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."

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones says last season's outcome and circumstances serve as fuel for McCarthy.

"I think there's a resolve," Jerry Jones said of McCarthy early in camp. "He took the dose of what we got last year like a man and took any responsibility you want to give him. And he did it in a way that says we're going to try to get better, try to improve."

With NFL Films following every move the team made for "Hard Knocks," McCarthy has had an opportunity to work on more first impressions. He admitted it was hard to be himself with cameras constantly rolling because he believes his job is to "protect the locker room." His mother, Ellen, chided him for some of the cuss words that filled a couple of the episodes.

While Kellen Moore is the Cowboys' offensive playcaller, McCarthy remains attached to that side of the ball. He was rarely more than a few feet from Moore and the quarterbacks during 11-on-11 drills throughout camp. During a practice against the Los Angeles Rams, coach Sean McVay darted between fields in Oxnard, California, watching Rams quarterback Matt Stafford throw passes, but also keeping close tabs on defensive star Aaron Donald and that unit.

Joe Whitt Jr., the Cowboys' defensive passing game coordinator, was with McCarthy for 11 seasons in Green Bay as an assistant coach. He said McCarthy is engaged with the Dallas defensive coaches in meetings more than he ever was in Green Bay.

"Mike is Mike. This is, what, my 12th year working for him and so he has a plan, a structure of how he wants the team to look," Whitt said. "We're creating a culture of winning, the same way that we did up north, and I believe in that culture and the way that he presents it to the players and to the coaching staff. So, it's very similar to when I joined on with him in Green Bay, and then I guess in year three or year four, we won the Super Bowl. So, hopefully, we can speed up that process and get it done here."

With a more traditional offseason and training camp setting this year, players' relationships with McCarthy have been different. No longer are most of their interactions over Zoom.

"He's a guy's guy, you know what I mean?" Cowboys right guard Zack Martin said. "He wants to sit down and obviously talk football, but he's one of the guys. I know he's got that relationship with a lot of the players, and it's nice to be able to sit there and be able to have that conversation with him."

Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott says of his relationship with his coach: "I'll say it's more personal."

Not helping McCarthy's case on perception is the Packers' success over the past two years. Coach Matt LaFleur's Green Bay teams have back-to-back 13-3 seasons, reaching the conference championship game both years. It helps that Aaron Rodgers, who had a oft-discussed 13-year relationship with McCarthy, has been healthy and playing at an MVP level.

"They've done a great job -- and I'm not trying to take any credit for it -- I think they've done a great job of building off of what was there," McCarthy said. "I ran into [Packers GM] Brian Gutekunst at Ohio State, first time I've seen him since I left there, and we were talking about personnel and everything and I said, 'I thought you did a great job two years too late addressing the pass-rush situation.'"

There was sarcasm in the "two years too late," but perhaps some truth as well. Ted Thompson, the Packers general manager during McCarthy's tenure, did not believe in spending big in free agency. In 2019, the Packers spent $183 million on four free agents: pass-rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, safety Adrian Amos and guard Billy Turner.

"I feel like I'm making excuses," McCarthy said. "It's just facts."

Change for the better

Excuses and facts are often corollaries in the successes or failures of NFL teams. Looking over the past season, these are the facts that played into the Cowboys finishing in third place in the NFC East:

  • Losing Prescott and then having three other QBs start in his place (Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert)

  • Playing eight different offensive line combinations and using 13 different configurations during games because of injuries

  • The lack of practice time due to the pandemic doomed a defensive scheme under coordinator Mike Nolan that did not fit the players' abilities.

Yet a "normal," season and "normal" circumstances continue to escape McCarthy. This preseason, Prescott missed nine practices during training camp because of a latissimus strain in his right shoulder and did not play in a preseason game. The team had as many as six players on the COVID-19 list in August and was without defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who tested positive for COVID, for two preseason games.

"This is the climate we're in," McCarthy matter-of-factly said.

If there are questions about McCarthy, they don't come from Jerry Jones or executive vice president Stephen Jones. They are willing to look past last year and see it as a one-off and not a trend. They had remarkable patience with McCarthy's predecessor, Jason Garrett, who lasted nine seasons and won two playoff games.

No one can predict exactly how patient the Joneses will be with McCarthy, but there are those who wonder if McCarthy is in a must-win situation in Year 2.

"There's pressure on McCarthy," said ESPN analyst Marcus Spears, a 2005 first-round draft pick by the Cowboys. "There has to be, especially when the Dak contract got done. If he doesn't, add him to the list of coaches heading to the graveyard."

The Joneses will hear none of the dissenters as this season begins.

"This guy is a proven leader," Stephen Jones said during training camp. "He didn't just happen to win one Super Bowl championship. I mean, he went to four championship games. He consistently won year in and year out and kept the Packers in contention year in and year out to be the champs. This guy, he's organized to the nines, he's got great messaging ... The way he comes across with our team, I think the guy is special."

McCarthy knows how he can change those outside perceptions.

"At the end of the day, I'm in charge of training the team to win championships," McCarthy said. "And I'm never going to take my eye off of that."