NFL

Five takeaways from Mike McCarthy’s first 2021 news conference include Dallas Cowboys’ defensive changes, backup QB issues

FRISCO, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys missed the playoffs in Mike McCarthy’s debut season. In early March, when quarterback Dak Prescott reached a four-year, $160 million extension with the club, the head coach was in Florida for spring break with his family.

Factor in a year without an NFL scouting combine, and McCarthy had not addressed reporters who regularly cover the team in person in 13 months and not at all since the 2020 regular season concluded.

“It’s been a while,” McCarthy said from a podium at The Star, the Cowboys' suburban training facility, on Thursday.

“Let’s catch up.”

Here are five things we learned from McCarthy’s press conference:

1. ‘The largest change’

McCarthy disputed one reporter’s suggestion that his defensive coaching staff didn’t grade players last season. But he acknowledged that the Cowboys defense was inconsistent in 2020, not finding a groove at all in the first eight weeks – and, even afterward, faltering spectacularly at times.

“You look at our team from 2020 to 2021, the largest change is clearly on defense,” McCarthy said after the D ranked 28th allowing 29.6 points per game and 23rd ceding 386.4 yards.

This year's scheme will aim to fit players better. Coaches will more intentionally consider how they ration assignment volume after believing change overwhelmed a unit whose timing and alignments often seemed askew. McCarthy pointed to turnovers generated (the Cowboys finished seventh after six seasons at 16th or worse) and late-season communication as positives the group will build off.

“This isn’t a (complete) start-over situation,” he said.

FREE AGENCY TRACKER: Keep pace with offseason's major moves

MORE: How Michael Irvin inspired Jerry Jones’ confidence in Dak Prescott’s rehab

NFL FREE AGENCY: A week after market opens, Cam Newton makes list of winners and losers

The Cowboys finished 6-10 in Mike McCarthy's first season as the team's head coach. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)

2. Atlanta Falcons landing

McCarthy’s belief in a defensive turnaround stems most strongly from one source: the hiring of ex-Falcons coach Dan Quinn as coordinator (2020 coordinator Mike Nolan was not retained). McCarthy and players have championed Quinn for his Xs-and-Os talent and ability to teach. McCarthy said the Cowboys needed to hire Quinn rapidly – the deal was announced Jan. 11 – because he “had a lot of opportunities.” Dallas' free-agent acquisitions have since included some of Quinn’s ex-Falcons in safety Damontae Kazee and safety/linebacker Keanu Neal (he’ll train with linebackers to start).

“We feel the direction where I see the team needs to go is going to come under the leadership of Dan Quinn,” McCarthy said. “A chance to be in position to hire him is a huge asset to our football operation.”

3. Prescott’s mobility

Prescott walked effortlessly to the podium March 10 for a press conference to discuss his long-awaited extension.  He’s been working on resistance cords, lunges and repeated karaoke steps during rehabilitation sessions on the practice field at The Star. Prescott’s recovery since dislocating and fracturing his ankle Oct. 11 has progressed enough for the Cowboys to guarantee him $126 million over the next four years. But can Prescott continue to run free after a scramble caused a gruesome season-ending injury in 2020 and a swollen, sprained AC joint in 2019?

DONE DEAL: Inside look at how Dak Prescott, Cowboys and Jerry Jones agreed to long-term contract

MEDAL OF HONOR: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gives $20 million to help fund new museum in Texas

Mike McCarthy was in Florida when Dak Prescott’s Cowboys deal got done.

“It’s easier to do cartwheels on the sand!” he says 😅

Adds: “Dak is the keystone of this football team.” pic.twitter.com/E7elc6e1pR

“I don’t think he needs to be lowering his shoulder and stiff-arming maybe as much,” McCarthy said. “He's got to be a little more mindful of it. (But) I don't ever try to make a statement to a player that would make him hesitate because hesitation in the NFL is you're a full step slower than the opponent.

“And it can put you in a worst position.”

4. Backup quarterback

Prescott is expected to recover fully for 2021 and was previously considered extremely durable: He'd started 72 straight games, including playoffs, for the Cowboys from his 2016 rookie season through Week 5 of 2020. But the team was glad to have a solid veteran backup in Andy Dalton last year when Prescott went down. Dalton signed with Chicago in free agency as the Bears’ alleged QB1. McCarthy typically likes to carry three quarterbacks on a roster, including a developmental prospect.

“That’s a position we’ll continue to look at,” McCarthy said. “You want as much competition, talent, young, veteran. We’ll just continue to watch that.”

McCarthy said the team has “definitely” talked to veteran free agents and is considering options more clearly now that Prescott’s contract is settled. It would not be a surprise if the Cowboys devote a late-round draft pick like they did in 2020 to seventh-rounder Ben DiNucci. Until then, the Cowboys’ three backups (Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and DiNucci) boast a combined two NFL starts.

5. Draft digest

McCarthy was coy on draft prospects, even cautioning that nothing should be assumed from his pro day visits. He said that whether he joins Quinn and vice president of player personnel Will McClay often depends more on surrounding factors than on the interest in the prospects alone.

Yes, McCarthy is traveling in this non-combine year in order to get in-person looks at players he would normally see in Indianapolis. The Cowboys have plugged holes at offensive tackle, defensive tackle, safety, cornerback and linebacker in free agency. But questions persist as left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La’el Collins return from season-ending injuries.

Mike McCarthy optimistic about offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins recovering in time for 2021. “We just got to get healthy,” he says. “You can’t have enough.”

OL dominance was an attraction of Cowboys coaching job, McCarthy says. Then injuries struck

Safety remains the most-underinvested position of the last decade, though Kazee, Neal and Jayron Kearse are new additions. But expect the secondary to be high draft priority, with run-stopping defenders close behind. Could the first-round selection be at a school McCarthy has recently visited?

“It’s fluid,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to factor in who’s picked at No. 10, if that’s what you’re looking for.”

***

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.

Source: Read Full Article