OXNARD, Calif. — Mike McCarthy hasn’t called plays for five years, and it’s been 10 since the coach of the Dallas Cowboys carried that additional responsibility.
Timing is everything, says Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones, who decided a decade ago he thought it would be better if Jason Garrett focused on being the head coach.
McCarthy, in his fourth season as Garrett’s replacement, is in his first training camp as Dak Prescott’s play-caller. The previous time he did this, Aaron Rodgers was his quarterback in Green Bay.
“He’s the busiest man in California,” Jones said. “He doesn’t have time to remember your name out here. He’s focused and engaged. Not that he hasn’t been.”
The Cowboys are coming off consecutive 12-5 playoff seasons that featured one of the best offenses in the NFL under offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. There were stretches of inconsistency, though, and the offense sputtered in a pair of playoff losses to San Francisco.
McCarthy and Moore agreed to part ways, and the Los Angeles Chargers hired Moore the day after the Dallas move was announced.
Garrett had been the head coach for two full seasons when he and Jones agreed in 2013 to hand the play-calling duties to Bill Callahan. Two more play-callers, including Moore, followed. Garrett never took that job back.
McCarthy inherited Moore in 2020, and decided continuity for Prescott was the most important thing. Now, urgency reigns with the Cowboys going on 28 years without even reaching an NFC championship game since the most recent of the franchise’s five Super Bowl titles.
“I think the biggest thing for me personally is to just make sure I’m connected with our players, starting with Dak,” McCarthy said. “I think the biggest thing in evolution, is frankly having the discipline of being in touch with your players and how the system fits the players.”
McCarthy won a Super Bowl and reached two other NFC title games with Rodgers after getting within a victory of a Super Bowl before that with Brett Favre.
At one point with the Packers, McCarthy stepped away from calling plays, only to reclaim the role and vow he would never again be a head coach without that duty.
That declaration left him with some explaining to do when Jones hired him. Now, it’s Jones with the explaining to do after deciding he didn’t need the so-called walk-around head coach after all.
“I actually thought that when Mike came in that one of his top qualities were the job he had done as play-caller and head coach,” Jones said.
“We’re in better shape to do it now than then. He’s got a better idea of how he’d like to tweak, change, whatever you want to call that. I think this is a heckuva way to do it. I think we’re going to get a lot out of this.”
For Brian Schottenheimer, most of this is new.
A year after serving as a consultant on McCarthy’s staff, the son of the late longtime NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer has the title of offensive coordinator – but not the play-calling duties he had in a decade-plus that included stints with the New York Jets, St. Louis Rams and Seattle.
“I’ve never done it before, but I think the good thing for me and for Mike is having been the guy who’s called plays for 14 years, I know what that guy wants,” Schottenheimer said. “My relationship with Mike is such that he and I can have great conversations, challenge each other, talk about different things. I’m certainly not a ‘yes’ man.”
The 59-year-old McCarthy and Schottenheimer, 10 years younger, were trained in the West Coast system that will be the foundation for Prescott, who has come to label it “Texas Coast” to emphasize things he believes are unique to what the Cowboys will try to do.
Running back Tony Pollard is taking over the lead role from Ezekiel Elliott, and receiver CeeDee Lamb has a new No. 2 behind him in Brandin Cooks.
While six-time All-Pro right guard Zack Martin’s training camp holdout in a contract dispute has created uncertainty with the offensive line, Jones envisions McCarthy in his play-calling prime with Green Bay.
“It was not so much about what Kellen wasn’t. It was about what Mike is,” Jones said. “I think we gain on it. I think we give ourselves a better chance if Mike has that kind of emphasis.”
While Prescott is set to have his third play-caller, the 2016 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year says this is really only his second system.
“Guys are much farther along, and I am as well,” Prescott said. “That’s a credit to coach, credit to Schotty of those guys installing the plays with a lot of details in making sure everybody understands the purpose of a play, the detail of a play and their role within that.”
“Fun” hasn’t been the first word to come to mind for McCarthy this summer with the club trudging through the installation phase for the offense. But he does like to joke about hoping the defense doesn’t have a good day, since he has taken that much more ownership of the offense.
“We’re just focused on getting these young guys reps, because our efficiency has to be the best it can be going through these install phases and going back to the live reps with the team,” McCarthy said. “But yeah, we’re having fun.”
And staying busy – or busier than his first three seasons with the Cowboys anyway.