Will Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy fix Dak Prescott's interception woes?

FRISCO, Texas --Dak Prescott threw his last meaningful pass more than 200 days ago in the Dallas Cowboys’ divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

In the seven months since, Prescott’s 15 interceptions in 12 regular-season games in 2022 -- and two more in the playoffs -- have been a constant topic of conversation. It doesn’t seem to matter that in his first six seasons, Prescott never had more than 13 interceptions or an interception percentage above 2.7%.

It doesn’t matter that he threw 23 touchdown passes in those 12 games or that he won eight of his 12 starts, with two losses coming in overtime, including one off a dropped pass that was returned for the winning touchdown by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Prescott knows the drill.

“We are a talking point,” Prescott said in mid-July during a break at his youth football camp. “As you find something to talk about, that’s the first thing to go to. As I’ve said before, I know who I am.”

And Prescott, who missed five games last season with a broken thumb, also knows 2023 is important. He is entering his eighth season as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback. Less than a week into training camp, he turns 30. He has two more years left on his contract, and while there has been talk of a possible extension, there haven’t been any in-depth negotiations as of yet between the sides.

There is urgency.

“I mean 1,000%, and not only just injuries, understanding what I’ve been through throughout my career,” Prescott said. “[It’s] understanding the time. You don’t have forever to play this game.”

Prescott will work in a new scheme for the first time in his career under coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. It will have some similarities to the offense coordinators Scott Linehan and Kellen Moore employed from 2016 to 2022 combined with McCarthy's West Coast background. Prescott and the quarterbacks have coined "Texas Coast" to describe the blended offenses.

“He certainly doesn’t need to be fixed,” Schottenheimer said of Prescott. “There’s no question about that. The guy is a great player. ... I mean, he’s going to go out there and he’s going to compete -- ‘I can make that throw.’ He’s just got to understand situations of the game and down and distance, and all that stuff, and clean up some of the decisions that he knows last year he kind of missed."

This isn't the first time Schottenheimer has had to work on decision-making with a quarterback.

"One of my early experiences as a coordinator was with the Jets, 2008, and I was coaching Brett Favre. You guys have seen Brett play. He would force a ball into traffic. There would be like three guys there waiting for it, and one of the three was going to catch it. He’d come over and I’d be, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ And he would go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, my bad.’ I’d be, ‘All right. We’re good.’ I’d get up to leave and he’d go, ‘Hey Schotty, I can make that throw, though. I can make that throw.’ I was like, ‘Dude, that’s not the point. Yeah, you can. You can make that throw sometimes.’

“So it’s a little bit that competitive spirit. These guys, they all have that. Again, Dak loves some of the things we’re doing from training the footwork and the timing and some of the rhythm things, tying the routes to his feet. We expect him to have a huge year.”

McCarthy’s first season as head coach of the Green Bay Packers came after Favre led the NFL in interceptions with 29 in 2005. In 2006, Favre had 18 interceptions despite six more pass attempts. From 2008 to 2018, Aaron Rodgers had more than 10 interceptions in a season twice. He had the lowest interception percentage in the NFL four times.

“People don’t throw that many interceptions in today’s game,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said. “[If] you throw double digits, it’s alarming.

“Personally, I was not concerned with [the interceptions] and I don’t think the Cowboys are either. And I hope Dak’s not, because people like to say every interception has a story of its own, which is true, but I didn’t think Dak was that reckless with the football.”

Prescott has started 97 regular-season and five playoff games. He has 61 wins and has led the Cowboys to the playoffs four times with two playoff victories. He holds the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season (37). He is second in touchdown passes behind Tony Romo and third in passing yards behind Romo and Aikman in Cowboys history.

Recently, ESPN surveyed league executives, coaches, scouts and players to rank the top 10 players at 11 different positions, and Prescott ranked ninth among quarterbacks after coming in 10th last year.

“When the picture changes, he struggles,” one head coach said. “He’s always been that way.”

One NFC pro scout said, “He doesn’t read it well” and “needs guys around him,” while adding Prescott seemed to press after returning from the thumb injury. Another offensive coordinator wondered if he trusted his receivers too much.

Another said, “He’s a guy you can win with. I’m not worried about the interceptions because that’s not been his M.O.”

A former personnel director said, “He’s more in the [Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk] Cousins category, where he needs help.”

The Cowboys’ form of help for Prescott this season is the addition of receiver Brandin Cooks in a trade from the Houston Texans and receiver Michael Gallup's return to full health. They are also hoping a group of tight ends with Jake Ferguson, rookie second-rounder Luke Schoonmaker and Peyton Hendershot can be what Dalton Schultz, who signed with the Texans, was previously for Prescott.

But the biggest form of help is the change McCarthy will bring.

“There’s several things that, when you try to improve, you can work on, and in this case, if you want to address interceptions, you can address protection,” owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “You can address aspects of the running game. You can address, certainly, out of the backfield [the] routes, the short routes, and you can address how much of the field on any given play that your quarterback is trying to cover. ... All of those things should potentially adhere to quicker releases, which gives us a better chance to block them up.”

McCarthy’s history with quarterbacks goes back to Joe Montana and the Kansas City Chiefs in 1995. In 2003, when he was the New Orleans Saints' offensive coordinator, Aaron Brooks had the NFL’s lowest interception percentage. For 13 seasons in Green Bay, he coached Favre and Rodgers.

When McCarthy came to the Cowboys in 2020, he kept Moore as the playcaller, believing it was best for Prescott’s development. Now, McCarthy moves back to the role in which he feels most comfortable and believes it will be best for Prescott.

“I love the way we’ve challenged Dak mentally and, more importantly, I love the way he’s attacked it,” McCarthy said. “I wouldn’t say I didn’t know it about him, but I think it’s just like all of us, you don’t really know until you really go out there and stress and push. He’s really handled these changes and adjustments and the input ... I want smart, Hall of Fame-type quarterbacks, and the only way to get there is you got to make them own the offense -- and you see it.”

How? By the questions he asks in the meeting rooms and the directions he gives on the field. During the teaching sessions, Prescott asked what McCarthy wanted to call a certain look. McCarthy said it was up to Prescott. After the first organized team activity, McCarthy asked Prescott to get rid of the stuff he doesn’t like. Prescott did.

When camp begins, the process takes another step, and the hope is that by Sept. 10, when the Cowboys open the regular season against the New York Giants, the coach and quarterback are so connected that one knows exactly what the other wants.

And the interception total comes down.

“I’m being pressed,” Prescott said. “I’m being challenged in ways that maybe I haven’t before, but it’s awesome.”