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'I'm back in my element' -- Mike McCarthy reenergized as Cowboys' playcaller

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OXNARD, Calif. -- For a number of reasons, coach Mike McCarthy can’t wait for Saturday.

Yes, he will get to see his 2023 Dallas Cowboys for the first time in game action against the Jacksonville Jaguars (5 p.m. ET). Well, at least some of them -- maybe not any of his regulars. Yes, he will be back home, even if it's for a quick stop and a preseason game.

Mostly, however, it will be because he is back in his comfort zone, calling plays for the first time since 2018.

McCarthy last called a play in a game on Dec. 2, 2018, against the Arizona Cardinals, when he was still the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. After a one-year absence from the NFL in 2019, McCarthy spent his first three seasons as the Cowboys’ coach listening to Kellen Moore call plays into Dak Prescott’s helmet.

“I mean it’s kind of hard to be fired up about [making] schedules every damn day,” McCarthy said. “I tried to, but I feel like I’m back in my element and doing what I feel like I do best.”

For most of his 13-year run with the Packers, McCarthy called plays. He gave it up for most of the 2015 season, but after taking it back in Week 14 (coincidentally against the Cowboys), he said he would never not call plays again. That’s what made it so surprising when he kept Moore as the playcaller in 2020 because he felt it was in Prescott’s best interest at the time.

“Well, I actually thought that when Mike came in that one of his top qualities were his jobs he had done as playcaller and head coach,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. “The people that worked with him at Green Bay said that was when he was at his absolute peak in their minds -- his coaching skills and expertise -- was when he was head coach and playcaller. And so that would have happened when he came in had he not wanted and thought as much of Moore as he did. And he wanted to go that route.”

McCarthy takes over an offense that finished first, ninth, first and 11th in yards per game in the NFL, and sixth, 17th, first and fourth in points per game in four seasons under Moore's direction. In 2020, the Cowboys were 17th in large part because Prescott missed 11 games with a dislocated and fractured right ankle that forced the Cowboys to start four different quarterbacks that season.

Through McCarthy's tenure with the Packers, Green Bay averaged 363.4 yards per game (fourth best in the NFL) and 26 points per game (third).

“It’s really cool to see Mike in that role,” Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “It looks, from my opinion, that he's having a blast. Sometimes as a head coach, when you're not the playcaller, you're yearning for it, so I've seen that with him, the energy he has for it. I've felt some happiness and joy for him going out there, and you can see his competitive juices going.”

The new role has brought a different level of business for McCarthy.

“I know I don’t ever see him,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “That’s the biggest thing. I mean he’s nonstop. As he said, if you’re going to call it, you got to install it, so he’s busy, busy, busy.”

In the past, McCarthy would spend portions of practice talking to the Joneses or vice president of player personnel Will McClay. He would keep an arm’s length from the offensive drills. Occasionally he would make it into a few different position groups on either side of the ball.

Now, he is always with the quarterbacks.

“I think that’s critical here in this first year,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy is not remaking the offense, but he is retooling some of it, incorporating some of his West Coast philosophies that better tie Prescott’s footwork to the wide receivers' routes.

“Mike's an aggressive guy, fun guy,” Prescott said. “Spending a lot of time with him, just getting to know him and understanding what he wants on these plays, what he wants in each situation, just understanding his purpose allows me to play a little bit quicker and a little bit more free. And he's told me 100 times, it's about making the quarterback comfortable. It's about putting the quarterback in the best situation and allowed him to feel free.”

McCarthy said he never felt like he had to bite his tongue over certain calls Moore made. He was involved in the planning leading into games, so nothing caught him off-guard.

“No two people call a game the same,” McCarthy said. “I never felt like that [biting his tongue] because a lot of things in playcalling is the direction you go during the course of a game. With that, I was comfortable with how the games were called.”

That doesn’t mean he did not miss it.

New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer served in a consultant role last year, working mostly with the defense.

“He and I would have a chance to talk, and look, when you’re a competitor and you’re a playcaller, that’s what you love to do, right? You think you’re the best in the world at it and that’s what you want to do,” Schottenheimer said. “He’s reenergized, excited about the opportunity and quite honestly, he’s a helluva playcaller. He’s aggressive. He’s confident.”

On Saturday, he gets to show it off again, even if it’s just the preseason.

“I’m always looking forward to the games, that’s what it’s all about,” McCarthy said. “To compete again? I’m definitely looking forward to it. It’s fun.”