FRISCO, Texas — The offensive shift began on the practice grounds at Cowboys headquarters. This week marked the start of organized team activities, which means the first opportunity for recently added veterans and rookies to work with quarterback Dak Prescott, new point guard Mike McCarthy and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer.
“As far as the setup goes, obviously there are additions, deletions,” Prescott said after Thursday’s practice, the first open to reporters. “I think you just get the general impression that maybe the game is going to be called a little bit differently. I can’t say too much. … But there are a few changes. It’s not like we’re going to throw away our playbook and try to start over, something like that.
The Cowboys have had one top-five scoring offense each of the past two seasons. They led the NFL in points per game (31.2) and yards per game (407) in 2021. But missing the playoffs the past two seasons has led Dallas to go in a different direction this offseason with the head coach taking control of the offense.
“If you look at the stats from the (last three) years of offense and the direction we’re going,” McCarthy said Thursday, “we’ll continue in that direction.”
One notable change is that there is a new veteran wide receiver working with the first-team offense. Brandin Cooks took reps with the starting group, which included CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Just like with Amari Cooper in the past, the Cowboys again have three starting wide receivers, all capable of 1,000-yard seasons.
“Obviously I’m still learning, but as you know McCarthy was involved in a lot of explosive offenses everywhere he went,” Cooks said. “That’s how you feel. He wants to be explosive and dynamic with all his players. And that’s what I’m still learning.
An important part of the offensive transition will be identifying what works best for the current squad. Two-time racing champion Ezekiel Elliott is no longer with the team. Dalton Schultz, Dallas’ No. 1 tight end for the past three seasons, is now with the Houston Texans. There are also several moving parts along the offensive line, which may not be fully settled for several months.
There is a lot of work to be done between now and the season opener on September 10. An OTA practice does not tell much. Prescott thinks the small details will make the difference in the band playing “faster” and “cleaner”. McCarthy’s West Coast offense is likely to limit the number of reads Prescott has on any given play.
“Guys are in their place faster, cleaner,” Prescott explained, “which allows them, when it’s not playing there, to get into the jamming and make a game. It just allows that when the first reading and the second reading are not there, everyone is on the same page for this scrambling exercise.
“Just in those first two days, the guys are flying off the ball. And I think that’s the biggest difference. The more we can achieve that, the better off we are going to be.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has often talked about removing plays from the game plan during the week if players aren’t completely comfortable executing them in practice. It looks like McCarthy will do the same on offense.
“As we were taking the (practice today) break,” Prescott said, “(McCarthy) said, ‘Go see everything we put on and make sure we’re performing the things you love and the things in which we are good at. If that’s something you’re a little worried about, let’s get it out. Master what we excel at. Just having this clear communication, being able to work with him day in and day out, it’s new, it’s refreshing, it’s fun for both of us.
Here are more notes and observations from Thursday’s first OTA practice open to reporters.
Cowboys veterans are not participating. The group included CB Trevon Diggs, DE Dante Fowler, S Malik Hooker, DE DeMarcus Lawrence and RG Zack Martin.
First team offensive line. With Martin out, the first group was Tyler Smith at left tackle, Matt Farniok at left guard, Tyler Biadasz at center, Josh Ball at right guard and Tyron Smith at right tackle. Terence Steele looked sideways. He’s not quite ready to return from the season-ending knee injury last year. Chuma Edoga also worked with the first group at left guard. Matt Waletzko did the same at right tackle.
There’s been a lot of talk about getting the “top five” on the court for Dallas’ O line. Maybe that doesn’t matter much considering the health issues of recent seasons. Since McCarthy took over as head coach in 2020, the “top five” haven’t been available often. In 2020, the “top five” of Tyron Smith, Martin, Steele, Connor Williams and the central combination of Biadasz/Joe Looney have started just two of 16 games together. Things looked up in 2021 as the ‘top five’ of Tyron Smith, Martin, Biadasz, Williams and the right tackle combination Steele/La’el Collins started 11 of 17 games. Last year, the “top five” never started a single game together because Tyron Smith and Steele were never healthy at the same time. The Cowboys have gone 8-5 in those games the past three years with their “best five.”
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To come back. It was a good sign to see Tony Pollard (leg) on the court at the start of the OTAs. He appears to be on schedule to be fully healthy to start the season. Malik Davis and Ronald Jones were the next two substitutes behind Pollard.
Did the Cowboys adequately replace Elliott at running back?
“I don’t think you’re just replacing Zeke,” McCarthy said. “I’ve never seen it that way. Business, cap economics, it’s real. You make decisions and sometimes the decisions definitely factor into the next decision or two to come. We were just doing short and goal line last night and he just jumps off the tape. It’s not really about replacing Zeke. It’s really about opportunities for young people. The opportunity for Tony to be the leader. We just prep all these guys. Deuce is the new guy. It was cool to see it implemented in the things we did here last week. The group will be different because its presence is no longer there.
Game of the day. RB rookie Deuce Vaughn caught a 45-yard pass from Will Grier on 7-on-7 drills. Vaughn did a great job tracking the ball and coming back to catch. Defensive backs weren’t going full speed or trying to intercept passes during the drill. McCarthy is careful not to be fined for the third year in a row for the team having too many contacts during OTA practices.
Hall of Fame. Former Cowboys DE DeMarcus Ware was in the building, working up a pretty good sweat while coaching Micah Parsons and other defenders.
Job change ? Kelvin Joseph had been an outside cornerback the previous two seasons. He worked at the nickel station on Thursday.
Rhythm of practice. Prescott was asked about the speed of fieldwork being slower and faster. “It’s tough,” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re in now, isn’t it?” (Collective Agreements) and all that, no more jog-through, walk-through, gotta make the most of it, though. I think that’s where it comes in as an individual, pushing myself, making sure that the drilling work that I do, I don’t take for granted. I do it with a purpose, I do it with the right intentions. And then just when you’re there on 11 vs 11 understanding that we physically can’t be full speed but my mind can so to make sure I’m checking or not I’m just going through everything and pulling the best practice regardless of speed.”
(Photo by Dak Prescott: Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images)