Inside Jerry's World, Part III: Where do the Cowboys go from here?

Dak Prescott is special. Mike McCarthy, in 2020, certainly was not. Can Dallas' franchise quarterback overcome all of the zaniness? We're about to find out. Here is our final installment.

Miss part of the series? Catch up right here:

Jerry’s World, An Introduction

Jerry’s World, Part I: A twisted system

Jerry’s World, Part II: The maddening What-Ifs…

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The campaign accelerated at 100 MPH right through the offseason. From the top of the mountains, story to story, Mike McCarthy essentially screamed, “Hire me! Please!”

If there was a PR guru behind this, here’s hoping that person received a good chunk of McCarthy’s salary to become the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys on Jan. 7, 2020. Around the league, there was a good amount of eye-rolling from other scouts and coaches as this comeback tour raged. The apex, of course, was “The Mike McCarthy Project” on the league’s own television network. Right there, the fired head coach detailed how he was still studying film and breaking the game down with a mini coaching staff in-waiting to stay sharp for his next opportunity.  

At the top, McCarthy is bold: “I’m not trying to just go win one… I’m trying to win them all.”

By the end, he’s in tears.

He begs. He pleads: “Our family needs this. We need football right now. We won’t need it in the future but we need it right now.”

Like the white knight he is, in came Jerry Jones to wipe those tears away.

The interest is understandable. McCarthy won a Super Bowl right in Jones’ 80,000-seat palace with the 11,520-square foot screen. After that, McCarthy’s Packers were the thorn in his side, knocking Dallas out of the ’14 and ’16 divisional round. Yet, this hire also deserved every ounce of criticism it received. And then some. By the end of his run in Green Bay, several sources detailed just how checked out the head coach had become and how his relationship with Aaron Rodgers soured beyond repair.

The hire was neither imaginative, nor inspiring.

Then again, McCarthy did say in all those interviews with all those national outlets that he used his one-year sabbatical to truly change as a coach. The same guy who loved declaring that “statistics are for losers” was, suddenly, Mr. Analytics. McCarthy told the world he was basically living 24/7 inside that film bunker at home studying tape and trends and X’s and O’s. Clearly, everything he did through his 2019 pause was a major reason Jones hired him, too.

Then, came the introductory press conference when McCarthy admitted he lied in his interview. Turns out, he did not watch every snap of the 2019 season as he told Jones.

“You do what you have to do, right?” said McCarthy, with Stephen Jones cackling to his right and Jerry smiling to his left.

No doubt, the question facing Mike McCarthy is the same one facing his boss: Has he changed? McCarthy convinced Jones that his year off — that “project” — changed him as a coach. On the field, modern football seemed to pass McCarthy by in Green Bay. There was no motion, no misdirection, no creativity. Any droplets of respect that complicated fella of a quarterback had for the coach completely evaporated by ’18 when Rodgers freelanced at will. Off the field, in trying to take a “CEO”-like approach, McCarthy came across as distant to many players. (Those massages didn’t go over well with Rodgers and others.) And when McCarthy showed up in Big D, his first order of business was to retain Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator and playcaller, which made sense but also reeked of Cosmo Kramer in that business suit — what would McCarthy even do around here?  

The Cowboys, it’d appear, are doomed.

But maybe not.

It’s not like Jerry Jones is lining up on the O-Line as a 182-pound guard (like he did on Arkansas’ 1964 national title team). Nor is a mustached McCarthy playing tight end (like he did at Baker University in 1986). Nor is Moore slingshottin’ at quarterback (like he did back at Boise State). We’ve spent plenty of time dissecting Jerry’s World but even if he and McCarthy have not changed, the game is still played on the field. And the Cowboys’ offensive personnel is undeniably loaded. This is arguably the best unit Dallas has fielded since the early 90’s and the best McCarthy has had since all of his firepower graced the cover of SI midway through a 15-1 season in 2011.

More specifically, this franchise possesses a national treasure: Dak Prescott.

You could travel the globe and fail to find anyone who’ll say a negative word about this team’s quarterback.

He is one of the best leaders in the sport and he, alone, gives this embattled franchise hope in unlimited supply.

Tonight’s season opener against Tampa Bay will be a daunting challenge. Prescott hasn’t played a down of live football since his leg snapped in half on Oct. 11, 2020. A shoulder injury sidelined him this entire preseason. Now, all he has to do is stare down the most bloodthirsty pass rush in the sport in front of the entire country on Thursday night. We all saw what the Cowboys are without him, too. If he goes down at any point, the season dies.

Such circumstances would destroy most quarterbacks, but not Prescott. Not a player who just may be singularly equipped to break the wheel.

It’s on the talent — specifically, the quarterback — to, once and for all, end 25 years of madness. Again, Jones said he’d “do anything known to man” to win a ring. Jobs are on the line everywhere and BetOnline has McCarthy 6/1 as the first coach to be fired, right behind Vic Fangio in Denver.

The pressure’s high even by Dallas standards.

And while this quarterback will need to overcome quite a bit — ownership, coaching, a bad defense — it’s possible.

Up to this offseason, it hasn’t even seemed like the Dallas Cowboys want the one player who can save them.

Five years ago, Dak Prescott was Plan C.

First, Jones tried like hell to trade back into the first round for one, Paxton Lynch. He failed. He was distraught. He said afterward: “When I look back on my life, I overpaid for my big successes every time. And I probably should have overpaid here.” Into the fourth round, he tried to trade up for Connor Cook. That failed, too, and the two apples of Jerry’s eye went on to combine for 149 pass attempts and one win.

Both, of course, are out of football.

Prescott was the pick in the fourth. Some in the building did not even view the Mississippi State QB as a draftable player but Garrett, again, was a force of good in selling Prescott to Jones.

Then, the Cowboys waited forever to lock him up. As one ex-personnel man notes, the franchise never undergoes an “honest reassessment” of its mistakes. Hence, the constant butchering of contracts with star players. For whatever reason, Jones let Prescott play out the entirety of his four-year rookie contract and then franchise-tagged him — even though it was fairly obvious, from Day 1, Prescott was The Guy. All along, the QB market only skyrocketed. As expected. For whatever reason, Jones waited until after Patrick Mahomes’ meteoric 10-year, $503 million deal to pay Prescott.

He did the right thing. He locked up his QB. But with more conviction, more vision, Jones could’ve paid much less than $40 million per year.

Honestly, you can see why it took Jones so long to appreciate his quarterback. He has forever been the mosquito attracted to the street light. Manziel’s magic. Lynch’s size.  

What makes Prescott special doesn’t pop off the screen but it’s now the Cowboys’ best hope at winning a championship: His leadership. The quarterback’s first coordinator, Scott Linehan, saw this in-action from Day 1 in 2016. “His leadership, his drive, how people followed him,” Linehan says, was remarkable. He recalls Prescott bringing a “Tom Brady”-like magnetism to the building. Instantly. Prescott could connect with everyone from his coaches to the equipment staff.

It didn’t matter that veteran Tony Romo was still around. Dak was being Dak.

“When Dak was in the building, you knew he was the face of the franchise,” Linehan says. “And he was drafted in the late fourth round. There was no expectation for that. That’s all on him. He’s special that way.”

That’s how a rookie improbably leads his team to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed.

Nothing was forced. Teammates appreciated his real, raw leadership style.

“I hear young coaches say, ‘You need to chew those receivers out! You need to get on the O-Linemen for not blocking!’” Linehan says. “That only works if they respect you. Right? If they think you’re some dumbass who doesn’t read the coverage right, that’s going to fall on deaf ears. Dak expects things of himself. People see it. And it’s genuine. So, he pulls it off because it’s 24/7. He lives it.”

Case in point: Every Friday.

Typically, players couldn’t wait to get out of dodge the second the morning practice wrapped up — right around 1 p.m. — yet Prescott found something to do. Always. Linehan would see the rookie sitting in the cold tub, studying the gameplan,with vet linebacker Sean Lee around 5:30 p.m. Little things like this go a long, long way in rewiring the mentality of a perennial underachiever.

“You see the reason this guy’s so good.” Linehan says. “He’s working his ass off.”

Other QBs are far more gifted. Everyone in Prescott’s world insists he truly worked at it, that he developed under Dan Mullen to will those Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking. On to Dallas, he diligently improved his accuracy and learned how to play from the pocket. Linehan calls him a great off-schedule player because he doesn’t hurry the play. He’s in command. Even though Matthew Stafford is the most talented quarterback he’s ever coached, Linehan makes it clear Prescott “has that quality you can’t coach” and this quality, this state of being in total control, is something the Cowboys have sorely lacked since 1995.  

Those closest to Prescott have seen this. Back in ’17, for this story at B/R, here’s how they described him.

  • Childhood best friend, Marlon Seets: "This is not a flash in the pan. What you got last year is what you're going to get."

  • His uncle, Phil Ebarb: "The people who say 'He's going to bomb don't know shit."

  • His college receiver, Jameon Lewis: "He's built like a champion. He makes everyone go to another level."

  • His college QB coach, Brian Johnson: "People rally around him. People like him. That's stuff that you can't put on a sheet of paper."

  • High school OC, Kyle Wilkerson: "The sky's the limit, and he knows that."

  • Psychology professor in college, Dr. Tom Carskadon: “I’ve seen media-manufactured heroes, and it's kind of sad sometimes because they don't stand up to it. But Dak's the real deal.”

Darren Woodson, the former Cowboys great, knows Prescott won everyone over that rookie season and supplies the best context. Romo threw a better ball, he says. Romo was a “pure passer.” Put Romo next to Prescott on a practice field, ask the two to make the same throws, and your naked eye will choose Romo 10/10 times.

“But,” Woodson adds, “he’s not a better winner. This kid’s a freakin’ winner.

“Dak gave that team real leadership. Everybody was looking at Romo. He was not a leader. If you ask anybody — from Zack Martin to Tyron Smith — when Dak Prescott came into that locker room, he was the dude. The Guy. And they all followed him. They felt like he brought the energy. He worked his ass off. What he said was what he said. He was the guy.”

“Look at the last season. I love Andy (Dalton). I know Andy and I love the dude. But the drop-off was tremendous.”

Seeing Prescott break his leg hurt everyone watching but especially those teammates because, with them, it cut deeper. He isn’t just a talented player who’ll make them money. He’s a leader who does everything the right way. You don’t need to be Zeke to appreciate Prescott. You don’t need to be some A-list celebrity on vacation with him. You can be a guy like corner Duke Thomas, that undrafted pickup. Thomas remembers Prescott getting along with everyone in the entire locker room. He was “relatable” andhe put in the work.

Seeing that, from afar, stung.

The Cowboys’ season was already sinking fast. Without Prescott, the head coach was exposed. Again.

Similar to his 2013 and 2017 Packers, McCarthy’s entire team took a nosedive into irrelevance when the starting quarterback went down. Miraculously, the Cowboys’ backup plan in 2021 is even worse than Dalton or anything he had in Green Bay. If Prescott goes down, Cooper Rush is the QB of America’s Team.

If Prescott can stay healthy, the Cowboys can win the Super Bowl.

Arguably no single player means more to their team this season.

Former wide receiver Brice Butler remains one of Prescott’s closest friends and vows that if the Cowboys are playing in the Super Bowl this season, you’ll see him and Bryant sitting in the first row. He’s still tight with a slew of current players, too, from Ezekiel Elliott to Amari Cooper to Michael Gallup to Tyron Smith. Sure, he also played for Miami and Oakland. When he works out today, Butler still rocks that iconic star.

The Cowboys are his team.

Yet, Butler can’t sugarcoat the reality here. He sees how much is riding on Prescott, and he is not into pandering mythmaking like so many other ex-players. Not when he saw how this operation functions firsthand.

“I know what goes on,” Butler says. “I know why we’re not winning. I’m not going to be like some ex-players on TV talking us up — ‘We’re going to be the best! We’re going to be the best!’ — and not talk about the truth. I hope they win a championship but it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard. If they win a championship, in my opinion, it’s all because of the players. The players have to really take it and do it.”

He sees Washington and New York as both legit threats in the NFC East, too.

To him, Dallas needs to run the ball some more to help its flailing defense. That’s not something McCarthy was too interested in doing from 2006-2018 in Green Bay. Then again, as one ex-Packers QB notes, Rodgers was also changing/calling about 50 of the 70 offensive plays in any given game when he was in town.

He felt the need to hijack that offense.

Regardless of what he says publicly, no, Rodgers did not respect his coach’s intellect.

Which is sort of the issue with this hire. We don’t fully know what Mike McCarthy is as a head coach. Because of Rodgers, nobody truly knows how much say McCarthy had in his 125-77-2 run in Titletown. Without his quarterback, in 2020, he sure didn’t seem like much. Dallas was 1-3 before that leg snapped, too.

Butler is 100 percent right: The players will have to bring this title home.

The best way one longtime Dallas Cowboy can put the future of the franchise is this.

Someone must “disrupt” it.

Someone must explode through those front doors at The Star, carrying that sledgehammer.

He likes Will McClay. He thinks Stephen Jones could be a different type owner. He loves the current roster, too. He also doesn’t have a bad word to say about Jason Garrett, fully understanding why the coach tried toeing that company line. But for the current Cowboys to win — as constructed under Jones — he’s adamant that whoever is the head coach has to challenge an orthodoxy three decades in the making.

So, what did McCarthy do after he was hired?

Not that.

One person on staff through Year 1 of the McCarthy Era was as unimpressed as he possibly could’ve been. This source says, flatly, that McCarthy is not a leader and that players and coaches alike would walk out of practice or a meeting and say, “Dang, who is the coach?” Granted, he says that Covid-19 made it an odd year. Maybe that mask covering McCarthy’s face had something to do with it, he concedes. But, still, McCarthy did not command a presence at all.

Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula did most of the yelling at practice.

McCarthy was just sort of there.

“Every blue moon he’d yell something,” this source says, “and it was like, ‘Is that him, maybe?’ You had no idea who was really out there. You really didn’t know who was leading the ship: Who was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys?

“With Mike McCarthy, it was super stale and dry the whole season long.”

Considering this is also someone who has been a head coach for 238 games, that’s not encouraging.

Such a sentiment was echoed in real time, too. Halfway through the season, NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported that players on the team believed this coaching staff was “totally unprepared” and “just not very good at their job.” Without Dak, McCarthy lost his team. The Cowboys bumbled ‘n stumbled to a 6-10 finish.

Above all, the defense was a humiliation. Dallas allowed the most points (473) and second-most rushing yards (2,541) in team history.

This source vividly remembers coordinator Mike Nolan losing respect from his players as early as August.

“It was clear,” he says. “You saw it. Man, there was stuff I had never seen. Ever. If you’re getting fired after one year, you have to be terrible. And that’s what the Dallas Cowboys looked like. There was no fight. There was no effort. Halftime, we wouldn’t be fighting. If it was going bad, nobody would speak up.”

Nolan and Tomsula were handpicked as the scapegoats. Both were fired. But we’ve also seen this script before with McCarthy-coached teams. This lack of a defense, lack of toughness. McCarthy never spent much time around the defense in practice, which allowed a softness to seep in. Problems percolating beneath the surface all season would emerge like a gruesome lesion each January. Defensive collapses, soon, were almost expected.

Be it Eli Manning knocking out that 15-1 team at Lambeau Field. (The most talented team he’s ever had choked at home, allowing 37 points and a Hail Mary at the end of the first half.)

Or Colin Kaepernick resembling the future of the game itself. (The team was woefully unprepared for the read option.)

Or the Seahawks pulling off that surreal comeback in the 2014 NFC title game. (McCarthy’s team blew a 19-7 lead with four minutes left, and the coach’s passive decision to kick two chip-shot field goals earlier in the game did not help.)

Or the Falcons blasting his team in the 2016 NFC title game.

He sells a CEO approach. He says he wants to empower assistants. And while that may look neat ‘n tidy on a resume, the reality is that every NFL team directly adopts the personality of the head coach. That’s how a Quincy Carter-quarterbacked, Bill Parcells-coached team gets to 10 wins out of those Dark Ages in Dallas and how Mike Tomlin goes 14 years without a losing season. His team is always competitive, always violent, always is in contention.

His team doesn’t go into the tank when it loses its starting QB. The Steelers, instead, fight like crazy with “Duck” Hodges at the helm.

Ask anyone who ever played for Tomlin and they’ll rave on and on about authenticity. He’s both a hardass and a shoulder to cry on. He has led his team through injuries, tragedy, everything to stay in the playoff hunt. And there on HBO is McCarthy playing clips of Austin Powers because he wants his players to find their “Mojo Moment.” There’s McCarthy declaring, “Charlie F---around, he don’t work here. High School Harry, get his ass out the f------ door.” As the camera panned to the 90 players listening on, you half-expected a few to chuckle. This felt like a forced remake of Varsity Blues you’d never hear from a coach like Tomlin.

No, the Hard Knocks spotlight didn’t do McCarthy any favors.

Once the cameras left, he admitted to reporters that now he could be “more genuine.” As if those speeches were an act.

Maybe so. Winning cures a lot.

Reached via text, however, one ex-Packer admitted he was having flashbacks. This was the coach he saw every day.

It’s no secret what these Cowboys need: Real toughness.

Everywhere.

No doubt about it, too. You can talk yourself into the Cowboys discovering that toughness with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, a coach capable of giving an entire unit swagger. With his undivided attention back on that side of the ball — after his own rocky six years as the head man in Atlanta — Quinn will try to recreate what he helped build in Seattle as DC. First-round pick Micah Parsons may be the belligerent enforcer Dallas needs in the middle of its defense. His energy is off the charts. Keanu Neal, when healthy, is one of the hardest hitters in the sport. Now, he’s a linebacker. He’ll make receivers think twice about that crossing route. And also on staff is a new secondary/defensive passing game coordinator in Joe Whitt, who’s been one of the sharpest assistants in the NFL for a decade.

Last year, Nolan implemented his scheme over a computer.

A normal offseason surely benefited Quinn.

We’re going to learn an awful lot about Dallas’ remade defense tonight against Tom Brady’s Bucs.

A slight tweak to the offense would help, too. Linehan offers some free advice.

When the ex-OC arrived in ’14, he knew that Dallas’ defense was fresh off its own historically atrocious season. That ’13 defense might’ve been even worse than the ’20 Cowboys in surrendering the seventh-most yards in NFL history. So, Linehan talked to new DC Ron Marinelli about working together to compensate for deficiencies on that side of the ball. The plan was to run, and run, and run, and a beautiful balance was struck.

Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray both received two MVP votes.

Jason Witten’s “Y Option” mastery was squarely in its prime.

And if that bomb to Dez Bryant is ruled a catch, there’s a good chance we’re not commemorating the 25-year anniversary like this.

Linehan knows a return to some semblance of smashmouth cannot hurt. Elliott showed up to camp in much better shape, too. He’s equipped to handle 392 carries like Murray. And once he gets rolling, Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup could really start cooking in the pass game. Looking at all these names, Linehan doesn’t believe there’s a more talented offense in the league. Unlike many others, he also believes Jerry Jones is taking a very real step back. 

“There’s no reason,” Linehan says, “those guys can’t have a dominant year.”

Butler agrees a return to more physicality would go a long way.

Yet, he’s not sure Dallas will suddenly start punching teams in the mouth, either. He’s seen McCarthy-coached teams in the past and calls his style of football “softer.”

Then, Butler says what he knows many others wish they could: This is still Jerry’s World.

No signs suggest McCarthy will be playing the role of “disruptor.” The temperature of his seat will rise with each loss, each of Jerry’s pow wows in the middle of the locker room and each time he internally pushes back on the way things are run. Such is the needle to thread as the man trying to bring a championship to Dallas. It’s not easy. It’s a miracle that Garrett lasted 10 years and came close to ending the drought twice.

There’s hope in Prescott, in the talent, in the unlimited resources always at this team’s disposal.

Yet, here, it’s always about the owner.

For better or worse, the Cowboys will go as far as Jerry Jones takes them.

It’s his “house” and he can do whatever he wants with it.

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