A behind-the-scenes look at the Cowboys’ analytics overhaul under Mike McCarthy: Part 4

This is the fourth and final part of a series on the Cowboys’ analytics department, consisting of inside information from a variety of current and former Cowboys employees. In case you missed the first three parts, you can find those below:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The Cowboys undertook a sizable quest to beef up their analytics department following the 2022 season, and finally manifest the kind of structure that Mike McCarthy had pitched to Jerry Jones back in January of 2020. That resulted in the hiring of John Park, who then filled out a department that now ranks among the league’s largest.

That this process coincided with the same offseason in which McCarthy took over offensive play-calling, something he had not done since the 2018 season with the Packers, is no coincidence. McCarthy had noticed some inefficiencies in the offense that had been run by Kellen Moore, and he felt that he knew how to best solve them. But McCarthy also wanted to have an analytics team he could rely on while taking on this heavier workload, so getting the hire of Park right was paramount.

As detailed in the previous installment of this series, the early returns are positive. Park and the team he assembled have drawn rave reviews from inside the organization, and McCarthy was able to have great success calling the offense, as Dallas improved in nearly every statistical category this year.

However, it wasn’t a seamless transition, and it wasn’t a complete success. As any Cowboys fan can attest to, the offense started off real slow. Some of this was due to the general growing pains that most teams experience when there is a change in play-caller. Take, for example, the Eagles: they promoted Brian Johnson from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator this past offseason, and the offense struggled and ultimately regressed despite the scheme remaining completely intact. Now, Johnson is the pass game coordinator in Washington and the Eagles are looking for a new coordinator.

The growing pains didn’t last long for Dallas, though. McCarthy eventually got back into a groove calling plays, but it was more than that. The Cowboys went into their bye week with plenty of questions on offense; they had posted solid results to that point, but something just felt off. McCarthy used the bye week to huddle with his coaching staff, but it also offered a chance to get some data insights from his new analytics department. One staff member familiar with the process put it this way:

“When they [the newly hired analytics staffers] first got here, they were drinking water out of a firehose. There was so much administrative stuff they had to get in place just to be ready at the start of the season. But that bye week was their first chance to really put up any info to be used.”

It’s unclear what all was discussed in those meetings, but the differences on the field were immediately noticeable. The offense was suddenly filled with pre-snap motion and the early down pass rate, which had already been fairly high, exploded to levels never before seen in Dallas. The production followed, too, as the Cowboys began scoring points with regularity – including a solid bump in red zone touchdowns after struggling early on – and finding new ways to feature their best players.

That’s just one example of how the new analytics staffers’ influence could be seen on the field, but their impact extended all throughout the building. Weekly reports from the analytics department, as well as frequent interaction between the department and the coaches and players, seemingly contributed to a higher level of preparedness week in and week out.

That manifested itself in the form of quite a few blowout wins over inferior teams. Even the losses, primarily against the Eagles and Dolphins on the road, were very close and hard-fought games. The blowout loss to the Bills was less so a case of lacking in preparation and more so the Bills coming out with an aggressively run-heavy offense, which was a drastic departure from what they had been running all year. Quite simply, Buffalo caught them by complete surprise.

Still, some point to the Cowboys’ embarrassing loss to the Packers in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, and McCarthy himself has since said that the players were too fast to start that game, chasing big plays instead of letting the game come to them. This exemplifies the highly volatile nature of the sport of football, and how hard it can be to precisely quantify things in this world. The sense within the organization is that the team’s level of preparation has gone up as a result of the larger analytics department this year, but there’s only so much impact they can have on any single game.

That raises the question of what’s next. That feeling of positivity, that everything is now in its right place with McCarthy calling plays and the data side of the operation at full strength, was certainly not shared by the fan base, but it was a big part of Jerry Jones’ decision to keep McCarthy around. From an infrastructure standpoint, McCarthy has fundamentally reshaped the way this team approaches football, and the analytics department is already looking to grow further.

The next step in that evolution process may be about to unfold, as Park and his team now turn their attention to their first offseason in Dallas. For the first time, this group will be part of the discussion on expiring contracts, free agency evaluations, and draft preparation. How does the offseason approach change with them in the room now?

It’s unlikely that we’ll suddenly see the Cowboys go full Les Snead and trade all their draft picks for established veterans and start tweeting out references to popular poker movies. But it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see this front office – one that made uncharacteristically aggressive trades for Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore last year, before Park had even been hired – become a little more aggressive in the way they do business.

There have already been hints of this change, as Jerry Jones now infamously declared the Cowboys to be going “all-in” for the 2024 season. Fan response to these comments was largely ambivalent, with little anticipation that Jones’ definition of “all in” would match the fans’ perception of the idea. However, it’s no coincidence that Jones made this comment after having seen some of the work from his new analytics team, nor is it a coincidence that the team has handled the running back position the way they have and, soon, will.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to view these Cowboys as going through the same old dog and pony show – another disappointing playoff loss, refusing to make big changes, and then talking a big game about how next year will be different. But on the inside, something has already changed. The process has improved, or at least that’s how many feel at the moment. And Jones has felt encouraged by what he saw behind the scenes in 2023.

The 2024 season is being set up as a make-or-break year for McCarthy, but that doesn’t mean the Joneses aren’t going to support him. In fact, there remains a lot of optimism after seeing the team improve from 2022 to 2023 largely by doing things McCarthy’s way. As such, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys double down on giving McCarthy what he (and his analytics team) wants, and then waiting to see how it works out before making a decision on the coach’s contract.


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