INDIANAPOLIS – Mike McCarthy jokingly painted a picture of his new reality.
“I wake up at 3 a.m. every night thinking about plays,” the Dallas Cowboys head coach joked over lunch at the NFL scouting combo on Wednesday. “Most people sing in the shower. I’m calling the last ride of the Super Bowl again. While I’m driving my car, I’m thinking about plays.”
Laughter followed at the not-so-crazy-for-the-football-world vision.
But the reality of McCarthy’s return to play-calling for the first time in his four Dallas seasons is much less glamorous. McCarthy is regaining play-calling duties after splitting ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and admits some of his schemes are “not sexy” and don’t “get you the headlines.”
Better ball security and winning the battle for possession are high on the agenda of McCarthy’s priorities for 2023. Running the ball will follow soon after to relieve pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott and defensive staff. McCarthy believes the bigger picture and prioritization will give Dallas an edge as the head coach calls games for the first time since 2012.
“I’ve been where Kellen’s been,” McCarthy said. “Kellen wants to light up the scoreboard. But I want to keep the damn ball running so I can rest my defense. Remember, if you’re a dispatcher, you know it, but you’re responsible for the violation. As a head coach and as a play-caller, you’re a little more up to date.
“I don’t want to be number 1 in the league. I want to be the number 1 team in the league in terms of wins and championship. And if we have to give up some production and take better care of the ball to get that, that’s what we’ll do.”
How the Cowboys offense will change under McCarthy
A productive offense is, of course, more of an asset than a liability to a team’s success. But after two 12-5 seasons that ended in early playoffs (a wild card and divisional loss, respectively), the Cowboys are looking to maximize efficiency rather than productivity.
Three times in the past four seasons, Dallas has been in the top-6 in scoring, with the offense leading the league in yardage twice in the past four years while never dropping below 14th.
But the Cowboys’ Super Bowl drought and even the NFC championship has been extended since the 1995 season. McCarthy thinks a less flashy attack could change that.
“It’s really nice to call [pass-heavy] plays, but that’s not the best for your team,” McCarthy said. “The time of possession goes to hell, the risk to the turnover goes up.
“So we have to get the ball protection. We need to secure it better. We have to be a top-five team and that’s a skill.”
The Cowboys’ defense has led the league in takeaways the past two seasons, but Prescott also led the league with 15 interceptions in just 12 games in the regular season. He threw two more in the division round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
The details of how to change this may sound dry, but McCarthy believes they’re time-tested by his successful 13-year tenure in Green Bay, which included a Super Bowl title.
Expect more balance and more complementary football, meaning plenty of opportunities for running backs like franchise tag candidate Tony Pollard, who is likely to take a pay cut if he stays with Ezekiel Elliott or a new signing who could arrive via the Cowboys’ 26th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Dallas will aim for cleaner pre-snap mannerisms to better disguise whether a run or pass awaits, hoping the defense won’t be able to diagnose Cowboy’s intentions until after the snap.
And as important as all: protection schemes that keep the pocket tighter and quarterback footwork more accurate.
Prescott missed five games last season after breaking his throwing thumb in the season opener, one game last year with a calf strain and 11 in 2020 after a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.
McCarthy firmly believes that the Cowboys need to reduce the risk of their QB getting hit.
“My goal as an offensive coach every year was to make sure the quarterback played in every game,” McCarthy said. “If Dak Prescott plays in every game next year, I feel like we’re in for a great season.”
‘A new challenge’ for Dak
While philosophies of when to attack horizontally versus vertically may shift, the Cowboys won’t completely overhaul their offensive offense.
McCarthy plans to keep most of the language consistent for Prescott, whose eighth pro season will be his first without Moore in the building. McCarthy estimates a 20-30% variation in offensive principles from last season on this. He promoted Brian Schottenheimer – who has coordinator experience with the New York Jets, then St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks – to offensive coordinator while McCarthy retains plays.
McCarthy praised Schottenheimer’s experience, leadership and interpersonal skills as reasons why he will make a meaningful contribution. The duo align themselves with offensive principles learned under Brian Schottenheimer’s father, Marty, the first head coach to give McCarthy an NFL opportunity. Schottenheimer worked in a consulting role for Dallas last season, which McCarthy says further allows him to jump-start planning a staff collection he’s familiar with.
“We could all use a new voice,” McCarthy said of Prescott’s new coaching brain trust. “We could all use a sense of motivation and challenge and so on. This is a new challenge for him, these are his words. He’s very interested in it.”
McCarthy also says restoring offensive vision has been the most fun since the Cowboys hired him in January 2020.
“Over the last three years we’ve grown into the offense I wanted to go as far as the run/pass combination,” he said. “And I just feel like we get another variation and hopefully we can take another step.
“Another fastball, another curveball, another substitution.
“I think it will serve us well.”