USA TODAY US Edition
McCarthy gets cold reality check in GB
GREEN BAY, Wis. — In his longawaited, much-hyped return to Lambeau Field, Mike McCarthy managed to achieve something that had never been done before in the storied history of the Dallas Cowboys.
Tom Landry or Jimmy Johnson never did it. Nor did Barry Switzer, Jason Garrett or even Dave Campo.
McCarthy became the first one to coach a Cowboys team that wound up losing after entering the fourth quarter with a 14-point lead.
And of all possible opponents, McCarthy fell into the dubious distinction against the team he used to coach, the Green Bay Packers.
Until Sunday, when Dallas lost 31-28 in overtime, the Cowboys were 195-0 when entering the fourth quarter with such a commanding lead.
Now they’re 195-1.
And McCarthy, poised to make a statement against his former team, left Lambeau with some serious egg on his face.
Talk about spoiling a party.
It’s no wonder that when someone asked McCarthy to reflect on the experience of facing his former team in his old stomping grounds, he squashed the theme ASAP.
“Let’s just not,” he said about the idea of reflecting while obviously embarrassed by what went down. “I’m not trying to be rude. I’m humble pied out.”
Jerry Jones knows. The Cowboys owner was plenty steamed when he spoke to a media group outside the visiting locker room, calling it a “very disappointing loss.”
The Cowboys (6-3) lost on a day when Aaron Rodgers threw the fewest passes that he has in any game this season (20, with three going for TDs to rookie wideout Christian Watson) and the run defense was shredded for 207 yards. They lost to a team that had dropped five consecutive games and seemed ripe to be buried ... but instead scored the last 17 points of the game. The Cowboys stung themselves with penalties and missed assignments in crunchtime. Just bad football.
This was a team that lost its poise when it mattered the most, which, fair or not, often reflects on the coach. Call it a serious reality check.
After Jones finished with the media pack, he stopped for another round of venting inside the locker room.
Although McCarthy did a phenomenal job in keeping the Cowboys on track after Dak Prescott missed several weeks after suffering a fractured thumb in Week 1, I wondered whether the meltdown on Sunday would change Jones’ impression of his coach.
“No,” Jones told USA TODAY Sports. “I thought Mike had our team well-prepared. We knew the circumstances up here at Lambeau Field. We just didn’t choke it to death when we had it. Then we had another chance in overtime. That’s when you respond right there and put something in your repertoire.”
Jones and McCarthy tried to put a good spin on it, pledging that it was the type of setback to learn from. Perhaps. But by now, they surely should know better. The mistakes, including Prescott’s two interceptions, nine penalties for 83 yards and other forms of faulty execution, are not the stuff of contending teams.
Better luck next time.
“We’ve got Minnesota next week,” Jones mentioned. The Vikings (8-1) won an overtime thriller at Buffalo on Sunday to topple the team considered the AFC’s Super Bowl favorite. “We’re going to have to play lights out up there.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, tried to downplay the significance of beating McCarthy – who has a street named after him near the stadium and has won the second-most games in Packers history after Curly Lambeau, including 113 with A-Rod as his quarterback.
“I don’t think Mike suited up,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to check the stats.”
Rodgers, who threw three interceptions in the loss at Detroit a week earlier and said that it hit “rock bottom” in the days leading to McCarthy’s return, deserved to lighten up as he viewed a bigger picture. The longest losing streak of his Packers tenure is now snapped, with Green Bay (4-6) scoring 30 points for the first time all season.
Watson, the second-round pick from North Dakota State projected for at least as part of the answer for replacing Davante Adams, finally had his breakout game and logged TD catches for the first time as a pro.
And, of course, somebody checked the stats and told Rodgers how the Cowboys had that perfect record in protecting big leads in the fourth quarter (playoffs included).
“We exorcised a lot of demons,” Rodgers said. “A lot of things that we turned around. Just a coincidence that Dallas was in town, although myself and the other Aaron (Jones, who rushed for 138 yards with a TD) had some pretty good performances over the years against Dallas.”
Still, Rodgers knows there was something different about facing his former coach. And it was ironic, too, that the star quarterback had a difference in opinion with his current coach, Matt LaFleur, about the approach near the end of regulation, when Rodgers wanted to attack with passes in the final minutes and his coach was content to use runs that headed to overtime.
The defining photo op came during pregame warmups, when Rodgers embraced McCarthy with a huge bearhug. Rodgers revealed afterward that the two of them had already met earlier in the day for an extended conversation.
Then Rodgers found a way to win the competition when the Packers needed a win to snap out of a serious funk. Of course, McCarthy was out to put a dagger in the Packers season, too.
As it turned out, he didn’t make the statement he would have envisioned with his trek back to Lambeau. But for the moment, there’s still the possibility – but it’s far from a given – of making a bigger statement down the stretch if the Cowboys can fashion themselves as a legit contender.
“I think just the biggest thing for us, we need to get out here and learn from these games,” McCarthy said. “I love these tight games. You need these tight games to get to where you want to go.”
No, the lesson from the Lambeau Lab is that they need to find a way to win the tight games – or at least a way not to lose them.