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It turns out the most interesting component of this Cowboys preseason is something we might not be able to see at all.
The second week of the preseason is upon us, and the smart money says not to expect more from the Cowboys’ starters than we saw last week. For better or for worse, Mike McCarthy has made it clear he prefers to evaluate his key players within the confines of his own practices, where has more control.
“I trust our practice environment,” the Cowboys’ head coach said last week. “That’s a big reason why we’re staying in California one more week. I think the way our guys practice against each other, I mean they push the envelope.”
That’s a prescient choice of words, given that the final day of practice in Oxnard, Calif., was feisty as the Cowboys have been all summer, with multiple fights breaking out on Wednesday afternoon.
“It’s our last practice of camp, man. You’ve got to give it all you’ve got,” said Micah Parsons afterward. Fun as Parsons and Co. might have been on Wednesday, don’t expect to see them much Saturday. Which brings things back to the original point.
However little McCarthy might be working with his starters during these three exhibition games, it does offer him the chance to evaluate his readiness to resume the role of play caller.
“He’s got work to do,” McCarthy said on Monday.
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That’s understandable, given the nearly five-year gap since McCarthy last called plays for the Green Bay Packers. Doing so is a demanding experience, as it requires singular focus during each possession and constant collaboration when the offense isn’t on the field. After three years as a walkaround head coach, McCarthy even acknowledged after the preseason opener against Jacksonville that he hadn’t found time to evaluate his young defenders in the moment.
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“To be honest with you, I don’t get to watch the defense as much I used to, so as far as personal evaluation on each player, I can’t really know,” he said.
There’s also more than a decade of muscle memory to fight against. McCarthy detailed the lapse he had last weekend, when he reverted to Green Bay verbiage and was quickly corrected by his coaching staff.
“Personally, I’m glad I had a number of coaches that work with me before,” he said afterward. “I had an old call come out of my mouth, that’s the starting offense. But we corrected that immediately.”
It’s an amusing anecdote in the preseason, but a sign of the fine-tuning that needs to happen before the results start counting. McCarthy detailed recently how he plans for offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to spend the season on the sideline rather than up in the coaches’ box. McCarthy and Schottenheimer, longtime friends, tweaked the Cowboys’ playbook to fit their philosophies.
They also plan to build the offensive game plan together each week, and it sounds as if Schottenheimer will provide an extra pair of eyes and ears on the sideline when McCarthy needs them.
It doesn’t make for entertaining TV. The attention will rightly be on the Cowboys’ young players on Saturday night. Even when the game coverage allows the occasional glimpse at the coaches, it’d be a bit harder to evaluate their performance — practically impossible without access to their radio frequency.
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Still, with less than a month until the season opener, it’s every bit as crucial as the action on the field. So while his starters may sit Saturday, and will definitely sit on Aug. 26 against Las Vegas, every rep for McCarthy is a big one.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.
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