Cowboys’ transition from Kellen Moore to Mike McCarthy a work in progress

FRISCO, Texas — It always seemed a bit strange, the partnership between Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore.

Back in 2015, while with the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy said he would never not call plays again as a head coach. Yet he accepted the Dallas Cowboys‘ job in 2020 and kept Moore as the offensive coordinator and playcaller despite the pair having no background together.

On Monday, the Cowboys’ past and present collide at SoFi Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN) in a game where what Moore did for Dallas, and now does for the Chargers, will be compared to what McCarthy has done in 2023 as a playcaller.

McCarthy said the three seasons he and Moore spent together were “productive,” especially 2021 and 2022 when the Cowboys finished with a 12-5 record and made the playoffs. McCarthy’s first season, 2020, was impacted by the pandemic and the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott in the fifth game because of a dislocated and fractured right ankle.

In 2021, the Cowboys were ranked No. 1 in yards, ninth in rushing and second in passing. A year later, they finished 11th in yards but had the best red zone offense. The Cowboys scored 530 and 467 points, respectively, their best back-to-back production in franchise history.

“If you look at the pure football part of it, I think we were still working through how we wanted the offense to look [in 2020],” McCarthy said. “I thought he did a really nice job shifting gears and featuring the runners and doing some of the things that needed to be done.”

But this Jan. 29, the Cowboys and Moore parted ways. Within minutes, Moore became the Chargers’ offensive coordinator.

While McCarthy had been involved in the game-planning process, he wanted to get back to his playcalling roots. After Prescott tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (15) despite starting just 12 games last season, owner and general manager Jerry Jones allowed McCarthy to become the first Cowboys head coach to call plays since Jason Garrett in 2012.

“I would never say I wasn’t comfortable with it,” McCarthy said. “We just felt this was the direction we needed to go.”

For Prescott, Moore’s departure left him without his last confidante from his 2016 rookie season. Moore, a former quarterback himself, was first a teammate, then Prescott’s position coach and finally his coordinator. As a rookie, Prescott felt demoralized in listening to Moore discuss the offensive system because he couldn’t see the game or process information the way Moore did. As his coach, Moore helped Prescott set a team record with 37 touchdown passes in 2021.

“He’s more than a coach,” Prescott said. “Obviously, he was a teammate that turned into a coach, but he’s a friend. A friend for life. Talked to him earlier in the year, wished him luck, but obviously we’ve had our own things and our hands full. It will be great when I see him at some point come Monday.”

Judging McCarthy’s five games to Moore’s four seasons is not equitable, but it is inevitable this week and the timing could not be worse for McCarthy.

The Cowboys are coming off a game in which they scored just 10 points against the San Francisco 49ers, turned the ball over four times and had eight first downs, their fewest since putting up seven in the 2007 season finale against Washington when they had home-field advantage already clinched.

“We just didn’t catch a groove,” wide receiver Michael Gallup said.

After five games, the Cowboys are 17th in yards per game (327.4) and eighth in points (26.8), although that is helped by three defensive scores and a special teams touchdown. The passing game is 20th (203) and the run game is 10th (124.4). The Cowboys have scored touchdowns on just seven of 19 red zone possessions, fifth worst in the league.

Rainy conditions in the opener against the New York Giants limited the passing attack, and blowouts in that game and against the New York Jets and New England Patriots meant the Cowboys didn’t need to push things offensively. McCarthy also turned the team’s focus to the defense.

“When we started this offensive approach back in mid-April, I just think it’s a matter of who you want to be and who you think you are,” McCarthy said. “I coached a team for a lot of years and I was offensive coordinator, but this team is about defense, let’s make no bones about it.

“That’s not a slight against the offense. We want to score as many points as everybody. [Not] playing not to lose. Let’s not mix the message here. We play to our defense. That’s the strength of our team in doing that time of possession, taking care of the football, those are two things [I’ve seen] improvement from past years [in] the first month.”

During the offseason program, Prescott dubbed the new-look offense the “Texas Coast offense,” as a combination of what they had done with Garrett as coordinator from back in 2007 through Moore’s time in 2022 mixed with McCarthy’s West Coast background.

McCarthy, Prescott, other players and coaches said there were not many changes to the offense, with the biggest alteration coming in pass protection, but Prescott’s production thus far is not what it had been under Moore.

With Moore, Prescott averaged 287 passing yards per game and 8 yards per attempt. Under McCarthy, he is averaging 212.2 yards per game and 6.13 yards per attempt. He is on pace to throw for 3,607 yards and 17 touchdowns, which would be the lowest he has had in his career when playing a full season.

His downfield attempts (20 yards or more) have gone from 11% under Moore to 6% under McCarthy. His attempts at or behind the line of scrimmage are up to 25% under McCarthy, compared with 19% under Moore.

Prescott is getting the ball out of his hand quicker (remember McCarthy’s West Coast philosophy) at 2.51 seconds, compared with 2.73 seconds under Moore.

Prescott is under center more with McCarthy (45%), while 60% of his snaps were in shotgun under Moore. As a result, the play-action percentage is higher (31% to 24%). Neither McCarthy nor Moore use motion a lot, but it’s down to 42% under McCarthy, who has varied the personnel groupings more, compared with 47% under Moore.

Here is his QBR in certain situations under Moore and McCarthy:

Despite the growing pains in finding their offensive identity, Prescott is remaining patient and confident, preferring to view the San Francisco loss as a one-off, not a trend.

“What we’ve put together, the plan, everything that we worked on back in the spring, I’d be crazy to lose confidence in that understanding [with] all the work that we put into this,” Prescott said. “S— is hard and it got hard Sunday. The last thing we’re going to do is give up and quit or say, ‘Hell, let’s start from scratch and start over.’ Absolutely not.

Later he added, “We’re going to get it right, and there’s no doubt in my mind.”

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