The pomp and circumstance surrounding the Dallas Cowboys decision to finally part ways with Jason Garrett and replace him with a more proven Mike McCarthy has all but gone away, but not because of anything the latter has done. It's instead because of what he's thus far been unable to do, thanks to the ongoing and again surging COVID-19 pandemic, entering his first year with the Cowboys with a massive handicap. The good news in North Texas is McCarthy -- from coaching hires to free agency pickups to the brilliance of the 2020 NFL Draft -- but an offseason that was originally slated to begin for the Cowboys on April 6, still hasn't.
Granted, the team had a virtual offseason, but that's not even remotely the same as a traditional one that would've allowed him to have a two-week head start on clubs who didn't have a coaching change, and would've allowed him to get eyes and hands-on players as early as the beginning of April.
Instead, with no voluntary or mandatory minicamp, McCarthy-- i.e., Mike Nolan, Jim Tomsula, John Fassel, Al Harris, etc. -- are still waiting to begin the installation of what will amount to a new-look defense and tweaked offense, and now they won't have a preseason to help them do it. With the NFL and NFLPA coming to terms on scrapping the preseason altogether, McCarthy is left with only a hyper-structured set of August practices to not only get everyone on the same page but to also figure out which bubble guys deserve a spot on the roster despite (in several cases) them not having any NFL game film.
To add insult to injury, it's likely team rosters will be reduced from the annual 90-man headcount to only 80.
To put it more plainly, there are undrafted rookies who are presently stuck between elation stemming from finally being able to hit the ground running in their shiny new NFL digs, and a feeling of sheer terror at the possibility they'll be released while laying in their hotel bed. That's the reality of NFL football during the pandemic, and that tidbit is a bigger deal for a newly-hired coach than it is for one who already has a system in place and "their guys" to operate in it.
For example, although the Cowboys will remain in the 4-3 base defense, Dontari Poe and Neville Gallimore, along with edge potency in Gerald McCoy, Aldon Smith and Bradlee Anae. Add in defensive back newcomers like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Daryl Worley, Maurice Canady and second-round pick Trevon Diggs, among others, and it's not difficult to understand what McCarthy, Tomsula and Nolan -- all newcomers to Dallas themselves -- are up against when you also toss in the lack of minicamp and a preseason.-- having added interior beef by virtue of
Simply put, it's new coaches working in short order to assess/acclimate new players with fewer seats available to house them all.
Keep in mind, this is only a defensive example. The Cowboys offense has its own set of question marks, which includes working to acclimate Dak Prescott quickly after the two-time Pro Bowler opted to forego the virtual offseason during contract talks that wound up not bearing any fruit, and special teams need a ton of work as Fassel looks to evolve them from being one of the worst in the league to one of the best. A large part of Fassel's mission will be to overcome the losses of special teams studs Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier, while also needing time to figure out if , or if .
But will the team be willing to hold on to two kickers to truly force a much-needed competition, or sacrifice one to avoid losing a talented defensive upstart? The latter is unlikely to happen, but it's yet another example of the types of questions McCarthy and his staff are facing in a preseason-less, COVID-19 dominated landscape.
This is where McCarthy's experience and ability to quickly refine the roster will be tested, and that's saying the very least. What levels the field a bit for the Cowboys is in how both the New York Giants and nameless Washington club are in similar situations -- having replaced their head coaches and also find themselves in a stalled offseason install. The 2019 winners of the NFC East don't have such an issue though, with the Philadelphia Eagles enjoying another year of Doug Pederson, as . That gives them a definitive edge in the race for the division to open up camp and, fair or not, leaves McCarthy in a position of pursuit -- at least for now.
On paper, the Cowboys are arguably the best team in the NFC East, but games are won on the field; and the lack of prep time could
Still, McCarthy's level of difficulty in Year 1 is googolplexian, and nearly immeasurable.