FRISCO, Texas — Last Friday at 8:20 a.m., coach Mike McCarthy walked out of The Star and onto the grass practice field for the start of his first training camp with the Dallas Cowboys.
It wasn’t a padded practice and it lacked the juice of the usual opening session of a Cowboys training camp. Normally fans would form a ring around the grass fields in Oxnard, California, screaming players’ and coaches’ names as they walked in to work. On this Friday, only a pair of construction workers stood on a boom suspended above the ground, helping build the adjacent Keurig Dr Pepper headquarters.
Wearing a gray hat with a block letter D, a long-sleeve navy blue shirt and navy blue sweatpants, McCarthy was back in his element for the first time since being fired by the Green Bay Packers with four games remaining in the 2018 season.
He was not feeling introspective. He was concerned about his Cowboys players getting in the proper work.
“I was really just focused on all the little things. We’ve all been part of the game of football for a long time, but every component of your practice is not always the same,” McCarthy said. “Just staying into the particulars. It’s a different practice setup. Really focused on getting the drills the right way. We had a number of drills where it was really the first time we were able to do them with the players, so they were brand-new and you had some teaching tempo going on out there.
“But, yes, it felt great once we got into the team periods, because you felt like you’re finally getting back to some real football.”
McCarthy’s full introduction to the Cowboys’ roster did not come until the first week of August even though he was hired on Jan. 7. He spent more time in the offseason in Green Bay with his family than he did in Frisco because of the coronavirus pandemic. He could not fully implement his plan during the virtual offseason program. His players arrived at The Star in phases, first the rookies and rehabbing veterans, then the rest of the team.
Unlike his predecessor, longtime coach Jason Garrett, McCarthy has not used overarching themes to kick things off.
Garrett once used an Apple commercial titled “Here’s to the Crazy Ones” that featured Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and others and tied them to how he wanted his players to go about the season. He relayed to them a story about how Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band failed at a Battle of the Bands and The Boss blamed himself but committed that he would do more for the group to make it national. The idea was it was time for the Cowboys to take the next step from NFC East champion and a divisional playoff appearance to a Super Bowl.
Of course, several things never came to fruition, part of the reason McCarthy is now in Dallas.
If McCarthy has tried similar team inspiration, nobody has said so. His messages have been about football, protecting each other and practice ethics.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix spent five seasons with McCarthy in Green Bay. If anybody knows the structure McCarthy wants to implement, it is Clinton-Dix. New teammates have asked him questions about McCarthy’s expectations and temperament.
“He’s a players’ coach,” Clinton-Dix said. “He’s about taking care of his players and making sure we’re ready to play on game day, and I think that’s very important. He’s very hands-on with us. If you have a question, I wouldn’t mind walking up to him. I tell the guys who are trying to get familiar with him now, he’s very approachable.”
Thirty of the 90 players on the Cowboys’ roster have played for one head coach (Garrett) in their pro careers. Linebacker Sean Lee and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur are the only holdovers from the Cowboys’ previous coaching change — Wade Phillips to Garrett in 2010.
Guard Zack Martin, the Cowboys’ first-round pick in 2014, said he tries not to make comparisons.
“New season, new team, new challenges,” Martin said. “Right now trying to take everything in, learn from the new things the coaches are teaching and apply those on the field and just get ready for the season. [The regular season is] so close, you’ve got to take every day and take advantage of the opportunity. … We buy in; it’s going to pay off down the road.”
Tangible changes to training camp
For the first time since 2010, the Cowboys’ quarterbacks are wearing red jerseys during practices as reminders to the defense to keep away, especially from Dak Prescott. Players’ last names have been added to their practice jerseys, which seems odd since the jersey numbers are so large and a lot of the names can’t be seen because of long hair and hoodies the players wear under their pads.
When the Cowboys practice outside at The Star, there are three cooling tents for protection from the Texas heat. The tents are filled with towels, water, Gatorade and Popsicles designed to lower a player’s core temperature.
Under Garrett, music blared from speakers for most of practice with the coach even calling for it to be louder in certain situations. Under McCarthy, the only time music plays is during water breaks.
Louis Riddick and Tim Hasselbeck break down Dak Prescott’s contract and his future either with the Cowboys or another team.
McCarthy appears to quietly observe each position group from afar, but he spends most of his time near offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. If he snarls like Bill Parcells did or drops any expletives like Garrett used to at times, it is difficult to tell because the media is more removed from practice because of the COVID-19 rules.
The tempo at practice is quick, just like under Garrett, but there are subtle changes. The 7-on-7 period is run at a no-huddle pace. Under Garrett, Prescott threw anywhere from 17 to 24 passes in a training camp practice. In his first padded practice with McCarthy, Prescott threw 31 times. In his second, which focused on two-minute situations, he threw 20.
“I would say that, if anybody came here from Green Bay, they would be able to pretty much step right in,” McCarthy said. “There are a lot of things from a routine standpoint that are the same.”
McCarthy’s routine in Green Bay was good enough for a 125-77-2 record. He won six NFC North titles, went to the playoffs nine times, made it to the NFC Championship Game four times and won Super Bowl XLV.
“Man, you can tell that coach McCarthy has done that,” Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said. “He knows what it takes. For us, we haven’t had that success in the highest level in professional sports. We can learn. Coach McCarthy, he’s still learning, he’s still growing, he’s adapting. Just thankful to have him as a coach.”