From fantasy football contenders to an old man and his offensive coordinator, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today, it’s Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott and Dallas’s second-year head coach, Mike McCarthy.
On Wednesday at Cowboys training camp, quarterback Dak Prescott threw in 7-on-7 drills during the first practice he’s completed in pads all summer. Prescott had been limited since he pulled himself from a July 28 practice with soreness in his throwing shoulder, and he was later diagnosed with a strain to his right latissimus muscle. That injury prevented him from playing in any preseason games and eliminated his opportunity to see live action ahead of the Cowboys season opener against the Buccaneers on Sept. 9. It was a frustrating setback for Prescott, who hasn’t played a competitive game since a dislocation and compound right ankle fracture ended his season last October. HBO’s Hard Knocks cameras overheard Prescott prickling at the GPS-tracked workload restrictions prescribed by coaches and trainers during a recent practice.
“I sat last year enough,” Prescott said. “I don’t know what the fuck they took me off of them reps for. I’ll let y’all know if I’m sore or something’s bothering me.”
Prescott has finally been medically cleared to increase his workload, even if he faces a condensed timeline to prepare for the season. His coach, Mike McCarthy, acknowledged Prescott’s impatience.
“He’s a caged lion,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “He’s a competitor.”
If Prescott’s health is the top factor influencing the Cowboys’ fortunes in 2021, McCarthy’s rapport with his quarterback may be next on the list. Their coach-quarterback relationship was stunted last season by COVID-19 restrictions, Prescott’s injury, and the uncertainty over Prescott’s contract situation. This season, though, restrictions are looser. Prescott also signed a four-year, $160 million contract extension in March to remain in Dallas alongside McCarthy.
McCarthy is no stranger to working with star quarterbacks. As an offensive quality control assistant in Kansas City, he coached Joe Montana and was golf buddies with Montana’s successor, Rich Gannon. As quarterbacks coach for the Packers, he worked with Brett Favre, who was also his neighbor in Green Bay. Later, as Packers head coach, he navigated the transition from Favre to Aaron Rodgers, the star quarterback with whom McCarthy’s relationship has been most notable. McCarthy and Rodgers won a Super Bowl in their decade-plus together, but McCarthy’s push-pull relationship with his quarterback drew scrutiny from both inside and outside the Packers’ building. (Rodgers, McCarthy said, was “as eclectic and intelligent of a guy as I’ve ever worked with.”)
Now McCarthy has Prescott, another top-tier, top-paid, highly recognizable face of the NFL.
“We have that part right, we have the quarterback,” McCarthy said last week in an interview with local media. “We have the right person, the right leader and he’ll be a huge part in that.”
It’s a luxury any coach would want, but it’s also a relationship that requires tactful management. McCarthy and Prescott have had limited opportunities to get to know each other due to the pandemic and Prescott’s ankle injury. McCarthy is already having to balance Prescott’s desire to get back on the field quickly with the instructions of the Cowboys medical staff, and this sometimes involves telling Prescott things he doesn’t want to hear.
McCarthy recognizes Prescott’s zeal as a trait of many star quarterbacks he’s coached.
“That’s what we had with Montana, that’s what we had with Rich Gannon, that’s what we had with Brett Favre,” McCarthy said. “It’s not only what they do on Sundays, but what they do in practice during the week. They’re so competitive, and they make the whole environment better. That’s how you win consistently. Dak is that for us.”
McCarthy’s job extends beyond Prescott, certainly. Dallas will struggle to win games without improvement on defense regardless of how the quarterback plays. But all the work of the offseason may be moot if Prescott isn’t healthy and playing well. McCarthy’s tenure in Green Bay ended in part because his relationship with Rodgers had deteriorated—though when discussing that recently McCarthy said “stories grow sometimes”—and now his job is to manage another quarterback of similar caliber.
At the scouting combine in February of 2020, shortly after he was hired in Dallas, McCarthy said he wanted to work closely with Prescott to finalize what the Cowboys’ offensive system would be. That would also allow him to spend time with Prescott and get to know him. They never got this time, though, because the NFL went virtual weeks later. Prescott had also not yet signed his franchise tender and missed several offseason meetings. He and McCarthy were limited to training camp and a month of the regular season to work together before Prescott’s injury.
Prescott had a strong relationship with former Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who jump-started Prescott’s career in 2016 by naming him the starter in the first preseason game and opening the door for Prescott to win the backup job, and then sticking with him as the starter after Tony Romo’s injury. Garrett and Prescott would regularly throw together on the field after practices, and when Garrett’s contract in Dallas was not renewed after the 2019 season, Prescott gave a tearful press conference in which he said he’ll always look up to Garrett and that “I respect and love everything he stands for.”
If McCarthy is going to build a similar relationship with Prescott, he’ll have to make up for some lost time. McCarthy may also aim for a more hands-off approach and rely on offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to be Prescott’s closest coaching confidant.
“I’m very comfortable with where [Prescott] and I stand,” McCarthy said. “But really, frankly, the most important relationship is that play-caller. Him and I have had this conversation 10 times: I’m more concerned about his relationship with Kellen than my relationship with him.”
Moore was a backup quarterback for the Cowboys from 2015 to 2017 before joining the coaching staff in 2018, so he has a long-standing working relationship with Prescott. But there are some things that a head coach has to manage himself, and some of them will butt up against the preferences of a star quarterback. Moore may play a major role, but few things will impact McCarthy’s job performance more than Prescott’s health and happiness.
In mid-August, the Cowboys were finishing up their training camp trip in Oxnard, California, and Prescott was still mostly limited to being an observer. After one session, he and McCarthy had a lengthy conversation on the field. McCarthy said they often talk for 10 or 15 minutes at the end of a work day, but this chat lasted closer to an hour and a half. McCarthy and Prescott may have some lost time to make up for, but McCarthy knows as well as any coach the importance of keeping a star quarterback happy and engaged. New job, same priorities as the old one.