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Is Dak Prescott Or Mike McCarthy Driving Cowboys' Offensive Success? The Answer Might Determine Their Playoff Fate | TheSportsDay Is Dak Prescott Or Mike McCarthy Driving Cowboys' Offensive Success? The Answer Might Determine Their Playoff Fate | TheSportsDay

Is Dak Prescott or Mike McCarthy driving Cowboys' offensive success? The answer might determine their playoff fate


Dak Prescott glanced at the scoreboard as the play call hit his headset.

The Dallas Cowboys quarterback faced fourth-and-2 at the Miami Dolphins’ 43-yard line, trailing by six with 8:25 to play. Turn the ball over on downs here, and the Dolphins’ field goal-happy day would nearly guarantee a multi-score lead that Dallas would struggle to catch.

Score a touchdown here, and the Cowboys could take their first lead of the second half.

Prescott addressed the huddle before lining up then began to survey defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit. Prescott shifted running back Tony Pollard from his left to his right. The quarterback pointed left. Tight end Jake Ferguson, perhaps in response, motioned to the right.

Now, Prescott was ready.

He fielded the snap, faked a handoff to Pollard and scrambled to his right.

For the second straight time, a completion to star receiver CeeDee Lamb moved the chains.

Eleven plays later, with pressure in his face and Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey blanketing his receiver, Prescott would deliver the back-shoulder, go-ahead touchdown with 3:33 to play.

The Cowboys ultimately fell 22-20 on a field goal as time expired, triggering their first losing streak of the season. And yet, watching the go-ahead drive a week after the Bills kept the Cowboys out of the end zone for more than 57 minutes, Cowboys players, coaches and management emerged with offensive optimism.

“I think Dak’s the best he’s been in his career,” team owner Jerry Jones said this week on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “If you can go into this part of the season in the NFL and your quarterback’s playing at this level, you’ve got an outstanding chance to come home happy.”

Prescott’s throws on the go-ahead drive were well-placed. But as important to the plays’ success was the pre-snap operation that set up each throw, players and coaches told Yahoo Sports during a recent visit to the Star. Prescott has embraced his responsibilities this season to shift protections, adjust receivers’ routes and kill plays based on both coverage and personnel indicators. In Prescott’s first year with Mike McCarthy’s play calls, coach and quarterback have established a rhythm that’s driving an offense ranked second in scoring, sixth in yardage and ninth in DVOA.

Prescott leads the league with 30 passing touchdowns and ranks third with a 104.2 passer rating.

Dak Prescott's having his best year under Mike McCarthy's play-calling, which gives the Cowboys hope for a deep playoff run even after dropping two straight games. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)Dak Prescott's having his best year under Mike McCarthy's play-calling, which gives the Cowboys hope for a deep playoff run even after dropping two straight games. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Dak Prescott’s having his best year under Mike McCarthy’s play-calling, which gives the Cowboys hope for a deep playoff run even after dropping two straight games. (Amy Monks/Yahoo Sports)

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell, who travels to Prescott and the Cowboys for a Saturday night kickoff, knows his team must fight more than just Prescott’s release.

“He’s a complete quarterback,” Campbell said Thursday. “It’s hard to disguise against him (because) he can see it early. He can adjust to protections. He knows where to go with the football. He’s very calm and composed with pressure on him, and then he’s got that escapability.

“Look, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league and he’s playing at a high level.”

McCarthy, Dak are capitalizing on pre-snap potential

It sounds cliché when McCarthy and Prescott levy credit at each other for their shared offensive success.

But understanding the Cowboys’ 2023 pre-snap operation lends credence to the theory.

McCarthy preaches to his players that a “quick, good play is better than a late, perfect play.” The sooner he can tell Prescott his plan, the more intentionally Prescott can implement its caveats on the field. The Cowboys strive to call some plays too quickly for opposing defenses to substitute. They’re comfortable running different looks out of the same personnel groupings (hello, Lamb and Brandin Cooks lining up from different spots) to increase the chance that a defense can’t get set as it hopes.

NFL data doesn’t track how quickly coaches radio in play calls. But anecdotally, Cowboys locker room sentiment is consistent.

“The plays are coming in hot,” center Tyler Biadasz told Yahoo Sports.

“Oh he’s rolling them in,” backup quarterback Cooper Rush, who’s on the headset each game, told Yahoo Sports. “His pace of operation, it’s a weapon for us. It’s something he talks about all the time and he lives up to it.”

Sometimes, like after a 39-yard completion to Michael Gallup in a 33-13 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, emphasis is on the speed of lining up and snapping the ball to catch an opponent off guard. Other times, the goal isn’t to move immediately but rather to call the play immediately and then savor maximum time studying the defense. Against the Eagles, Prescott had play changes triggered by safety alignment as well as the presence of game-wrecking defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

“We came up with another option that, ‘Hey, just go to the second play if I tell you [Cox] is in the game,’ because we wanna run this play that’s single-high you do this, two-high you do that,” Prescott told Yahoo Sports. “‘But if he’s in the game, just do this other play.’

“[McCarthy] gets it in so fast and then I’d be walking to the line and he’s in that, ‘Hey, just go to that third play.’ That’s how fast he’s already preparing.”

Players also say McCarthy’s explanation of his underlying principles has spurred the highest level of on-field communication they’ve seen between quarterbacks, offensive linemen and skill players. How should they respond to a certain pressure, what landmarks should blockers keep in mind on a run play, and how long should the scramble drill continue when Prescott escapes the pocket?

“The adjustments are huge,” Biadasz said. “If we’re on the ball and we maybe bluff a cadence and the safety rotates down and they’re disguising it and they show a pressure, we make an adjustment off that or we can check to a different play.

“We’re playing on our terms.”

How Cowboys learned from 49ers game in hopes of avoiding another early playoff exit

The Cowboys learned the hard way this season that they don’t only want to play on their terms before the snap. Playing on their terms after it, too, is crucial.

Beating the Lions to snap the current skid is the next step. But losing to a playoff team on the road as time expired in Miami last week didn’t sting as badly as their Week 5 loss.

The San Francisco 49ers, who eliminated Dallas each of the last two postseasons, dismantled the Cowboys 42-10 during a game in which the Cowboys offense never settled. Prescott played his worst game of the season, completing just 58.3% of passes for 153 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. Eight of 13 Cowboys possessions lasted three or fewer snaps.

“We just got our asses kicked, and at the end of the day, we didn’t show fight,” Prescott told Yahoo Sports. “I actually left that game saying, ‘Hell, I need to scramble more,’ because if we do just get beat execution-wise, well, there’s a whole other part of the game that I’m not even adding and taking away from it. Everything’s evolved from it, from moving CeeDee around, from guys just taking ownership and guys really saying, ‘That’s not gonna happen again.’”

The Cowboys have more heavily leaned on Lamb as their featured back since, Prescott describing the shift not as a pivot from his reads but instead as a refocus of his reads to land on Lamb more often.

Even amid valid criticism over Lamb’s disappearance in the second and third quarters vs. Miami, Lamb is averaging 106.6 yards per game with nine touchdowns from scrimmage in 10 games since. During the first five games through the San Francisco contest, he averaged 35 fewer yards per game and scored once total.

Prescott’s other takeaway, ensuring his mobility keeps drives alive, has carried through too. There are the first-down scrambles, like his 22-yard escape in Miami, but even more importantly, his throws on the run. McCarthy’s system, Prescott says, has created time clocks for each member of the offense, empowering receivers and blockers to better anticipate from Prescott’s footwork when they need to break to a scramble drill.

Prescott’s averaging the best EPA per play outside the pocket of his career, per Sports Info Solutions, and the second-best passer rating. His 108.2 passer rating outside the pocket is up 11.6 points from last season.

Players and coaches alike know that come next month, they’ll be judged not by how quickly they radio in a play call or how well their off-platform throws succeed. Instead, a large swath of fans will determine the season’s success by whether the Cowboys finally break their now 28-year NFC championship game drought – and, in fans’ ideal world, advance further.

Prescott is well aware of that ultimate goal. This weekend’s matchup of NFC teams who have already clinched the playoffs will be a solid test of how ready the Cowboys are for January; a solid test of whether the speedy play calls, doctorate-level line-of-scrimmage diagnosis and post-49ers execution variance can push Dallas over the hump.

Performances like the go-ahead touchdown drive late in Miami give Dallas’ offense confidence. But Prescott’s message to his teammates about that score rings true for the weeks to come.

“From the time we came to the sideline, I told them then. ‘Be ready to go do it again,’” Prescott said. “‘We’re not celebrating. Be ready to go put another drive together.’”

And now, another game. And soon, another playoff run.

“I know numbers, I know things kind of say I’m playing well, but to me a quarterback’s judged off wins and losses,” Prescott said. “To be sitting here now in Year 8, understanding that you don’t have these teams, you don’t have these opportunities as often as you would think.

“Make sure we take advantage of it.”

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