks and Alshon Jeffery. And you can easily argue injuries robbed us of seeing the best of those players. Gallup is on a clear upward trajectory.

Dallas proceeded to add to their embarrassment of riches in the NFL Draft by selecting star rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb when the top-flight wideout strangely fell to the 17th overall pick. Lamb was extremely productive the last two seasons at Oklahoma. He’s an underrated technician with obvious skills after the catch and a DeAndre Hopkins-like ability to pluck balls in high-degree-of-difficulty situations.

If all that wasn’t enough, the Cowboys will also continue to find ways to incorporate two up-and-coming, athletic ancillary talents. Tight end Blake Jarwin and running back Tony Pollard certainly flashed in spurts last year. The former should enjoy a breakout season now that he’s the clear starter.

All of these gifted skill-position players will operate with a quarterback who has, by almost any measure, developed into one of the 10 or 12 best signal callers in the league. And that’s being conservative.

Over the last two seasons, Dak Prescott ranks seventh in adjusted yards per attempt, eighth in completion rate, and ninth in passer rating among quarterbacks to start 20-plus games. He was also sixth in NextGen Stats completion rate over expectation last season, demonstrating he’s now the type of quarterback who excels outside of and who elevates the conditions around him. None of that even accounts for the bonus he brings as a rusher, where he ranks sixth in yards and first in rushing touchdowns among quarterbacks since entering the league.

Unless you are completely delusional, Dak Prescott has become the exact type of quarterback you want as the point guard of your offense. Especially one laden with talent such as this current Dallas team.

With everything they have at their disposal, something would have to go terribly wrong for the Cowboys to not field a top 3-5 offense this season. We’re talking the type of unit that runs through the league, a rising tide that lifts all boats on the team.

Mike McCarthy has to be one of the key figures in making sure that something terribly wrong doesn’t come to pass.

And you could make the argument that all he has to do is stay out of the way.

Head coach Mike McCarthy of the Dallas Cowboys
Just stay out of the way, Mike McCarthy. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

Has Mike McCarthy adapted to the new era?

The former Packers coach was one of the premier offensive minds in the business during the early days of his Green Bay tenure. However, the game seemed to pass him by as the new era of play-callers moved to more progressive approaches. His scheme went ultra stale and he did little to change it.

Since his Green Bay ouster, McCarthy has said all the right things. He launched what came off as a full-on PR campaign toward the end of the 2019 season as reporters leaked details of how he created a pseudo football bunker at his home, brought in a faux staff of other coaches to study the game’s new trends and cozied up to Pro Football Focus. If all that is legitimate — there’s no reason to think it’s not — then there’s a good chance McCarthy is ready to adapt to the modern game in his second head coaching stint.

McCarthy already sent out a strong signal he gets it when he kept offensive coordinator Kellen Moore in town despite sweeping out many other long-time Dallas assistants. Moore took over as the play-caller in 2019, lifting a unit that was ranked 24th in Football Outsiders DVOA in 2018 to the second-best outfit last year. The former quarterback certainly installed more motion, play-action, and modern concepts to the attack. However, the team did run far too often on first down, seemingly defaulting back to old habits like “We win when we get Zeke 30-plus carries,” and all that nonsense.

Moore isn’t perfect but his first season on the job was positive. McCarthy keeping him around suggests he wants to continue to adapt to today’s game, not take the Cowboys offense back to the stylings of the early 2000s.

Frankly, part of me thinks the less we hear about Mike McCarthy in 2020, the better off Dallas will be. If we start hearing stories about McCarthy butting into the play-calling duties or god forbid, straight up taking them on himself, we might not see this unit reach the potential it so obviously boasts.

In a weird way, McCarthy can be a key character in the story of the 2020 season by acting out a co-star’s role. He doesn’t need to try and be the leading man in this movie. Non-players have a bad history of becoming the story in Dallas, whether intentionally (looking at you, Jerry Jones) or by just by sheer inability to change (good luck in New York, Jason Garrett). McCarthy can’t fall victim to this path.

In order for this team to hit its ceiling, the players need to tell the story on Dallas’ offense. The crew last year was already telling a pretty compelling tale. A few minor tweaks are all that’s needed.

McCarthy doesn’t need to come in and make wholesale changes, he mainly just needs to let this star-level cast on offense go do their thing.

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