Jori Epstein USA TODAY
Published 12:41 PM EST Jan 11, 2020
FRISCO, Texas — Mike McCarthy has a long to-do list as he migrates from freezing Green Bay to Dallas Cowboys headquarters at The Star.
He’ll move his wife, Jessica, and two daughters down to North Texas. He’s finishing assembling his staff, the aim and members of which he’s been considering throughout his season away from coaching. McCarthy needs to finish consulting with 2019 Cowboys staff members, he said Wednesday. And he needs to reach out to the players who will run his game plans come fall.
No doubt McCarthy has plenty on his plate.
But in case he needs help, here are five ways McCarthy should spend his early weeks and months as the ninth head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
1. Maximize Dak Prescott’s growth and ability
Prescott has started every game for the Cowboys since he was drafted in the fourth round, 135th overall, in 2016. In 2019, he posted his best statistical year as a passer, throwing for 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns to 11 interceptions. Prescott wasn’t perfect last season, inconsistent at times in both games (his 463 yards and two touchdowns vs. Green Bay were marred by three interceptions) and in stretches, particularly late in the year. But his footwork, throwing mechanics and ability to read defenses improved significantly from earlier years. Now McCarthy will mentor Prescott like he has Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to work with Dak,” McCarthy said Wednesday at The Star. “I can recall his rookie year when we played ‘em there in Green Bay. I’ve always been impressed with him. You’re going to able to run the whole offense and then some. I think he has an incredible foundation to build off of.
“And our offensive system will be built around making the quarterback successful. That’s the way I’ve learned it. That’s the way I believe you play offense. We have a great one here to work with.”
McCarthy will look to take Prescott’s passing to the next level, while better utilizing his dual-threat capabilities than the Cowboys sometimes have the last four years.
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Meanwhile, with Prescott’s rookie deal expiring, it’s on Stephen and Jerry Jones to get the quarterback under contract, be it via a long-term deal or the franchise tag. Prescott told USA TODAY Sports last summer he doesn’t think it’s fair to suggest he should take a pay cut to leave funds for teammates. Stephen Jones said Wednesday that the two sides “continue to work" to get the deal done.
The Cowboys haven’t wavered from their assertion that Prescott is their franchise quarterback going forward. McCarthy’s “appreciation for” Prescott was among the discussions in the job interview that sold the deal, Jerry Jones said.
2. Cement Ezekiel Elliott’s role in the 2020 Cowboys offense
The Cowboys didn’t sign Elliott to the richest running back contract in NFL history last September only to relegate him to a diminishing role. McCarthy’s Packers tenure was pass-heavy, in large part because he had eight-time Pro Bowler Rodgers lighting up opponents. Nine times his Packers ranked in the top 10 in scoring. Only once in the span did Green Bay rank top 10 in rushing. One of McCarthy’s tenets is to build an offensive system "around making the quarterback successful," he said. "That's the way I believe you play offense."
Don’t confuse that with minimizing Elliott’s involvement. Elliott has rushed for more than 1,300 yards in each of his three full seasons in the NFL. (In 2017, when he served a six-game suspension, he averaged 98.3 yards per game when he did play). Even as Elliott’s average yardage slipped in 2019 (84.8 yards per game) with the Cowboys passing game's explosion, Elliott still rushed for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns — in addition to catching 54 more passes for another 420 receiving yards and two touchdowns. McCarthy plans to capitalize on his skill set.
“First off, with Zeke, he’s going to get the football,” McCarthy said. “Let’s make no mistake about that. ... When you say the offense is going to make a quarterback successful, the best way to make him successful is a great run game. We clearly understand what we have here and how we could build off of that.”
3. Defensive chemistry
On paper, the Cowboys defense didn’t rank significantly worse in 2019 than in 2018. The unit allowed the ninth-fewest yards (327 per game) this season after limiting opponents to the seventh-fewest (329.3) a year earlier. Ten teams allowed fewer points (321) in 2019 after the group ranked sixth (324) in 2018. The sack total reached 39 both years. The unit struggled to intercept balls in both campaigns, snagging nine in 2018 then seven in 2019.
But on film, the defensive chemistry clearly deteriorated from 2018 to 2019. Missed tackles became far more frequent, quarterback pressure became less of a constant and the screen game consistently challenged Cowboys defenders. Over a span of 19 days, the Cowboys allowed a rushing touchdown each to quarterbacks Jeff Driskel, Josh Allen and Mitch Trubisky.
McCarthy and defensive coaches including Mike Nolan, his expected coordinator, will need to assess what went wrong and how to better capture the talent. They’ll likely want to boost the secondary and interior defensive line in the draft, if not free agency. Wednesday, McCarthy wasn’t yet ready to proclaim whether he’d oversee a 4-3 or 3-4 defense (the Cowboys have been 4-3 since 2013).
“That’s an excellent question,” McCarthy said. “It’s just really not the time to answer those. We’ll get into that when we announce our staff, and we’ll make it clear the direction we’re going.”
4. Continue his Jerry World playoff trends
One of Jason Garrett’s consistent emphases as Cowboys coach was to focus on winning the division. He never vocalized loftier expectations, even if he sought them. Win the division, Garrett said, or the rest doesn’t matter. The Cowboys did win the division three times in the last six years under Garrett, who won 69.2% of division games compared to 55.9% overall.
McCarthy’s Packers eliminated Garrett’s Cowboys in two of those three playoff runs. Garrett failed to return the franchise to its first conference championship, much less a Super Bowl, since the 1995 season. McCarthy, in contrast, arrives with a Lombardi Trophy on his resume. He’s already matched Garrett’s playoff win count at AT&T Stadium. Jerry Jones noticed.
“I won my first Super Bowl here in North Texas at AT&T Stadium,” McCarthy said. “I just want to tell you I am anxious and excited to get to work on winning the next Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys.”
Sure, no coach has won a Super Bowl with multiple franchises before. Jones sees that as fortuitous rather than an indicator McCarthy won’t be able to get the job done.
“Lombardis are hard to get a hold of, and we know that,” Jones said. “To catch that right now and get our time to do that was just an opportunity.
“It’s lightning in a bottle.”
5. Establish a division of power with Cowboys' front office
Unlike the Packers’ stockholder system, Jerry Jones is the sole owner of the Dallas Cowboys. In title, he’s the general manager, too. All decisions go through him.
No doubt, Jones has a team he works closely with on decisions. Executive vice president Stephen Jones, EVP Jerry Jones Jr., VP of player personnel Will McClay and senior director of football administration and football operations Todd Williams are heavily involved in running the franchise. But still, Jones can be considered a meddling owner. So for a coach whom Rodgers expected to have more general manager freedom in his next job, McCarthy will do well to establish division of labor and authority long before the season starts.
“The best statement that was said over and over in the interview is we're going to make 'we’ decisions,” McCarthy said. “The job that's been done to this point, the personnel, is very impressive. That was a big attraction for me. I'm excited as a head coach to probably have more input than I've had in the past.”
By all accounts, McCarthy hit it off splendidly Saturday night with the Joneses, McClay and Williams. The interview lasted roughly 12 hours, parties said. Jerry Jones Jr. asked his dad: “What are you waiting on?” noting that “Stephen is ready to roll here.” Jerry Sr. grabbed McCarthy’s forearm, shook his hand and told him: “You need to be the coach of the Dallas Cowboys.” To top it off, McCarthy jumped up and hugged him.
If they can maintain that level of chemistry throughout the offseason and into the 2020 season, franchise leadership will be set. McCarthy is confident that will happen.
“The 'we decisions' was stated over and over again in personnel,” he said. “So, I think that's all you can ask for as a coach."
Time to get started.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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