FRISCO, Texas — It was a beautiful July afternoon in Oxnard, California. Not many clouds, temperatures hung around the mid-70s.
Three months shy of his 80th birthday, and with coach Mike McCarthy sitting immediately to his right, Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones talked about a Super Bowl drought that had stretched to 26 years.
“We need to be in the playoffs,” Jones said that day. “We need to be viable in the playoffs for it to be a successful season.”
The playoffs are now here — and the Cowboys are coming off their worst performance of the season in Sunday’s 26-6 loss to the Washington Commanders. The 12-5 record doesn’t seem to matter.
It was hardly inspiring and left more questions, with Dak Prescott getting intercepted for the seventh straight game (including his third pick-six in the last four games), several special teams miscues and a defense that could not do enough to affect fifth-round rookie quarterback Sam Howell, who was making his first start.
For the next week, they will have to live with that performance before taking on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the wild-card round of the playoffs next Monday (8:15 pm ET, ESPN/ABC/ESPN+).
And they will face a quarterback, Tom Brady, who has won more Super Bowls (seven) than anyone and has a 7-0 record against the Cowboys.
Somehow McCarthy will have to rescue what became a mess on Sunday.
“The timing of it is definitely not what you’re looking for,” McCarthy said. “I clearly recognize that. But I think it’s like a lot of things in life: You get kicked in the ass or punched in the mouth, you have a chance to respond. And I have great confidence in our football team that we will respond.”
McCarthy chose the word “resilience” as the theme for the season, and his team did not suffer back-to-back losses in the regular season.
McCarthy was hired in part because of his postseason success: a Super Bowl win and four trips to the NFC Championship Game as coach of the Green Bay Packers. His expectations are high, but no coach has won a Super Bowl with two different franchises; only six have taken two different teams to the title game.
“Once the door closes on the regular season, everybody reboots and now you’re in the tournament,” McCarthy said. “Obviously you want to get in the tournament, win and ultimately be playing in Arizona. We stated that the first day of training camp. That part hasn’t left us.”
Despite finishing last season with a 12-5 record, McCarthy entered 2022 with questions about his job security because of a disheartening 23-17 home playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers and with so many connecting retired New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton to Jones. In the first game this season, a loss to the Buccaneers, Prescott went down with a fractured thumb that required surgery.
“Everybody wants to get off to a fast start, but we responded and we kept playing,” McCarthy said.
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He shepherded the Cowboys through Prescott’s five-game absence, going 4-1 with Cooper Rush as the starting quarterback. They lost running back Ezekiel Elliott for two games with a hyperextended right knee. He did not have left tackle Tyron Smith for 13 games, and when the eight-time Pro Bowler returned, he moved to right tackle after starter Terence Steele was lost for the season to a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.
Starting cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis (foot) and Anthony Brown (Achilles) were lost for the season five weeks apart. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the leading tackler at the time of his injury, missed the final three games.
Through it all, McCarthy’s approach never changed.
“There could be a lot of stuff going around outside, and he just stays so consistent with the team and with the staff,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “So I, for one, certainly admire that about him. A good game, a bad game, practice, or talking to the guys right after, he’s just so consistent in what he does.
“I think people see that, and they know coming into work every day which Mike they’re going to see. And that’s a good trait to have, as opposed to, ‘I don’t know how it’s going to be,’ or ‘I don’t know how he’s going to act today.'”
With McCarthy, the Cowboys have won 24 games the past two seasons. Only the Kansas City Chiefs (25) have won more. He is currently 20th in NFL history in wins, moving past Joe Gibbs, Payton and Bill Cowher on the all-time list this season.
He became the first Cowboys coach to deliver back-to-back playoff berths since Chan Gailey in 1998-99. For the first time since 1994-95, the Cowboys have posted consecutive seasons with at least 12 wins.
And yet the playoffs begin without McCarthy getting any benefit of the doubt. Critics say he won only one Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay — while neglecting to note that Payton also won only one with Drew Brees.
In 16 years as a head coach, McCarthy has 10 seasons with at least 10 wins. Payton had nine in 15 seasons with the Saints. Both coaches have four seasons with losing records, but Payton had three straight 7-9 finishes from 2014 to 2016.
“You can say whatever you want to say; he’s getting the job done,” safety Jayron Kearse said. “We’re going in the right direction under Coach McCarthy, but that [criticism] just comes with wearing that star on your helmet… He doesn’t have the helmet, but he still [has] that star is still there. Anybody that’s in this building understands what that star brings. That’s just what it is.”
While players love McCarthy for how he takes care of them during the season with different practice schedules depending on short or long work weeks, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence believes McCarthy’s biggest influence is in the locker room.
“I feel like the best thing he did for us is giving us, the players, control of the locker room. Making sure we hold each other accountable,” Lawrence said. “That’s how I feel like he builds a better culture.”
He also has a way of instilling confidence without fake bravado.
“I remember last year before Minnesota, right before the game, he said, ‘You’ve played quarterback your whole life, this is nothing new,'” Rush said. “That was just a good coaching point or thought right before you go play. A reminder that you can do this, you’ve done it at high levels before. This year, we met kind of right before Cincy, and he told me to cut it loose, play free, not stress and worry about things. And we were able to do that.”
Coming off Sunday’s inexplicable performance against Washington, McCarthy will have to reinstall that confidence in his team. And ultimately he has to deliver.
“This is playoff time,” McCarthy said. “There’s no more guaranteed games. You’re guaranteed one game. And you’ve got to do whatever you need to do in playoff football to win. That will be our approach, and I have great confidence in this team. I have great confidence in the locker room… These ebbs and flows of the season are part of being successful. This has been a consistent team throughout. Our record speaks for that. Our productivity numbers speak for that.
“But at the end of the day, it’s about one game: It’s about beating Tampa. That’s all we think about.”