FRISCO, Texas – Mike McCarthy made a big change when he became the ninth head coach in Cowboys history a year and a half ago.
For the vast majority of his 13 seasons as Packers head coach (2006-18), McCarthy called the offensive plays. He voluntarily gave up that responsibility when he took the Cowboys job in January 2020. Not only did he keep Kellen Moore on staff as offensive coordinator, he wanted the 32-year-old former quarterback to continue calling plays after one year on the job.
That obviously represents faith in Moore as a bright young assistant coach. But McCarthy's decision also was, and still is, about precious system continuity for quarterback Dak Prescott.
"It was a very conscious decision that I made, and I phrased it as, 'If I'm going to call it, I need to install it.' And Kellen's calling it, and he's installing it, and it needs to be his offense. I've been very cognizant of that," McCarthy said Thursday during a visit with the local media. "He knows exactly what I'm looking for. He knows exactly how I feel about -- just like anything in this business, whether it's offense, defense, special teams, training room, strength and conditioning, there's usually two really good ways of doing, maybe a third. You've just got to decide which one you're going to do. That's been my experience.
"So with that, I'm not as involved on the daily every day that when I came back I thought I would be. But I do like the way it's going."
McCarthy has coached several great quarterbacks over the years, including Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre in Green Bay. He says he has a great relationship with Prescott but believes the quarterback-play-caller relationship is most important.
"The reason why Kellen Moore was given the opportunity that he's given is because I wanted to continue the advancement of Dak Prescott, and that's why I gave it up," McCarthy said. "Because I saw Joe Montana stay in a very similar offense his whole career. I watched Brett Favre stay, and I watched Aaron Rodgers do the same. I think that's a huge, huge component.
"I don't want Dak to have a new language. I don't want Dak to have to change his footwork every time a play goes in. He has four years of starting ability. We need to build off of that. That decision was made and we continue to do that."
Here are some more highlights from Thursday's media interview:
- McCarthy has always been known as an offensive-minded coach, but he believes great defense is critical to a championship run. "I had one top five defense in 13 years and won a Super Bowl (in 2010)," he said. "We had massive injuries that year. The 77 players won a championship, but that defense kept us in the game and kept giving us opportunities. And Aaron (Rodgers) was obviously a great player and we were able to get on a roll at the right time."
The Cowboys are only halfway through preseason, but McCarthy is pleased with the defense's progress under first-year coordinator Dan Quinn after the unit struggled with a scheme switch in 2020, partly because of the pandemic-shortened offseason.
"I've been in this league a long time and I've never seen one side of the ball flipped the way we flipped it in one offseason," McCarthy said. "I think it's a real credit to what we were able to do in free agency and in the draft."
- The focus around this franchise is going to center on its Super Bowl draught until that changes. When the record book says eight Super Bowl appearances and five championships, the standard is clear. That said, McCarthy did talk about the challenge of sustaining success across multiple years in the NFL, and how the best programs tend to string together winning seasons.
That type of success has also eluded the Cowboys for a while now. Since reaching the playoffs eight times in 10 years during the 1990s, the team has only made consecutive postseason appearances once – the 2006 and 2007 seasons.
"I think when you see programs that win year in and year out, they're doing it right," McCarthy said. "I think everybody is capable of having a great run and winning at a high level, but then you see them fall off the next year or two. I think that's a norm. But to win every year here, that's the real challenge."
McCarthy is obviously familiar with that kind of success, given that he oversaw a Packers program that made the playoffs eight-straight times from 2009-16. In his opinion, the Cowboys have the most important piece of that equation in Dak Prescott.
We have the quarterback. We have the right person, the right leader, and he'll be a huge part in that," he said. "Because forget about the games, just look at the way we practice … That's what we had with Montana, that's what we had with Rich Gannon, that's what we had with Brett Favre -- not only what they do on Sundays, but what they do in practice during the week. They're so competitive, and they make the whole environment better. That's how you win consistently. Dak is that for us."
- His team is going to have to prove it on the field, but McCarthy isn't shy about explaining his purpose here – to break that lengthy championship draught. As much as some coaches might try to shy away from expectations, he said he doesn't see it that way.
"I always thought it was kind of chicken s--- if you said 'One at a time,'" he said. "I never liked the under promise, over deliver deal."
As McCarthy pointed out, very few coaches would speak so cautiously in front of their players. Thanks to "Hard Knocks," McCarthy has already provided an inside look at his championship expectation for his team. He might not want to share every detail of his style, but that's not something he's worried about expressing.
"I'm not going to sit here and tell everything we say in team meetings, but I think there's an expectation from the fan base and I think the players want to hear it too," he said. "Everybody thinks you're going to win the Super Bowl right now. And they should. What the hell are we doing this for? It's hard. So I never had a problem being honest about the expectations of the current year."