Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott need to take it to next level

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

The Dallas Cowboys won 12 regular-season games. They won a playoff game too. Then they lost a close divisional round game on the road against a very good San Francisco 49ers team.

Based on the reaction to the 49ers’ loss, you’d have thought they didn’t win a game all season.

It was time to fire Mike McCarthy. They had to consider moving on from Dak Prescott. Fans were tired of it all.

Everything is bigger in Texas, including the rage from Cowboys fans.

We all know the key talking points. The Cowboys haven’t been to the Super Bowl since the end of the 1995 season. Nate Newton, one of the starters in that Super Bowl for Dallas, will turn 62 years old this year. The Cowboys haven’t even been past the divisional round of the playoffs since that Super Bowl XXX season.

The problem is that the Cowboys have been very good for most of the Prescott era (they are 61-36 in his starts), but another team has always been better. And for the largest fanbase in the NFL, 12 regular-season wins and beating a bad Tampa Bay Buccaneers team in the playoffs isn’t a satisfactory season.

And in that cauldron, McCarthy put himself on an even hotter seat this offseason.

McCarthy is a punching bag, and it’s not necessarily fair. McCarthy has a .614 winning percentage, better than Bill Parcells, Chuck Noll, Tom Landry and Bill Walsh among other greats. Only 10 coaches in NFL history with at least 150 wins have a better winning percentage. But all of his Green Bay Packers success has been assigned to Aaron Rodgers and his Cowboys success is simply ignored amid calls for his job.

This offseason the Cowboys parted ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, McCarthy announced he’d take over play-calling duties, and then at the NFL scouting combine he gave some quotes that will be repeated every single time the Cowboys lose a 17-13 game with him calling plays. There’s nobody else to blame.

“I’ve been where Kellen has been,” McCarthy said. “Kellen wants to light the scoreboard up. But I want to run the damn ball so I can rest my defense. Think when you’re a coordinator, you know, but you’re in charge of the offense. Being a head coach and being a play-caller, you’re a little more in tune.

“I don’t desire to be the No. 1 offense in the league. I want to be the No. 1 team in the league with the number of wins and the championship. And if we gotta give up some production and take care of the ball better to get that, then that’s what we’ll do.”

And with that, McCarthy became the rare play-caller to publicly proclaim that he hopes to not have the No. 1 offense in the NFL. And his “run the damn ball” line will come up every time there’s a bad second-and-12 or third-and-5 run call this season. This time, McCarthy is inviting the criticism.

“It’s fun as hell to call [pass-heavy] plays, but that’s not the best thing for your team,” McCarthy said. “Time of possession goes to hell, risk for turnover goes up.

“So we’ve got to get the ball security. We got to secure it better. We need to be a top-five team and that’s a skill.”

Maybe that is the best formula for the Cowboys. Prescott is coming off a season in which he led the NFL with 15 interceptions and did so in only 12 games. He threw two more in that playoff loss to the 49ers. McCarthy’s old-school strategy should cut down on Prescott’s interceptions (and yards, and touchdowns, and scoring as a whole), but it’s not like what the Cowboys were doing had gotten them to an NFC championship game.

It just now puts more pressure on McCarthy, not that he needed it. And it won’t lessen the pressure on Prescott. He’s the quarterback of the Cowboys and pressure comes with the job.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Dan Prescott (4) are under pressure heading into this season. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Dak Prescott (4) are under pressure heading into this season. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Cowboys are going to be good again. They have been very good the past two seasons and had a productive offseason. Dallas is among the league leaders in blue-chip players, like receiver CeeDee Lamb and defensive star Micah Parsons.

But everyone knows that a repeat of last season won’t be good enough, or even close. The Cowboys need a special season, or perhaps some of these big changes fans clamor for will actually happen.

Offseason grade

The Cowboys made two smart trades to fix problem areas. They sent a fifth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts for cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who won’t win another NFL Defensive Player of the Year award but can be a good No. 2 corner opposite Trevon Diggs even as he turns 33 years old. Dallas also sent a 2023 fifth-round pick and a 2024 sixth-round pick to the Houston Texans for well-traveled receiver Brandin Cooks, who has six 1,000-yard seasons. The Cowboys didn’t have enough cap space left to sign any outside free agents of note, though they did re-sign safety Donovan Wilson and linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Dallas lost guard Connor McGovern to the Buffalo Bills and tight end Dalton Schultz to the Texans. The draft wasn’t thrilling, but first-round defensive tackle Mazi Smith fills a need in the middle, second-round tight end Luke Schoonmaker can help replace Schultz, and third-round linebacker DeMarvion Overshown could fill a role. As long as Gilmore and Cooks have something left, it was a solid offseason.

Grade: B

Quarterback report

Dak Prescott didn’t have a good season. He led the NFL in interceptions. His yards per game and passer rating were way down from the previous season. But he’s still a good quarterback. Pro Football Focus had Prescott rated as the second-best QB in standard accuracy last season, and No. 1 in avoiding catchable but inaccurate throws. Prescott tied for 13th in turnover-worthy plays last season, according to PFF, which says his interception total was unlucky. He wasn’t up to his standard last season, but it also doesn’t make sense when there’s chatter that the Cowboys need to replace him. Prescott will turn 30 years old this season, has a good set of receivers and while Mike McCarthy’s play-calling probably won’t allow him to put up huge raw statistics, it seems safe to assume he’ll be better than he was a season ago.

BetMGM odds breakdown

The constant negativity around the Cowboys can lead to betting value. Last season, Dallas’ win total was 10.5 and one of the most popular NFL offseason bets was the under. The over hit. This year the Cowboys’ win total is 10.5 again. Over is +110 odds and under -140 at BetMGM. I’ll take over. I am skeptical of Mike McCarthy’s offensive philosophy, but it’s also hard to deny his record. Dallas should have another strong season.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Tony Pollard currently has a Yahoo ADP of 16.3. I can sign off on the Yahoo enthusiasm.

“Pollard enters his fifth year with low mileage, and the Cowboys still have a top-10 offensive line. Pollard offers plenty of splash plays as a runner (5.1 yards per rush over his career) and as a receiver (8.3 yards per grab). And perhaps this year he’ll get more of the chippy touchdowns; although he spiked 12 times last year, only three of those scores came from inside the 10. Don’t be spooked by Pollard being a public play; often the public is right. They call that the wisdom of crowds.”

Stat to remember

Only seven running backs with enough carries to qualify have finished their careers with an average of at least five yards per carry. Five of the seven are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tony Pollard has a career average of 5.1 yards per carry. His efficiency has led to endless calls for him to get more carries over Ezekiel Elliott, and that’s about to happen. Elliott was cut and the Cowboys did almost nothing to add a No. 2 back to split time with Pollard. With Elliott now in New England, Pollard is in line for by far the biggest workload of his career. Pollard set a career best with 12.1 carries per game last season. He has had more than 15 carries just three times in 62 career games. What kind of workload will Pollard have with Mike McCarthy hoping to “run the damn ball” and without a proven backup? This could be Pollard’s massive season that everyone has been waiting for.

Burning question

Is this Micah Parsons’ DPOY season?

At BetMGM, Parsons is the favorite to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year at +450 odds. He might be the preseason favorite for a few years to come until he wins the award. And it seems like he will win DPOY at least once before he’s done. Parsons had a good follow-up to a great rookie season, recording 13.5 sacks last season. He led the NFL with 106 pressures last season, via Pro Football Focus, so with some good fortune Parsons could chase the single-season sack record he was hoping to get last season. Dallas’ defense is excellent under coordinator Dan Quinn — Dallas’ defense has finished second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA in two consecutive seasons — with talented players on all three levels. Parsons is clearly the biggest reason for the defense’s success.

Best-case scenario

For all the jokes about Mike McCarthy wanting to avoid crazy concepts like scoring a lot of points on offense, there was some logic in what he’s saying. If fewer passes make Dak Prescott more efficient, and it helps Dallas’ defense at the same time, that complementary approach can be very successful. And Dallas is already in a good place. The Cowboys are 24-10 the last two seasons with a dominant defense and an offense filled with playmakers. Prescott is good enough to lead the Cowboys to a championship, he just hasn’t done it yet. As good as the Philadelphia Eagles are, it’s not crazy to believe the Cowboys can beat them for the NFC East title. And while it has been 28 years since the Cowboys made a deep playoff run, this team could do it.

Nightmare scenario

In 2023, it’s hard to deny that the most effective offense is pass-heavy. Mike McCarthy isn’t going to turn the Cowboys into the 1973 Bills, but slowing down the offense might backfire. It’s also curious that Dallas wants a run-first offense but is pretty thin at running back behind Tony Pollard, who has never been a workhorse. And regardless of how the Cowboys play on offense, if Dak Prescott keeps throwing interceptions then Dallas can only go so far. It’s hard in a weak NFC to see the Cowboys falling out of the playoffs unless there are a lot of key injuries. But a playoff berth and an early exit will lead to another offseason of angst and, perhaps, big changes.

The crystal ball says …

The Cowboys are in a weird spot. They’re one of the best teams in the NFL, a Super Bowl contender and most fanbases would be happy with that. Yet, they’re not the favorite to win their division and while they have Super Bowl contender status, you won’t find many people picking them to actually win or even make it. Mike McCarthy’s views on offensive football in this era aren’t exactly comforting either. For some fanbases this would be an exciting prediction, but not for Dallas: The Cowboys will probably have double-digit wins and make the playoffs, be very good but not better than the Eagles, be a tough out in the playoffs but not make a run past the divisional round. Again. And then after the playoff loss, we’ll get to watch Jerry Jones answer questions about whether he’ll keep McCarthy and Dak Prescott around.

Other team previews

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Houston Texans

30. Chicago Bears

29. Tennessee Titans

28. Los Angeles Rams

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Indianapolis Colts

25. Washington Commanders

24. Las Vegas Raiders

23. Carolina Panthers

22. Denver Broncos

21. Atlanta Falcons

20. Green Bay Packers

19. New England Patriots

18. New York Giants

17. Minnesota Vikings

16. New Orleans Saints

15. Pittsburgh Steelers

14. Cleveland Browns

13. Los Angeles Chargers

12. Jacksonville Jaguars

11. Seattle Seahawks

10. Baltimore Ravens

9. Miami Dolphins

8. New York Jets

7. Detroit Lions

6. Dallas Cowboys

5. San Francisco 49ers

4. Buffalo Bills

3. Cincinnati Bengals

2. Philadelphia Eagles

1. Kansas City Chiefs

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