How Mike McCarthy can make sense of the 8-8 Cowboys he's inheriting

Stephen A., Spears' Cowboys debate gets heated (1:57)

Stephen A. Smith and Marcus Spears have a fiery discussion about Jerry Jones' blame for the Cowboys' struggles over the years. (1:57)

FRISCO, Texas -- As Mike McCarthy comes close to finalizing his Dallas Cowboys coaching staff, there will come a time when he will look at what happened to the 2019 team that he inherited.

McCarthy will find a team that did not make much sense.

The Cowboys (8-8) had the second-largest point differential of a team not to have a winning record (plus-113) since the 1989 Cincinnati Bengals (plus-119). They finished with the No. 1 offense in terms of yards and were sixth in points with a first-year offensive coordinator in Kellen Moore, who will remain on McCarthy's staff. Defensively, the Cowboys were ninth in yards and 11th in points per game.

No wonder Dallas owner and general manager Jerry Jones used the term "mind-boggling" after the season-ending win against Washington in describing the Cowboys' 2019 season.

But there are reasons Jones opted to move on from coach Jason Garrett and hire McCarthy that were specific to 2019 and not the sum of a nine-plus-year run as coach.

Let's take a look at some of the reasons:

No tight wins

The best NFL teams win close games. In 2018, the Cowboys went 9-3 in one-score games on their way to a 10-6 finish to win the NFC East. They went 1-6 in one-score games in 2019.

A good portion of the 2019 roster was a part of the 2018 roster, so why did the struggles happen when it mattered most?

"Hard to put a finger on a specific thing," Garrett said late in the season. "Probably different things happened in different games. We talk to our team all of the time that essentially two-thirds of games in the NFL are within one score of each other. The teams that are able to play at the end of the year in the playoffs are the ones that win those games."

Of the six NFC playoff teams, the Seahawks had the most wins (10) in one-score games. The Green Bay Packers went 8-1; the New Orleans Saints went 7-1. The San Francisco 49ers earned the first-round bye in part because of a 5-3 record in one-score games. The Eagles went 5-5 and only the Minnesota Vikings had a losing record (2-4) among the playoff teams in close games.

In a league where the margins for error are small, successful teams have to win in the end. The Cowboys did not do enough at winning time.

Stars let the Cowboys down

For the first time in franchise history, the Cowboys had a 4,000-yard passer (Dak Prescott), 1,000-yard rusher (Ezekiel Elliott) and 1,000-yard receiver (Amari Cooper) in the same season. They actually had two 1,000-yard receivers (Michael Gallup). And, yet, they are sitting at home for the playoffs.

All four players likely have moments they want back.

Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence received the most guaranteed money and highest average pay-per-year deal in team history when he signed his five-year, $105 million deal, but he had five sacks this season after posting 25 total sacks in 2017 and 2018. His complete game was at a Pro Bowl level, but he was paid to sack the quarterback.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith signed an extension before the season that included $35.5 million in guaranteed money. While he led the Cowboys in tackles, he did not impact the game enough and struggled in coverage at times. Cornerback Byron Jones went through his second full season without an interception.

The Cowboys had three Pro Bowl offensive linemen in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin but each had critical moments they would want back. Cooper was held without a catch in the Week 12 road loss against the New England Patriots and was hardly a factor down the stretch.

Given the structure of the Cowboys' roster, they need their highest-paid players to perform at a top level. That did not happen enough in 2019.

Poor starts

One reason the Cowboys did not fare well in one-score games had to do with how they opened games.

The Cowboys scored touchdowns on their opening possessions three times out of 16. One touchdown came on a 45-yard drive after the defense forced a rare turnover. The other two TDs came in back-to-back games against the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Bears. Then, the Cowboys' defense allowed 26 and 24 unanswered points in key defeats late in the season.

In three other losses, the Cowboys trailed the Packers 31-3, the New York Jets 21-3, and the Vikings 14-0.

The Cowboys were unable to play complementary football. When the offense was halted, the defense could not get stops. When the defense could not get stops, the offense could not score.

"Situationally, we weren't effective," Frederick said. "That shows up in the way that the games turned out. When you look at the win margin, in games where things were working, they were really working; in the games that they weren't, we just weren't able to pull it out. We need to go back to the drawing board and really reflect on what it was that caused that to happen and really attack that."

No real rookie production

Without a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL draft because of the Cooper trade, the Cowboys knew their rookie class would lack sizzle. They didn't expect it to lack substance.

Second-round pick Trysten Hill was inactive for nine games and was known more for falling asleep in a team meeting as Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas was speaking. Third-round pick Connor McGovern did not play a snap because of a partially torn pectoral muscle that he first suffered in the spring and aggravated again before the season started.

Tony Pollard, the Cowboys' fourth-round running back, showed some flashes as Elliott's backup. Fifth-rounder Mike Jackson opened the 2019 season on the practice squad before signing with the Detroit Lions. Defensive end Joe Jackson, their other fifth-rounder, was active for five games. Sixth-round safety Donovan Wilson showed some playmaking ability in the preseason but was not given much of an opportunity in the regular season.

For a team that has drafted well over the past five years, the Cowboys will need a ton more production from the 2020 class.