Six games in, Mike McCarthy facing key juncture of Cowboys' tenure

FRISCO, Texas -- Nothing has gone right for the Dallas Cowboys so far this season.

Quarterback Dak Prescott is out for the season with an ankle injury. Starting offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins are out for the season after not playing one snap together in the regular season. A scheme change on defense has led to a major regression with the Cowboys, who are on pace to allow an NFL-record 581 points.

At 2-4 overall, the Cowboys are in first place in the NFC East, but it seems to be a team more in turmoil than close to turning any kind of corner with a report from NFL Network citing anonymous player quotes ripping the Dallas coaching staff for not being good at their jobs.

Coach Mike McCarthy was asked if he had addressed the comments in Wednesday's team meeting.

"The 'anonymous' is something I think we all don't want to recognize," McCarthy said. "But I'll just say this: anytime, especially this year of all years, being our first year together, I think it is important to recognize anything and everything for a teachable moment. So anytime I have a chance to teach and make it clear what our expectation is, always moving that needle toward winning, that's my approach."

Running back Ezekiel Elliott said the Cowboys would be better served to "keep that type of stuff in-house." Linebacker Sean Lee said the consensus in the locker room is they have to "keep faith in each other. And we have that faith."

Lee credited McCarthy.

"It's squashed with the way he's handled it and he's talked to us," Lee said. "It was great what he said about if you have a problem, come to my door. He doesn't have a problem talking to guys, embracing other people's opinions. Maybe he will agree with you, maybe he won't, but conflict is not an issue for him."

Instead of only being upset that a player or players used the media to gripe anonymously, is there any truth in what was said, that the coaches are not good at their jobs, don't adjust well on the fly and are totally unprepared?

Almost assuredly the gripes are coming from the defensive side of the ball. The Cowboys are allowing a league-high 36.3 points per game. They are 31st in run defense and 24th in pass defense. They have intercepted one pass and recovered two fumbles.

During the virtual offseason program, Cowboys players embraced the ability to have a more comprehensive scheme with disguised coverages after playing a vanilla defense under Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard last season. After two weeks into the regular season, though, the Dallas defensive scheme was simplified, yet breakdowns continue.

Do the failures on defense fall on poor coaching or the inability of the Dallas players? Or, is it both?

"I don't have a problem with where we are as far as what we're asking our guys to do because that was part of the change in why I feel strongly that philosophically we're going in the direction that we are defensively," McCarthy said. "But I'm also not naive or ignorant to the fact that you have to coach today's athlete, I don't want to say differently, you have to coach today's athlete to make sure that they're successful. So we're just not going to run a scheme just because that's the one we like. Our job is to make sure that we're putting players in position to be successful. Now, with that we have to be accountable to that and to their skill set and how it all fits together.

"They also have to be accountable to the fact that maybe a scheme or technique that they have done in the past maybe easier or they liked it differently than we're asking them, but we feel it's in the best interest for the team. These are all common questions, these are all common situations regardless of the position, offense, defense or special teams that you go through in the first year."

McCarthy was hired in part because this was not a rebuilding job. McCarthy was attracted to the Cowboys because he thought they were ready to win now. Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones thought he had a talented roster ready to win immediately.

Six games in, Prescott is out. The once-feared offensive line is in tatters and might be without Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin because of a concussion. Elliott has lost four fumbles. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence has one sack. Linebacker Jaylon Smith has not made enough impact plays. The secondary has given up big plays almost every week. Greg Zuerlein has won both games with last-second kicks, but the special teams' unit has been lacking and has a difficult time counting to 11 with either too many or too few players on the field a number of times.

"Have we improved? From an analytical standpoint, if I look at trend lines in the things we focus on and the four key areas that I focus on, no our trend line is not pointing in the right direction," McCarthy said. "I need to continue to find a way to teach and demand, really the basic functions of simple football. We haven't achieved that in the first six games, but I think our players have been very accountable to it. The messaging between player and coach has been consistent, constant. This group works hard."

The group just might not work well.

The last time the Cowboys were 2-4 after six games came in 2015. That season, they lost their quarterback, Tony Romo, for the bulk of the season to a twice broken right collarbone and finished 4-12, garnering a top-five pick that led them to Elliott.

Internally, the season was seen as a one-off because of Romo's injury after the Cowboys' lost to McCarthy's Green Bay Packers in the 2014 divisional round. In 2016, the Cowboys went an NFC-best 13-3 with Elliott and Prescott leading the way.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, will 2020 be viewed as a one-off as well?

Ten games remain this season and the Cowboys have consecutive division games upcoming, starting with a trip to face the Washington Football Team Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox). McCarthy acknowledged they are at a key juncture.

It might also be a key juncture of his tenure with the Cowboys, even after six games.

"Like a lot of things, when you hit a part of your season or any challenge where there is negativity out there, and where it comes from and who it comes from, that's something I've never chased," McCarthy said. "But I think you do have to recognize it. I just really go back to my first meeting with the football team. I've always stated this to every team I've coached. I think it's important to handle things as men.

"I mean, if you do have something to say publicly, I think it's important to say to the individual, particularly in a group dynamic setting, especially in the game of football, especially the Dallas Cowboys. That's all part of the development of our program, of the system we're installing here, so I think that's just part of our flight right now."