OXNARD, Calif. — Mike McCarthy finally started getting to know Dak Prescott over iced tea two years ago.
He had become the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys in January 2020 and two months later the world stopped. He couldn't get his team on the field together to actually train until July. Four-and-a-half games into being one of the most high-octane offenses in the league, Prescott suffers a season-ending ankle injury and all hope for the year is dashed.
McCarthy had gotten a late-career Brett Favre and an early-career Aaron Rodgers. Now he was getting a prime-career Prescott during a pandemic with no decent way of getting to know him. So when he saw the franchise quarterback on crutches waiting for a ride from a rehab appointment in the loading dock of the team facilities that fall, he told Prescott to hop in. They drove to Prescott's home, where they had iced tea on the back porch in their first, real get-to-know-ya moment away from the football field.
Everyone knows each other now in the third year of the McCarthy regime in Dallas. In a sitdown interview with CBS Sports, McCarthy said the team "really hit our stride last year" when the Cowboys had the highest-scoring offense in the league and a top-7 scoring defense. But these Cowboys aren't playing for NFC East division title banners, and they don't avoid the shadow of the final-second wild-card loss to the 49ers.
There's pressure on McCarthy. Every NFL job has pressure, but being the Head Coach of the Dallas Cowboys is a different kind of pressure.
"I want to be real clear: He wouldn't be sitting here today if I didn't think he was the man to lead this team to a Super Bowl," Jones said at his annual state of the union presser at the start of camp. "He would not be, and I have choices."
Jones sometimes seems to relish publicly squeezing the head coach. McCarthy, meanwhile, just wants the questions to go away and coach the ball club. But being in this position, at this franchise, means having the Sword of Damocles constantly over your head.
"Pressure is a blessing," McCarthy says, borrowing from Billie Jean King's "pressure is a privilege" quote.
"It is a blessing to have the opportunities that I've been blessed with," he continues. "So I take that very serious, but I'm also at the point in my life where every day is so special. And that's why I really enjoy camp because this is as pure of a football space that you can be in and that's not only being the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but even on a different level with the players we have."
Prescott invited a host of his offensive teammates down to Miami this off-season to grind. From Ezekiel Elliott to CeeDee Lamb to rookie wideout Jalen Tolbert and others, the group worked out across south Florida and then bonded on a boat.
This time was crucial for Lamb, the unquestioned top target for Prescott. The third-year receiver is coming off a 1,102-receiving-yard season and finally getting a full off-season and preseason with his quarterback. The first, the aforementioned COVID year as Lamb was adjusting to the league as a rookie. The second, one where Prescott suffered a muscle strain in his back/shoulder early in camp that stunted their chemistry.
"Oh, I must say it (the chemistry) is a lot better than it was the first two years," Lamb tells CBS Sports. "I feel like this off-season we made it more much of a priority to kind of get the chemistry down between us two. I feel like it was more important, so just ... Traveling together, working together, literally anything. Like just moving together as far as QB1, Wide receiver 1, if you will, and we've just grinding. So right now I feel like training camp is most definitely a step ahead than it has been the first couple years."
Prescott has worked on his throwing mechanics this off-season by generating more torque via his lower body. The result has more zip on balls, and it's why Lamb has turned the speed up on the JUGS machine. He wants to practice with balls coming in even hotter than what Prescott delivers.
It's the connection between Prescott and Lamb that will be so crucial for this team's offensive success. Amari Cooper is in Cleveland, Cedric Wilson Jr. is in Miami, and Michael Gallup won't be ready for the start of the season. But Lamb says he doesn't feel any pressure.
"No. Not one bit. Honestly, just because I've been doing this literally my whole life and I fell in love with the game a long time ago," Lamb says. "So kind of going out there, doing what I love. And yeah, that teams will be on me, but I mean, I'm going to apply some pressure myself. So just going out there, doing what I got to do and I'll let the rest handle itself."
The rest may handle itself, but McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will have to find ways to not let it all rely simply on fate.
"We're well aware that based off of the changes that we've had in personnel," McCarthy says, "especially to start of the year and the bright light that's gonna be on CeeDee — and I'm talking about from the opposing defense. So we're aware of that and it's something we got to stay very conscientious about and that's all part of the plan. But that gives other guys opportunities and that's all part of being an excellent offense and that's the way we'll go about it.
"But CeeDee's prepared himself for this opportunity so he's ready and the flexibility we have in our system and his ability to play multiple positions in the receiver realm is going to be a big part of his success."
Turning a negative into a positive
When the Cowboys got to Oxnard, mental conditioning consultant Chad Bohling had some film from the playoff loss to the Niners for the guys to watch. It wasn't game tape, though. Bohling showed the team Prescott and Elliott's press conferences following the 23-17 loss.
The players were reminded of the heartbreak of last season and encouraged to take that negative moment and use it positively moving forward. McCarthy isn't interested in burying the past.
You remember how the Dallas season ended. Down six, 14 seconds to play, just past midfield and Prescott takes off for 17 yards before sliding. There are no timeouts left and the Cowboys hurry to get set to spike the ball but the game ends.
"There's not a day that doesn't go by that we're not emphasizing in some form the last play of the game, last three plays of the game, situational football," McCarthy tells me. "We all do it. It's a part of training a football team. We understand it, but we all have the same amount of time and we spend a little more time than we normally have in that area. And I think it'll definitely pay off."
At Saturday's practice, McCarthy put team drills in red zone and end-of-game scenarios. Ball at the 25-yard-line, 49 seconds on the clock, one timeout. Prescott only needed about half the time to hit James Washington, who got in the soft spot between cornerback Trevon Diggs and safety Donovan Wilson for the touchdown.
Leave the timeout, take the cannolis.
The Cowboys have staff continuity. They have health. They have the roster. They definitely have the quarterback. And they have a clear expectation from the owner who "needs" to win another Lombardi.
"Well, I think the biggest thing, No. 1, no one has higher expectations than we do for what we want to accomplish this year," McCarthy says. "So with that, we understand what it is to work for the Dallas Cowboys and that's all part of our job responsibility."
The blessing of pressure.
- The Cowboys aren't going to unveil their true plans for Micah Parsons just yet, and certainly not before the pads come on. He worked with the linebackers Saturday from what I saw, but the Defensive Rookie of the Year could line up there or at the edge at a moment's notice. "I think the biggest thing with Micah is make sure you're creating opportunities for him to let him be dynamic. Whether it's off the ball or on-ball and I think Dan [Quinn] and the defensive staff has done an excellent job in his first year creating those targeting challenges for the offense. I think as you look at this year, it's gonna be probably a little more of not what we do, but how much we do of each. And I think the fact that not only would he be better, but he'll make the other guys around him better because of the attention he'll get."
- We're still a couple weeks away from NFL teams competing in joint practices, and I think the rise of these joint practices make so much sense. It offers a more controlled environment for coaches who trust one another. The Cowboys will get a joint practice with the Broncos on Aug. 11 before their exhibition, and then they'll get two with the Chargers on Aug. 17-18. The preseason schedule shook out that way, and it was fortunate they get some teams out west for those two weeks. But McCarthy pointed out something else to me. "You just look at all the mechanics involved, to be honest with you, both teams are on grass. That's important to me. We're training on grass. So you just look at all the characteristics, the intangibles involved in making this decision and I have a lot of confidence, you know, to work with Nathaniel [Hackett] and Brandon [Staley] and we both want the same things."
- Maybe a change of scenery was what Will Grier needed. The former third-round pick with the Panthers is behind Cooper Rush on the Dallas depth chart, but he can challenge for the backup spot with a strong preseason where he'll get a lot of snaps in exhibitions. In team red-zone drills, he showed great touch on a corner-of-the-end-zone touchdown pass to Simi Fehoko.