‘I want to run the damn ball’: Mike McCarthy outlines surprising vision shift for Cowboys' offense in his play-calling return

INDIANAPOLIS – In jest, Mike McCarthy painted a picture of his new reality.

“I wake up at 3 in the morning every night, thinking about plays,” the Dallas Cowboys head coach joked Wednesday over lunch at the NFL scouting combine. “Most people sing in the shower. I’m calling the final drive of the Super Bowl again. Driving in my car, I’m thinking of plays.”

Laughter ensued at the not-that-crazy-for-football-world vision.

But the reality of McCarthy’s return to play-calling for the first time in his four Dallas seasons is far less glamorous. Reclaiming play-calling duties after splitting ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, McCarthy admits some of his plans are “not sexy” and do not “get you the headlines.”

Better ball security and winning the time-of-possession battle rank high among McCarthy’s priorities for 2023. Running the ball to alleviate pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott and defensive personnel follows shortly after. McCarthy believes that bigger-picture perspective and prioritization will give Dallas an edge as its head coach calls plays for the first time since 2012.

“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.”

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy speaks during a press conference at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Wednesday, March 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy has a preliminary plan for Dallas' offense in the 2023 season, one that might mean Dak Prescott taking fewer hits. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

How the Cowboys' offense will change under McCarthy

A productive offense, of course, is more an asset than a liability to a team’s success. But coming off two 12-5 seasons that ended in early playoff exits (a wild-card and divisional loss, respectively), the Cowboys seek to maximize their efficiency more than productivity.

Three times in the past four seasons Dallas has ranked top-6 in scoring, with the offense leading the league in yardage twice in the past four years while never dropping below 14th.

But the Cowboys’ Super Bowl, and even NFC championship, drought has still extended since the 1995 season. McCarthy thinks a less flashy offense could change that.

“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.”

The Cowboys’ defense has led the league in takeaways the past two seasons, but Prescott also topped the league with 15 interceptions in just 12 regular-season games. He threw two more in the divisional-round loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

The details to change this may sound dry, but McCarthy believes they’re tried and true from his successful 13-year tenure in Green Bay that included a Super Bowl title.

The recipe?

Expect more balance and more complementary football, meaning ample opportunities for running backs like franchise-tag candidate Tony Pollard, likely-to-take-a-pay cut-if-he-stays Ezekiel Elliott or a new addition who could arrive via the Cowboys’ 26th overall pick in the NFL Draft.

Dallas will aim for cleaner pre-snap mannerisms to better disguise whether a run or pass awaits, in hopes the defense cannot diagnose Cowboys intentions until after the snap.

And as important as anything: protection schemes that keep the pocket tighter and quarterback footwork more precise.

Prescott missed five games last season after fracturing his throwing thumb in the season opener, one game the prior year due to a calf strain, and 11 in 2020 after a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.

McCarthy is adamant the Cowboys must reduce the risk their QB gets hit.

“My goal every year as an offensive coach was to make sure the quarterback played in every game,” McCarthy said. “If Dak Prescott plays in every game next year, I feel we’re going to have a hell of a season.”

‘A new challenge’ for Dak

While philosophies about when to attack horizontally versus vertically might shift, the Cowboys will not wholly overhaul their offensive attack.

McCarthy plans to keep most of the language consistent for Prescott, whose eighth pro season will be his first without Moore in the building. McCarthy estimates a 20-30% variation in offensive principles from last season to this. He promoted Brian Schottenheimer — who has coordinator experience with the New York Jets, then-St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks — to offensive coordinator while McCarthy retains plays.

McCarthy touted Schottenheimer’s experience, leadership and people skills as reasons he’ll contribute meaningfully. The duo align on offensive principles learned under Brian Schottenheimer’s father, Marty, the first head coach to give McCarthy an NFL opportunity. Schottenheimer worked in a consultant role for Dallas last season, which McCarthy believes further enables him to hit the ground running scheming a personnel collection with which he is familiar.

“We can all use a new voice,” McCarthy said of Prescott’s new coaching brain trust. “We all can use a sense of motivation and challenge and so forth. This is a new challenge for him, these are his words. He’s very excited about it.”

McCarthy is, too, saying re-establishing the offensive vision has presented the most fun he’s had since the Cowboys hired him in Jan. 2020.

“The last three years we grew into the offense that I wanted it to be as far as the run/pass combination,” he said. “And I just feel like we’ll have another variation and hopefully we can take another step.

“Different fastball, different curveball, different changeup.

“I think it will serve us well.”