Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.
After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. Today, we’re starting with the most important position, the quarterback.
This is Dak Prescott’s team
It feels strange to say but, with Aaron Rodgers leaving the Jets and Derek Carr leaving the Raiders, Dak Prescott became the longest tenured starting quarterback for his team. Prescott became the starter in 2016 through unexpected circumstances and hasn’t looked back, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year and twice being named to the Pro Bowl. Just this past year, he won the Walter Payton Man of the Year award as well, a testament to his leadership and selflessness.
Prescott has always been praised for his leadership and work ethic, but much of his time in Dallas has centered around whether he was the driving force of the team. Prescott entered the league with Ezekiel Elliott, who led the league in rushing and was named to the first team All-Pro list as a rookie. Several times over the next few years, many figures have argued that Elliott, not Prescott, was the straw that stirred the drink on offense.
That hasn’t been the case for at least two years, as Elliott’s play declined as he aged and as the bruising nature of the running back position took its toll. But it’s now official, as Elliott was released earlier this offseason. Prescott and Elliott were close friends, but the quarterback knows that the decision was a bit of a wakeup call for the whole team: it’s time to step up.
Prescott is now an established veteran, and one of the most senior voices in this locker room. He was already a leader, but this is now unquestionably Dak Prescott’s team; no more shared credit with his fellow 2016 rookie. It will be interesting - and undoubtedly strange - to watch Prescott command this team without Zeke next to him.
Can Dak get back to his old ways in a new offense?
For whatever reason, there has always been a ton of debate around Prescott’s place in the hierarchy of NFL quarterbacks, but the 2022 season found new life in the form of Prescott’s sudden affliction with the turnover bug. In fact, Prescott led the league in interceptions despite missing five games.
One reason that was such a big deal is because it was so unlike him; those 15 interceptions were the most he had ever thrown in a season. Prescott threw a pick on just 1.7% of his passes through the first six years of his career; in 2022, he was throwing one on 3.8% of his attempts.
Mike McCarthy has brought up the turnovers on more than one occasion this offseason when discussing changes to the Cowboys offense. McCarthy is focused on tweaking the offense to improve efficiency, and turnovers are an efficiency killer. McCarthy seems to have identified the solution to this problem, with both the head coach and Jerry Jones going out of their way to talk about getting the ball out of Prescott’s hands quicker.
This makes sense, as Prescott’s turnover worthy play rate jumped from 3.6% to 4.8% when pressured, and Prescott’s 2.72 seconds to throw coincided with a 20% pressure rate. Neither of those figures are abysmal, but they’re firmly in the middle of the pack. Perhaps an uptick in Prescott’s time to throw can not only cut down on turnovers, but unlock an even more efficient version of Prescott than we’ve seen in the past.
What’s his ceiling?
Prescott has been in the league for quite some time now, and he’s been exceptional from the very moment he made his NFL debut. In fact, Prescott is eighth in EPA/play and ninth in CPOE among active quarterbacks since entering the league. He’s been good.
But is that all he’s going to be? Prescott will turn 30 before the start of the season, which is about the time when most players start to hear questions about how much longer they have left. To date, Prescott’s Cowboys have failed to win multiple playoff games in a year, and two of his worst single-game performances of his career have come against the same 49ers team in consecutive postseasons.
McCarthy was brought in to take this team over the hump. After all, he’s already won a Super Bowl before, and was there for the full development period of Aaron Rodgers. Now that McCarthy is taking a bigger part in crafting the offense, it’s time for Prescott to get over the hump and lead his team on a run in January. We’re not quite in Super-Bowl-or-bust territory with Prescott just yet, but another early exit from the playoffs may start to solidify what his ceiling is for this team.
Is the backup deal the same, even with the rule change?
The Cowboys got to find out exactly what they had in backup Cooper Rush last year, winning four of five games that he started in Prescott’s absence. The interesting part, though, is that Rush looked to be in danger of losing the QB2 spot just a couple months before that, seemingly saved by Will Grier going down for most of the preseason with an injury.
As a result, Rush cemented himself as one of the top backup quarterbacks in the league while Grier spent time on the practice squad before returning to the active roster. Now, both are back and competing once again for the right to replace Prescott should there ever be such a need.
Is Rush still the favorite, though? He showed he was a capable bus driver, but is that enough to lock up the job this year? Especially with a new offense and a new position coach in Scott Tolzien, there might be a fairly even competition here. There’s also the rule change from this offseason, which allows for an emergency quarterback exception to the active/inactive lists on game days. That could potentially render the competition between these two moot in the end.