FRISCO, Texas — In his now three preseasons as head coach in Dallas, Mike McCarthy has notoriously elected to rest the majority of his starters – including Dak Prescott – during the entirety of the preseason.
That decision, while still debated outside the building, has had the backing of the front office, even if it has yielded shaky results to start the season each year.
Let's break it down, starting with 2022.
Dak Prescott was on his way to having one of his worst single-game performances in his NFL career before suffering a thumb fracture in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay that ended his night with just 134 yards and zero touchdowns. To say that rust was prevalent – not only with Dak, but with the whole offense – would be an understatement.
In 2021, Prescott had a complete opposite performance in his return from a season-ending ankle injury in 2020, throwing for 403 yards and three touchdowns in a narrow loss in Tampa Bay. However, it was the running game that had to shake off the rust as Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for just 47 yards on 14 attempts.
Moving into 2020 (while keeping in mind that no team had a preseason to prepare due to the pandemic), Dallas' offense suffered mightily on third down (3-for-12) on its way to a 20-17 loss to the Rams.
So, what gives?
With an 0-3 record in season openers staring at McCarthy, he sees the training and experience of the team during training camp as a better indicator of his team's preparation going into the season rather than a drive or two in preseason games.
"I think it's from experience," McCarthy said on Aug. 14 in Oxnard about his stance on playing starters in the preseason. "I've done it both ways. We feel very strongly about our roster. We have a really good understanding of the guys we have here that are established. Do you have the training available to make sure your team is most ready for week one? I have a lot of confidence in the way we train and compete against one another out here."
Enter 2023's season opener, where the Cowboys not only have an opportunity to set the tone with a big win on the road on primetime television, but they also get a chance to notch an early divisional win against a playoff team from a year ago.
But when the Cowboys' offense touches the field for the first time on Sunday night, there will be a lot of firsts. It will be Brandin Cooks' first snap with the offense. It will be the first time that the starting offensive line has been completely together (assuming Tyler Smith is able to overcome his hamstring injury from earlier in the week). It will be Tony Pollard's first snap as the full-time starting running back, and the same goes for Jake Ferguson at tight end.
And oh… a completely new offensive system with Mike McCarthy as the play-caller will make its debut with Dak Prescott.
It's difficult to assume that there won't be rust to shake off – especially on the road against a formidable opponent that has a young defense that is only continuing to improve with each game they play together.
In a game that McCarthy said on Monday is one that the Cowboys "need to go win" considering the divisional and playoff implications down the line, how can he ensure that his offense is ready to go?
"I think the biggest thing is to trust our training camp rules, play with a lot of confidence, play with a lot of energy, just really take care of the basics," he said. "The basics will always be at the forefront, but our execution in those areas will be key."
McCarthy has been insistent on the competitiveness around the team's practice environment throughout training camp being enough to prepare everybody for week one – even if they decided not to hold a joint practice with another team – but is it fair for everybody to be comfortable with that considering the recent history in season openers and the newness of what the offense will take to the field on Sunday night?
That's for McCarthy to answer on Sunday night if things do not go well, or for him to take a victory lap around if everything goes smoothly.
Here's for hoping for the latter. Happy football season, everybody.