‘Players over system’: Mike McCarthy’s thoughtful input made for the Cowboys’ draft-week success

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A few hours before the draft got underway, Cowboys officials ran through multiple scenarios that could unfold when the team was on the clock. The drill was designed to make sure everyone was on the same page.

Mike McCarthy was on board. The head coach had just one question: If a player the club didn’t envision would drift to No. 17, say someone as talented as CeeDee Lamb, the club was willing to tear up its plan, right?

He was assured they would.

One of many factors that intrigued McCarthy about joining the Cowboys was that he would be given a greater voice in the organization than he had in Green Bay. He would help shape and build consensus, not just enact management’s decisions on the other side.

A draft that has been universally hailed among the league’s best provides the first, concrete example of his influence.

“I think it was outstanding,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said of McCarthy’s input. “Everybody has a unique style, a unique way.

“What I appreciate most, and I know Jerry (Jones) does too, is that he seemed comfortable speaking up. That is so important in these situations.

“It was seamless to me in terms of the staff’s transitioning. Certainly, Mike brought a unique perspective to this draft and I think certainly played a huge role in what we are all about and what this class is all about.”

The hours leading up to the team’s first round selection of Lamb wasn’t the only time McCarthy spoke up.

Once the third round was done, shortly before midnight on Friday, the head coach immediately pointed to Tyler Biadasz. The Wisconsin center was still available. The Cowboys liked him.

A lot.

Cornerback Reggie Robinson was the team’s fourth round pick at No. 123. Biadasz was still on the board, but the club didn’t have another pick until the fifth round. There was no way he’d last that long.

McCarthy made it clear to the Jones family and Will McClay, the team’s vice president of player personnel, that he wanted to address the center position. He believed Biadasz could compete for a starting job.

The Cowboys took one of their fifth round picks and packaged it with another fifth round pick in next year’s draft to move back into the fourth round to select Biadasz.

McCarthy also used his voice wisely before the draft in his conversations with McClay. The process of how the scouting department went about their jobs didn’t change. But the new coach hit the reset button on how that information was reviewed and discussed.

“One of the first things out of his mouth was, ‘players over system,”‘ McClay said. “Well, that rung a bell with me right away.”

Jason Garrett was part of the equation as head coach the previous nine drafts. He had strong ideas about the type of players that fit his scheme. There were templates he’d look for at certain positions.

All coaches do that. But the starting point matters.

If you start with the system, Taco Charlton gets the nod at defensive end in a 4-3 defense over a T.J. Watt in the 2017 draft.

If you start with the player, you go with Watt, even though he’s more suited for an outside linebacker role in a 3-4, and find a way to showcase his skills in your system.

You go with Bradlee Anae in the fifth round of this draft.

The Cowboys traded Charlton to Miami less than a year ago. The Dolphins released him Thursday. Watt, meanwhile, has 34.5 sacks and two Pro Bowl berths in his first three seasons.

A knock on Garrett and his view of the draft? Not at all. If you want to criticize Garrett and his coaching staff for Charlton, you must also acknowledge the Cowboys draft produced 13 Pro Bowl players in the previous decade.

Only Kansas City had more.

But it’s fair to say the continuity Jerry Jones desperately wanted to establish under Garrett eroded into something stale. McCarthy’s arrival got everyone engaged and brought a new way of looking at players entering this draft.

It created a spark.

“It was a cumulative effort to understand each other and how the processes work,” McClay said of his talks with McCarthy. “With a new situation, we all had to activate our stuff more and communicate more. ‘What did you mean by this? What did you mean by that? How do you do this? How do you do that?’

“We had to explain the process and then re-think the process to make sure that all those things matched. So it was beneficial from that standpoint.”

Once McCarthy and McClay understood each other they sat down with Jerry and Stephen Jones so all four men could form a coherent philosophy. The scouting department and coaching staff got on the same page.

McClay called it a unique synergy.

“He had the right sensitivity towards honoring the scouts and the work that they do and their perspective,” Jerry Jones said.

An approach that states ‘players over system’ inherently gives more weight to the evaluation of the scouting department. That doesn’t mean it lessens McCarthy’s voice.

The Cowboys new head coach was thoughtful. He helped build consensus. He was decisive.

It was a good start.

“I think it is like anything in life,” McCarthy said. “The communication and the individuals being on the same page.

“We had some fortune with the players that were available when it was our opportunity to pick and we are ecstatic about the class we put together.”


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