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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Cowboys-Packers matchup a fitting way for Mike McCarthy to make his mark


Mike McCarthy would probably prefer to get through this week while offering as little bulletin-board material as possible. 

Winning football games is hard enough without the emotional angle of a long-awaited homecoming. Yet, buried deep within a 22-minute press conference Monday afternoon, the Dallas Cowboys‘ third-year head coach served up a profound thought about this trip back to Wisconsin and an anticipated reunion with the Green Bay Packers.

“Sometimes life gives you the opportunity to go full circle — to go back and show how much you’ve grown,” he said.

McCarthy was, of course, referring to himself and several members of his coaching staff, who left behind a championship legacy in Green Bay. But more so than just the obvious human connection, that can apply to this entire Dallas team as they travel to the home of one of the NFC’s most consistent franchises this past decade in the hopes of finding that consistency themselves (Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App).

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The connection is more obvious for McCarthy, who piled up 135 wins, six NFC North titles and the Super Bowl XLV championship as head coach of the Packers. Given those accolades, not to mention the growth of his own family and his eventual dismissal from the job, it’s understandable if it’s an emotional week — even if he’ll downplay it. 

“I’m four years removed from working there, and I’m really looking forward to taking our team up there,” McCarthy said. “Like I told them today in the team meeting, this is a really cool place to compete.”

That’s where the other part comes in. Forget the Packers’ 3-6 record or their five-game losing streak. When it comes to recent history, the Cowboys have rarely had an answer for Green Bay or its Hall of Fame quarterback, going just 2-8 against the Packers since Aaron Rodgers became their starter.

The various slings and injustices don’t need to be recounted in full right now, but the list is long. The day he was hired in Dallas, McCarthy was famously asked — five years after the fact — whether or not “Dez Caught It,” offering the perfect glimpse of how ingrained the Packers are into this fan base’s psyche. 

“It was a great catch, I can say now. But it wasn’t then — technically,” McCarthy said back then.

That helps explain why there’s a sense of unease hanging over those who follow the Cowboys this week. Regardless of Rodgers’ shockingly low quarterback rating or his seven interceptions at midseason, he’s still seen by many as the boogeyman who snuffed out the best two Cowboys seasons of the last decade. He’s the same guy who once needed just 1:02 to turn a thrilling Dallas victory into a last-second loss. 

“You’re talking about a man that’s one of the premier professional athletes of his generation,” McCarthy said succinctly.

That’s not to say the Cowboys themselves should hold Rodgers in such reverence. Only six members of this team were here in 2016, when Rodgers dashed their dreams in the divisional round. Tyron SmithZack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence are the only holdovers from 2014, when “Dez Caught It.”

Still, there’s meaning here — both the symbolic kind and the very literal kind. A win would slay a demon the Cowboys haven’t often been able to overcome. It would also help them keep pace with the NFC’s best, while sending their longtime tormenters into a 3-7 hole that would be hard to recover from.

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There’s certainly symbolism for McCarthy, as his former quarterback acknowledged with startlingly similar language.

“This is kind of closing the loop, I think,” Rodgers told The Athletic this week. “The opportunity to have him back at Lambeau coaching for another team, hopefully honor him the right way, will be pretty special.”

Those memories are well-earned, and they won’t fade. But McCarthy is interested in making similar memories in Dallas. Taking down this team, of all teams, would be a nice addition to the collection.

“You have to get ready to go win, and that’s really where my mind is as far as the game,” he said.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter @davidhelman_.

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