Dallas Cowboys training camp questions: Mike McCarthy is biggest difference-maker

Will the Cowboys make the NFC title game in the next three years? (1:44)

Marcus Spears shocks the panel by saying the Cowboys won't make the NFC title game in the next three seasons because of defensive struggles against top quarterbacks. (1:44)

The Dallas Cowboys open 2020 NFL training camp on July 28 at Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas. Here's a closer look at a few storylines:

How does coach Mike McCarthy get these Cowboys to do what Jason Garrett couldn't, namely at least advance beyond the divisional round?

It's simple -- do what he did in Green Bay. People want to remember how it ended for McCarthy with the Packers, but he went to the playoffs nine times in 13 years and made it to the conference title game four times.

The Cowboys are one of three NFC teams not to have played in a conference title game in this century, along with Washington and Detroit.

McCarthy inherits a talented team even if the Cowboys went 8-8 in 2019, which ultimately led to Garrett's departure. The Cowboys have a stacked offense, even with the departures of tight end Jason Witten and center Travis Frederick. They have a defense that has questions but some solid pieces.

When Wade Phillips took over for Bill Parcells in 2007, he was seen as a breath of fresh air from the overbearing Parcells and went 13-3 in his first season. McCarthy will benefit from just being a new voice after Garrett's nine-year run as head coach.

He has to use that voice to command the room and convince players he knows the path to at least a NFC Championship Game.

What will be the impact of Dak Prescott playing on the franchise tag?

Inside the locker room? Not much. Prescott's teammates know the quarterback is committed to them regardless of his contractual status. Outside the locker room? It will be talked about incessantly even if the Cowboys and Prescott can't talk about a long-term deal until the offseason.

Prescott has to deliver to make sure he can cash in the way he wants in 2021. And the Cowboys would likely need to make the playoffs. If he puts up career numbers the way he did in 2019 (4,902 yards, 30 touchdown passes) but misses the playoffs for the third time in five seasons, will that impact the Cowboys' thoughts? Will that impact other teams in their potential pursuit of Prescott?

Prescott's need to excel again in 2020 is beneficial immediately to the Cowboys but more costly in the future. If he can get the Cowboys deep into the playoffs or even deliver a championship, then it would be a cost the team would not mind paying.

Can a defense that lost its two best players last season (Robert Quinn, Byron Jones) be better with new coordinator Mike Nolan?

Growing pains will be expected.

When Phillips took over for Parcells, he inherited a ready-made 3-4 defense filled with young talent, even if he did not play the scheme the same way Parcells employed it. The Cowboys went from 20th in points per game and 13th in yards in 2006 to 13th in points per game and ninth in yards. When Monte Kiffin/Rod Marinelli came on board in 2013, they brought in a 4-3 new scheme and the defense worsened. In 2012, the Cowboys were 24th in points per game and 19th in yards under Rob Ryan, then fell to 26th in points per game and 32nd in yards in 2013.

Nolan will bring a new look to the Cowboys defense built upon different looks, but he does not inherit the skill Phillips did in 3-4 when he had DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, Terence Newman, Roy Williams and others.

There is talent, highlighted by DeMarcus Lawrence, who played better than his five-sack season in 2019 would suggest. Speaking specifically to the departures of Jones and Quinn, the Cowboys are hoping the scheme change can make playmakers out of Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown and second-round pick Trevon Diggs. They are hoping Aldon Smith, who has not played since 2015, has some pass-rushing juice left and interior additions, Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe, can do more than push the pocket.

So a better defense? Hard to say, especially when you look at the opposing quarterbacks on the Cowboys' 2020 schedule.

Will Ezekiel Elliott be used as much as he was in Garrett's tenure, given McCarthy's propensity to pass?

Elliott should be, but there is some natural apprehension because of McCarthy's tenure in Green Bay. In fairness, he did not have a back with the Packers who is like Elliott. Eddie Lacy was a second-round pick but he had two 1,000-yard seasons. McCarthy had just one running back with more than 300 carries in a season (Ryan Grant, 312) in 2008. Elliott has had at least 301 carries in his three full seasons. He had 242 in 2017 when he was suspended for six games.

Elliott has to be a fixture in this offense. His job should be helped by the addition of 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb to a receiver group with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. He should benefit from Prescott's expected growth under a QB guru such as McCarthy.

But look at McCarthy's time in New Orleans as the Saints' offensive coordinator. Ricky Williams and Deuce McAllister thrived. Williams had 1,000-yard seasons in 2000 and '01; McAllister had three 1,000-yard seasons, including 1,641 yards in 2002.

McCarthy wasn't afraid to lean on them and he shouldn't be afraid to lean on Elliott.