Sports

How Dallas Cowboys’ Mike McCarthy wants to put 2020 in the rearview, start winning

FRISCO, Texas — Mike McCarthy is finally feeling at home.

The coach’s family has settled into a house north of the Dallas Cowboys‘ practice facility after they spent the 2020 season in Green Bay, Wisconsin, while McCarthy was in a condo next to The Star in Frisco. His two daughters are going to a local private school. His stepson is a freshman at SMU in Dallas.

“This is a cool time for us as a family,” McCarthy said. “We are excited about this chapter in our life. I feel like I am married now. I get to talk to my wife.”

In many ways, McCarthy wishes last year did not happen, and as his second season with the Cowboys starts Thursday against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC), few NFL coaches need a fresh start more than him.

Is he still the coach who hoisted his only Lombardi Trophy at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, made four NFC Championship Game appearances, won the NFC North title six times and earned a playoff spot nine times in 13 years with the Green Bay Packers. Or, is he the coach who has a losing record at 17-26-1 in his past three seasons, including a 6-10 finish in Dallas in 2020?

“The privilege of having that pressure is something special. Pressure is a privilege, I’m quoting Billie Jean King,” McCarthy said. “You’ve got to step back because I was out of it for a year. I missed it. I missed that part of it. I missed that angst of what it feels like in your gut … I mean I say this with respect: We all have a job to do, a purpose in this business: we’re all trying to rob the same runaway train. It’s awesome, the NFL.

“Whether it’s the first nine [years] or the last three, to be honest I think that’s what the NFL is. It’s hard and makes you appreciate some of the things you’ve done, but I think it gives you clarity on the things you need to do better to get to where we all want to go. As long as you have a good plan, a solid plan, you stay true to it. I sleep good at night with that.”

With the way his time in Green Bay ended, when he was fired after starting 4-7-1 with four games to play in 2018, McCarthy said “there was a naiveness to that and it left a big dent.”

In his year-plus off from the Packers and before being hired by the Cowboys in January 2020, McCarthy spent time studying the game of football, burrowing into his own library of binders for every game in which he ever coached, beginning with the Pitt days in 1989.

There were five NFL coaches whose first seasons were in 2020, and they all faced similar coronavirus-pandemic-related hurdles — no offseason program, limited training camp. Only Cleveland Browns coach Kevin Stefanski had a winning record (11-5). Coach Ron Rivera made the playoffs with the Washington Football Team but won the NFC East with a 7-9 record.

When the season started, the Cowboys were a mess defensively and could not stop turning the ball over offensively. In Week 5, Dak Prescott was lost for the season with a horrific compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.

The Cowboys’ brightest moment, a road win against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11, was followed by their darkest hour with the death of strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul, who collapsed in the Dallas weight room.

“F— last year,” McCarthy could be heard telling his players during training camp on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

Perception isn’t necessarily McCarthy’s reality

McCarthy never believed perception was reality even if his father, Joe, a Pittsburgh policeman and firefighter who owned a neighborhood bar, told him otherwise. Mike believed if you worked hard, did the right things, the rest would take care of itself.

But the 57-year-old coach works for a franchise that is built on perception. The Cowboys are the most valued sports franchise in the world at $6.5 billion, according to Forbes. Yet, Dallas has not won a Super Bowl in 25 seasons and is one of three NFC teams not to appear in a conference title game since then. Washington and Detroit are the others.

“Now having the opportunity to come here, where I understand perceptions [are] important, I’m still who I am,” McCarthy said. “Jerry [Jones] didn’t hire me to come down to increase the marketing of his football team. I would probably dress better. I would choose my verbs better. And I’m capable. But yeah, I’m more aware of [the perception]. At the end of the day, it’s about winning. And I know how to win. I have confidence in that.”

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