FRISCO, Texas -- Mike McCarthy spent a good portion of his summer on Lake Michigan, about an hour north of Green Bay, surrounded by family and friends as he got away from the grind of being the Dallas Cowboys' head coach.
While he enjoyed the quiet time of lake life, football was never far away.
“I’m a big believer in time and place,” McCarthy told ESPN. “I have an office there, so I was able to get some time in there. As a head coach, your work’s never done. There’s always something to do and something you want to make sure you look at and there’s conversations and ideas, a lot of reflection that goes on during the vacation days. I know for me personally I’m always thinking, ‘Is there a better way to say this?’ or ‘Is there a better way to do that?’ That’s always part of the focus of trying to evolve.”
By July 4, he was ready to get back to it full time.
“That’s kind of been my trigger,” McCarthy said.
Quarterback Dak Prescott was hosting his football camp at The Star on July 9 when McCarthy reached out to him.
“Got a text from Coach today saying he’s back, pumped up, let’s get together,” Prescott said. “And I sent him a selfie of me and all the kids out here. So, yeah, it’s getting closer and it’s time.”
Yes, it’s time.
Time for the Cowboys to end a 26-season Super Bowl drought. Time for Prescott to make his first Super Bowl run. And time for McCarthy to take them both to the heights GM/owner Jerry Jones desired when he made McCarthy the ninth head coach in team history on Jan. 8, 2020.
Signed to a five-year deal, this is a critical season for McCarthy, who is 18-15 in his first two seasons with the Cowboys.
His first year was played in the middle of a pandemic without an offseason program and with an abbreviated training camp. He saw Prescott suffer a gruesome ankle injury in the fifth game of a season that went sideways before the quarterback got hurt and got worse after it.
Last year, the Cowboys flirted with being one of the NFL’s best teams in the first half of the season, ran away with the NFC East title and finished 12-5, but were the only home team to lose in the wild-card round of the playoffs when time -- there’s that word again -- ran out on them against the San Francisco 49ers.
After that, McCarthy had to deal with questions about his job security, some brought on by Jones’ curious choice of words on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas -- “Mike knows that someday somebody other than him will be coach of the Cowboys" -- as Jones kept defensive coordinator Dan Quinn from taking a head-coaching job and extended the contract of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who was a finalist for the Miami Dolphins' opening.
Then there was Sean Payton's abrupt retirement from the New Orleans Saints and the immediate connecting of dots between Payton, a former Cowboys assistant, and Dallas. There was the trade of wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns, the about-face of Randy Gregory’s decision to leave for the Denver Broncos and the release of right tackle La’el Collins without the arrivals of similar (and less costly) talent to replace them.
From the outside, McCarthy will be asked to do more in 2022 with less of a roster.
What excites him most?
“Our players and our coaches,” he said. “We’re in Year 3 as a coaching staff, and I thought our staff knocked it out of the park this offseason as far as getting through the installs. It’s what our veterans needed and their feedback, getting feedback through all eight installs, those guys left here feeling really good about what we’re doing and how we’re doing and where they are compared to last year."
Despite the awkwardness after the San Francisco playoff loss, Jerry Jones and executive vice president Stephen Jones have defended McCarthy and expressed their belief in him at different points of the offseason.
“I just think unfortunately when you’re a coach, quarterback or player for the Cowboys, you’re going to get a lot of attention, and sometimes it’s not all going to be positive,” Stephen Jones said from the NFL combine in February. “Jerry and I know that better than anybody ... but we feel good about Mike.”
“One, we went 12-5. Most people consider that a success,” Stephen Jones said. “It’s not around here because we want to win a championship. I think his track record speaks for [itself]. He’s won a Super Bowl, been to championship games. I love the way his leadership style is. I think he’s got a great pulse for our football team and just feel like he’s the right guy for us.”
On the mid-June day AT&T Stadium was named as a site for the 2026 World Cup, Jerry Jones was asked about McCarthy’s status entering the season.
“If I didn’t think a lot of Mike McCarthy being able to coach our team to a Super Bowl,” Jerry said, “he wouldn’t be the coach today.”
But the Joneses also know better than anybody that they cannot control outside narratives. Whether real or not, Payton will cast a shadow over the Cowboys this season because of his relationship with the Joneses.
"It shouldn't be part of a conversation right now as to where Mike is relative to Sean Payton,” Jerry Jones said.
"If I didn't think a lot of Mike McCarthy being able to coach our team to a Super Bowl, he wouldn't be the coach today." Jerry Jones
McCarthy went from coaching the only NFL team without an owner, the Green Bay Packers, to the one with the most visible owner in Jones. McCarthy has adjusted to life with the Cowboys, understanding, “we work at the marketing universe of the sporting industry,” where no topic is too small to dissect for more than one news cycle and Jones is willing to spill the beans.
“I think it’s a little bit of welcome to the Dallas Cowboys,” McCarthy said of the scrutiny. “That is the reality of it.”
His predecessor, Jason Garrett, used to say “there’s a lot that comes with the dinner” in being with the Cowboys. Upon taking the Cowboys’ job in 2003, former coach Bill Parcells likened it to “playing the big room” in Las Vegas.
Questions about the future of a Cowboys head coach are not really new. Wade Phillips dealt with it even after posting the best record (13-3) in the NFC in 2007. Ultimately he was let go at the midway point in 2010 after taking the Cowboys to the divisional round of the postseason in 2009.
Garrett dealt with it on numerous occasions. In 2014, he faced the ultimate win-or-else situation after three straight 8-8 finishes because he was in the final year of his contract. The Cowboys went 12-4 and lost in the divisional round to McCarthy’s Packers. Garrett earned a five-year contract, but in 2018 he was under pressure to win again and after a 3-5 start, the Cowboys went 7-1 and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Garrett ran out of time after an 8-8 finish in 2019 when the Cowboys missed the playoffs.
McCarthy hasn't started a season with a win-or-else dilemma as a head coach.
He was in his fifth season with the Packers when they won Super Bowl XLV. He made it to the playoffs in eight straight years (2009-16), and even the 7-9 finish in 2017 could be excused by Aaron Rodgers' nine-game absence due to a collarbone injury. McCarthy was let go during the 2018 season with a 4-7-1 mark.
McCarthy was brought to Dallas to do what the five previous Cowboys head coaches couldn’t: get to a Super Bowl. (The Cowboys haven't won a divisional playoff game since 1995.) The Joneses thought -- and perhaps still think -- they gave him a Super Bowl-ready team.
The last Cowboys coach to deliver back-to-back playoff seasons was Chan Gailey in 1998-99, and he did not make it to a third season.
While McCarthy acknowledges it is difficult for his family and children to hear questions about his future, he said the speculation does not bother him. He understands the business and that, yes, there will come a time he is not the Cowboys’ coach anymore.
“I think this is Year 29 or 30 for me in the NFL and one thing you learn very early, going back to the ‘90s, is the sense of urgency to win a championship,” McCarthy said. “It’s always there day to day. I think when you’re younger and experience success, my first year in the league [with the Kansas City Chiefs] and we were in the AFC Championship Game and lose, but you’re close to the Super Bowl and you think this is the norm.
“The reality of it is from 1993 to 2010, it took that long to be part of a Super Bowl champion. It’s just so difficult to win a championship and so the everyday urgency is always there for me. That’s why the time to step away with your family is so important to charge your battery. Yeah, I’m excited. I’m ready to go. Frankly, I can’t wait to get to Oxnard and get started.”
McCarthy’s first practice is Wednesday.